Are you thinking about having work done on your home that will cost more than $500 in labor and materials? If so, you should take precautions before hiring a contractor. Any person providing home improvements or repairs above the $500 handyman exception is required to have a state issued license from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). The District Attorney’s Office prosecutes criminal violations of the contractors’ laws including unlicensed contractors, unauthorized use of someone else’s license number, requesting more than a 10% deposit, failure to have workers’ compensation insurance and even theft for failing to deliver services or materials that were paid for by the homeowner. These crimes are especially common when it comes to installing solar panels, building accessory dwelling units – commonly referred to as a granny flat – or building swimming pools. A pool is a wonderful addition to a Southern California property but be wary of phony contractors. Unscrupulous pool builders have been prosecuted for taking large cash payments upfront, digging a gigantic hole, and then abandoning the project. The homeowner is left without the pool they dreamed of and paid for nor the funds to finish what the crook started. Here are some tips to help you be a savvy consumer and keep your homeowner dreams alive:
• Check the contractor’s license out on the CSLB’s webpage. Is the license active? If it is in a suspended status, stop and find someone else.
• When hiring a contractor without a license you take on the responsibility and risk as an owner-builder.
• Does the contractor have a business card? Does the name of the person you are dealing with match the name associated with that license number?
• Check the personnel list on the license for additional qualified employees. Is the address of the construction business local?
• If there is a discrepancy between the business card, invoice, contract and the CSLB’s webpage, call the business number listed on the CSLB page to confirm all parties are known to each other.
• A con artist will frequently use a name similar to a reputable construction firm and sometimes the unlicensed individual is former employee of the reputable firm.
• Check references. In San Diego you can also check the San Diego Superior Court filings for past civil and criminal cases.
• If the individual has no online presence, then that is also a possible red flag. Is it a new company, joint venture or new license? If so, ask how much experience the contractor has with your plans.
• Always get a minimum of three bids for any job. If the quote is too good to be true, ask why.
• Will the contractor be working alone or have employees? If there are employees check to see if there is an active workers compensation policy on file with the state under the contractor’s license number.
• If you hire someone without active worker’s compensation, you may be responsible for any injuries that happen on your property.
• Licensed contractors are required to have a minimum $25,000 surety bond.
• Legitimate contractors should not ask for more than a 10% deposit upfront.
Although this may seem like quite a bit of effort up front, it will save you time, money and heartache. Victims of unscrupulous contractors rarely recoup their financial losses from the criminals and always wish they had spent more time researching their contractor. These crimes are not rare in California, the CSLB even maintains a “Most Wanted” list. If you suspect you have been the victim of construction fraud or an unlicensed contractor, report it to the CSLB by phone at 800-321-CSLB (2752) or online at www.cslb.ca.gov. As your District Attorney, I’m committed to increasing communication and accessibility between the DA’s Office and the public in order to keep you safe. I hope these consumer and public safety tips have been helpful.