Illegal contracting work common in Boston
If she'd checked the license earlier, she might have saved herself some grief. But Lerlene Wright of Dorchester didn't start questioning Best Damn Plumbers' plumbing and home improvement license until well into her $2,400 bathroom remodeling project. She says they first started offering excuses, then disappeared.
Massachusetts law requires plumbers to display their license number on their trucks, but Wright says Best Damn Plumbers didn't have one. "When I asked why, the owner told me, 'It's because people steal the number,'" she says.
Once based in Hyde Park, Best Damn Plumbers appears to be out of business and couldn't be reached for comment. Wright, meanwhile, will probably absorb the loss. Without the original permit, she says, she can't engage in the state's complaint resolution program. "If you didn't do it legitimately up-front, you can't use the state's help," says Wright, who later joined Angie's List.
According to Rob Anderson, chief of building inspections for the state Public Safety Department, this is indeed the case. "If you hire unlicensed persons and something goes wrong, your only recourse is through the courts," he says.
Wright's case is just one example of how some say unlicensed contractors are working under the radar in the state. "I've been asked for my license exactly once in six years," says John Tartaglione, owner of JMS Partners Inc., a highly rated and licensed remodeler in Hopkinton. "There's a whole underground economy with so many unlicensed and uninsured people doing work."
Renovation jobs in Massachusetts involve two forms: Home Improvement Contractor registration and Construction Supervisor licensing. HIC registration is good for smaller jobs, but larger projects require a construction supervisor as well - something to keep in mind when verifying contractor compliance.
HIC approval requires only registration, but a construction supervisor must pass a competency exam. A homeowner unhappy with the work of a licensed contractor can seek recourse through the state Public Safety Department (for construction supervisor licenses) or the Division of Professional Licensure (for all other trade licenses, including plumbing, electrical and HVAC contractors). Boston doesn't license professions and trades.
Enforcement falls to both local municipalities and the state Professional Licensure Division, which some contractors say creates a communications breakdown. "In some of the towns we work in, there's only one inspector overseeing all the work going on," Tartaglione says.
However, state authorities say they've increased enforcement and penalties, thanks to new powers enacted in 2005. They can fine unlicensed contractors $1,000 for the first violation and $2,500 for subsequent violations. Prior to 2005, only the courts could impose sanctions.
The state licensure division receives about 70 complaints a year about unlicensed work and in 2008 penalized 60 contractors with fines totaling $15,400, says Chuck Borstel, assistant to the director of licensure.
Patrick Blistain, owner of highly rated Room For Improvement in Lowell, says customers are indeed more informed than in the past. He's been licensed for seven years, but between 2000 and 2002, he worked without a license and asked homeowners to pull permits for him. "Most never objected," he says. "I'm not sure it would work that way today. They expect the contractor to take care of all those things, which is the way it should be.
You can check the licensing status of Boston-area companies online or by phone. Log in to angieslist.com for more details.