How unlicensed contractors can cost you

It's down to two. You've vetted a long list of contractors. Wheat has emerged from chaff. Now the final decision gets tough. Each appeals to you for different reasons. They're almost identically qualified, with one difference: one's licensed, the other isn't.

Questions float through your head: What does it really mean to be licensed? Why are some contractors licensed and others not? And the ultimate question: Does it matter?

You're not alone in your confusion. Contractors feel it, too. Licensing rules vary state to state. Most states require a license for at least a few home-improvement trades, some don't. Some cities and counties require additional licenses, some don't. Some states and municipalities strictly enforce their licensing laws, most don't.

Once contractors think they've got the rules figured out for where they work, another unhappy epiphany dawns: not everyone — homeowners or contractors — knows the rules. And not everyone plays by the rules. Contractors pay a tidy sum to play by the rules, which makes it hard for them to compete against those who don't. Homeowners can pay the price when they fail to distinguish between the two.

What follows are several stories about homeowners and contractors across the country negotiating the complicated world of trade licensing. In each you'll see the complexities and frustrations encountered in a system that can be called many things, but definitely cannot be called simple.

Check a license: Search your state and city to find out the licensing requirements for any profession

Portland painter falls hard for licensing

Fifteen years ago, one of Eric Hernanz' employees fell off a ladder. The fall resulted in a broken elbow and a sky-high medical bill — about $18,000. Hernanz, owner of Hernanz Painting in Tigard, was young and "borderline destitute" at the time, but he had his Oregon contractor's license, which requires workers' compensation insurance. And his insurance paid the bill.

But what if he wasn't licensed and didn't have insurance? "My employee very well could have sued the homeowner for medical bills and lost wages since it happened on his property," Hernanz says. "Unlicensed contractors put their own clients at risk if someone's injured on the job."

The incident illustrates why Hernanz still cares — really cares — about contractors being licensed. "Choosing to go with an unlicensed contractor is like a drug user choosing to perpetuate the drug dealing system," he says. "I feel very strongly that there are moral and ethical implications, as well as tangible reasons, for being licensed."

According to research compiled by Angie's List Magazine, contractors must demonstrate proof of insurance as part of obtaining a trade license or registering in 39 states. Claire Wilkinson, vice president of global issues for the Insurance Information Institute, says the first thing a homeowner should do before hiring is ask for proof of a license and insurance.

Liability insurance covers property damage and bodily injury caused by that contractor's work. Homeowners should also make certain the contractor's insurance policy includes workers' compensation, which covers injuries the contractor's employees may suffer while on the job, says Dean Herriges, vice president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. If a contractor doesn't have these types of insurance, consumers could end up paying out of their own pocket if their homeowner's policy is insufficient to cover the bills, Herriges says.

Bonding is also important, which is why many licensing and some registration boards require it as well. Bonds protect homeowners if the company performs shoddy work, doesn't finish the project, or fails to pay subcontractors and suppliers.

The economy makes these assurances all the more important. There's been a surge in unlicensed painters in the Portland area, Hernanz says, as contractors take financial shortcuts by not paying licensing and insurance fees. And he says the penalty if caught working without a license deters no one. "The fines are a slap on the wrist," he says.

Oregon Construction Contractors Board Enforcement Manager Rich Blank responds that unlicensed contractors face increased fines for repeat offenses, and that the board will ultimately seek criminal charges if the first few sanctions don't work.

In June alone, Hernanz bid four jobs against competitors he believes to be unlicensed. "A telltale sign is a too-good-to-be-true price," he says. In those cases, Hernanz e-mails the customers, explaining the increased costs of being licensed. He encourages them to check with the state board to make sure the companies are properly licensed, bonded and insured. "I think it's important they know the risks," he says.

And he believes homeowners should be held criminally liable for knowingly hiring unlicensed contractors. "They're contributing to fraud and cutting into the business of legitimate companies," he says.

He knows it's unlikely that punishing homeowners will fly politically. But it doesn't dampen his resolve. "This isn't how I want it to be," he says.

Cincinnati electrician plays by the rules, but takes a hit

In June, a plumber friend of Charlie Fischer's was found in the basement of a house where he was working in Cincinnati. He lay on the floor, unconscious. Blood spilled out his mouth. He had bit almost entirely through his tongue. The man had been nearly electrocuted after bumping against an ungrounded fluorescent light fixture while holding a copper pipe.

"It went right through him," Fischer says of the 110 volts of electricity.

Fortunately, he was found and resuscitated, but he was taken to the hospital and lost the next week of work. And it happened because of shoddy electrical work — which Fischer says was done by an unlicensed electrician. To him, it was a sobering, 110-volt reminder about the importance of licensing.

"That's what licensing does," says Kay Fischer, Charlie's wife and business partner in Craftsman Electric Inc., a Super Service Award winner in Cincinnati. "It proves you have the knowledge and you really do know your trade."

The couple points to the extensive training and testing required of each of their electricians in order to stay licensed. The ongoing education, they say, ensures quality work that will keep clients safe from fire and electrical accidents such as the one that felled their friend. "We want things done right," Charlie says. "But that comes at a cost."

The company operates in municipalities across southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky. It requires navigating a complex array of licensing requirements of both states and the various cities and counties within.

"It's very confusing, and it goes on and on," Kay says. The company prides itself on meeting every licensing requirement, which they estimate tacks an extra $30,000 a year onto their operating costs.

In Kentucky, the diligence pays off, they say. Every job requires pulling a permit, and contractors must show proof of licensing to get the permit. "All licensing is done through the state," Charlie says, "then local inspectors enforce it."

And the system, he says, works. Across the Ohio River, it's a different world.

"If you put your name on the side of a pickup truck, you can do all the electrical work you want in Cincinnati," Charlie says. "Nobody's going to stop you."

Electrical companies are required to be licensed through the state of Ohio, but there's little enforcement, he says. The state's licensing board has two enforcement agents statewide, says Matt Mullins, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Commerce, which appoints the 17-member licensing board.

Further, unlicensed contractors must be caught by agents in the act of performing jobs. That practice is fairly common in states that require contractors to be licensed, says Ginenne Lanese, program coordinator for the National Association of State Contractor Licensing Agencies.

In Cincinnati, a law passed in January 2008 mandates permits for all construction work within the city limits be issued only to registered contractors. But Kay says she's never had to show proof of registration when pulling a permit in the city.

The unlicensed contractors have a financial advantage without the overhead costs of getting employees licensed. "There's no way we can compete with them," Charlie says, even though he continues to offer residential services despite the higher costs. "If you play by the rules you get penalized."

Los Angeles contractor is unlicensed and proud of it

"He understands doors to a greater degree than I would have guessed was possible ... He works fast and the quality is excellent."

These quotes, from two recent reviews of Los Angeles area contractor Patrick K. Stone and his Door Dr. business, sum up Angie's List members' experience with him. In 32 reports, he has earned an A for his work 32 times. Thirteen members have nominated him for Pages of Happiness. He was a Super Service Award winner in 2008. Clearly, he's a professional and a fair dealer.

But he's also something else: illegally unlicensed. And he's not about to apologize for it.

"It's a joke," he says of California licensing laws. "If you had to be good at your job, that would be one thing. But anyone can pay a fee and get a license."

Stone is hardly the only contractor with such views. In interviews across the country, similar themes repeated themselves: I do quality work, have insurance and don't need to pay for a piece of paper.

Others might not be openly proud of being unlicensed, but simply fly under the radar. Kevin Darosa, owner of highly rated Kevin Darosa Home Improvements in the Boston area, has operated without the state-mandated registration — required for jobs worth more than $500 — on and off again for roughly 10 years.

"You're the first person who's ever asked me about [it]," Darosa told Angie's List Magazine. However, he says he's considering getting registered for tax purposes.

Relo Interior Services, a highly rated Angie's List SSA winner based in Tampa, Fla., holds no contracting license.

"I don't need a license, because all the work is done by my subcontractors, who are licensed, insured and carry workers' comp," says Relo president Tony Hough, who interprets the law differently than state and county regulators who say he's considered a contractor and doing unlicensed work under Florida law if he accepts money or negotiates contracts for a job.

Hough later told his Angie's List advertising account manager his attorney is checking into the laws and any discrepancies would be corrected.

Stone and Darosa say their customers rarely ask about licensing. "I could count on one hand how many times I've been asked for a license," Stone says. "I think most people just want someone who will do a good job."

But homeowners should care, says Rick Lopes, public affairs officer for the Contractors State License Board in California. "Consumers can suffer serious financial consequences," he says.

Stone says he works alone, so any injuries he suffers would be paid for by his own medical insurance. He adds that he's careful not to take jobs that appear dangerous. "I'm very cautious," he says.

And he's not nervous about getting caught. Currently, state law fines up to $1,000 for working without a license, a misdemeanor offense. Stone says such a wrist-slap isn't likely to deter him or others, although a bill making it through the state legislature would increase the maximum penalty to $5,000.

"I think it's ludicrous," Stone says of the higher fine. "The state's got to make any revenue they can. They just want to take my money."

Lopes says the CSLB is self-funded, so the fines don't benefit the state. Further, Lopes admits that enforcement agents don't typically target small-scale offenders. "We just don't have the resources," he says. "We're trying to find the worst of the worst and work our way down."

Other contractors in the LA area have mixed views about their unlicensed peers. "If everybody was licensed, we'd all have the same overhead costs," says Dan Eyre of Dan's Landscape and Maintenance, a licensed 2008 SSA winner. "How can licensed contractors compete?"

But Stephen Hume of Hi- Performance Plumbing, another licensed 2008 SSA winner, points out an unexpected benefit. "I've been called in to fix their plumbing, so I'm making money off unlicensed contractors," he says. "Some customers are looking for a deal, and they get what they pay for."

Philadelphia homeowner goes after unlicensed inspector

Her friend, a general contractor, told Allison Sacks that Safe Haven Home Inspections was trustworthy. Owner Michael McKinney was licensed in both New Jersey and Philadelphia, according to his business card.

With those assurances, she hired McKinney to inspect her first home last April. He did the inspection and pointed out major and minor defects that helped her negotiate a lower purchase price when she closed in May.

However, when she started having things fixed prior to moving into the house, the surprises started — obvious problems Sacks says McKinney hadn't noticed. The brick facade had a 2-inch bulge that required having massive metal "starbolts" drilled through joists between the first and second floors, according to Sacks. In addition, she says two windows had been screwed shut to apparently hide the fact they were falling out of the frames.

"I had no idea about these problems and it was a week and a half before I moved in," she says.

Sacks says she got an estimate to fix the problems: $4,550. She contacted McKinney via e-mail: "The two issues ... are located in readily accessible and visually observable areas of the structure and should have been noted during the home inspection," she wrote.

She asked for compensation for the cost of the repairs and says he offered only to reimburse the cost of the inspection: $450. She then took her case to licensing boards in Philadelphia and New Jersey, where his business card claims he's licensed, and got another unwelcome surprise.

The Philadelphia license number was bogus — it didn't match the license number he once held, which had expired in 2006, according to city spokeswoman Maura Kennedy. And his New Jersey license? Records showed it had expired more than a year earlier.

"He's not accountable to anyone," Sacks says. "He just laughed at me." Worse, she filed a complaint with the city's business compliance department, which informed her that he must be caught in the act of doing an inspection without a license in order to prosecute. Kennedy confirmed the policy. "We don't have unlimited resources," she says.

With no option for reimbursement through licensing boards, Sacks filed suit in Philadelphia municipal court. A year later, in June, the court sided with her, ordering McKinney to pay her $4,605. But because the business is registered in New Jersey, the case must be transferred there.

McKinney, who has an F rating on Angie's List due to Sacks' review, didn't return phone messages seeking comment. Sacks, who became a member because of her nightmare experience, says she has no expectation of collecting the money.

But the experience taught Sacks an important lesson: check license numbers with licensing boards. Just because contractors claim to be licensed doesn't mean they are. "It was an expensive learning experience," she says. "He taught me how to be a better consumer."

— additional reporting by Staci Giordullo, Mason King, Diana Lamirand, Robin Mohr, Jackie Norris, Joshua Palmer, Paul F.P. Pogue and Kristen Rojowski

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Unlicensed contractors flourish in Tampa area


Owner of Integrity Finishes of Tampa Bay, Aaron Wallace says unlicensed contractors often undercut legitimate companies. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Wallace)
Owner of Integrity Finishes of Tampa Bay, Aaron Wallace says unlicensed contractors often undercut legitimate companies. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Wallace)

Tampa homeowners frequently turn to unlicensed contractors, who can charge lower rates since they don't have to pay for insurance or licensing fees.


Thank you so much for your article on “Contractor Licensing.” This is so important for consumer protection in Oregon, and the State Landscape Contractors Board commends you on informing your readers. Landscape Construction is a regulated industry in Oregon and the perception that “landscaping” deals only with maintenance is a challenge. Landscape maintenance is not regulated in Oregon, but the installation and construction of a landscape project is. It’s important for consumers to know this when they invest their dollars into such a project. Licensing affords them a certain level of protection that is not otherwise there.

Just wanted to leave my two cents on the subject. While a licensed contractor is great, in my state the limits for a general contractor is $30,000 and up. I own a home remodeling business. It is rare that a project ever comes near that amount and so I do not carry a license. I do however, carry full insurance coverage. In my opinion, you can't beat references to check quality of work and always check insurance or request a liability waiver.

I think the government are crooks. If we are going on BAD CREDIT talk for licensing

ALWAYS hire a Licensed contractor that is fully INSURED. Have them provide a certificate of Insurance and copy of license BEFORE starting any work. Hiring someone who is uninsured will cost you MORE than a service call if he/she is injured on your property. At 20-30 dollars an hour it's highly unlikely they are insured, do your homework!

Insurance and workmens compensation are two very different items.In the state of Virginia a contractor with less than 2.5 employees does not need to provide workmens compensation. The homeowner is offered to purchase the policy for the job which is 50% of the labor costs.

i have been in the trades for 35 yrs. i know my limits , and there are people with a license that rip people off ,such as my old boss , a general contractor. Never gets a referal, or a call back .his scheduling sucks ,he lies to the homeowners and tries to get progress payments before the work is done , now he fired me because i didnt let him use me in his lies ,being his foreman there was no loyalty to me either .... so i agree .having a licence doesnt mean you will get better work. i have gone back to working for myself, and its all referral ,and word of mouth work done code or better. i have had my license some years ago so yes i do know the laws and codes and give all my clients a guarantee and great craftsmanship and will continue to do so because every client deserves to have peace of mind. as for some people being alone in the clients house, there are good and bad people every where so just because you have a license or a good credit rating doesnt mean you do good work or your honest. i like the fact that people should ask for references and check out some of these crooks out there with licenses.

I just started a handyman business in Illinois and I don't need a license but I am going to get one just for the consumer peace of mind, it's only $100 per year so i figure it's worth it. I can do a lot of stuff but I don't touch big electrical or plumbing. That stuff is for the professionals, not me. I'm not sure if licensing is good or bad but it can't hurt you if you do quality work and are honest and reliable. I would have to say that if you do good work and and are honest then the license is an option for you. I'm not out to take people's money unless they are satisfied with my work, then I'll take it gladly and come back and do more for them. Just my 2 cents.

i have worked for many licensed contractors, making 20 or 30 bucks an hour and they charge the customer 90 bucks an hour off my back. then because i take to long to do the job right the first time i get the boot. contractors are only concerned with one thing how much they can pocket from the job in a short time of work, i know there are some bad workers and contractors but i feel the customer is boss and should get the best for there money, i work by word of mouth

I was commenting on the contractor who has to have good credit to get a license. In Sept. 07 I was severely injured in a home invasion that almost took my life. I ended up with bad credit because of that situation and the only reason I was able to afford to fix my credit is because I became a licensed contractor

I enjoyed this info very much. I wanted to leave my two cents. I am a mobile mechanic here in Miami. i have been licensed for a few years. Before I was licensed I was not happy. I didn't have insurance and I had to ask my customer to drive the car to do a test drive. Now I am all legal, yes I spend some money but I am relaxed. My customers appreciate the fact that their vehicle is not at risk with me. For the people that say no license is needed to do good work, yes it is true, But when you license you put yourself in a group that wants to offer the best to its customers. there are plenty of bad companies. So a customer has to do their homework and research the rating places available. I recommend the cities that require licensing to keep their prices low and also offer web pages where people can research and complaint/praise on licensed service providers.With all the money they charge they should give back to the consumers some how. Take some time and do a deep research. You will be really happy you did.

Licensed, unlicensed which way do I go as a Home owner? Lets think about this for a second. If you think that because your wallet can't handle hiring someone who is Properly Licensed & Insured Guess again. When this guy burns your house down because he is trying to solder a copper pipe deep in a bay of a house that is kindling. Because Mr. Home Improvement or Mr. Handy Man feels after all, how hard is it to solder a piece of pipe ? Hell I saw it done on You Tube or some DIY site a couple of times. As a Home owner you'll think at first, well he has a Home improvement CERTIFICATE he should have Insurance right? WRONG!! Let me play it out for you. He calls his insurance company and his agent says to him "we're not covering this !! You don't have a plumbing license ! Why were you doing PLUMBING work? OR why were you doing ELECTRICAL?? your Insurance only covers you for what you can legally be doing. The state does not allow a H.I.C. or Handy man to do jobs that require a license. And if they tell you different run em out of you home because they don't have your best interest at heart, only their wallet. What are they covered for? Painting, tile work, sheet rock, Hanging Drapes etc... You as the homeowner call your insurance company and they say " was he a licensed contractor ? if so than his insurance will cover it. If not then you should have never allowed him to do this type of work in your home. Now your wallet has lint balls falling out of it because you thought you were saving $30. Let me make something perfectly clear to all who think why do I need a LICENSE or this state don't require it. WHY does it take a true Tradesman 4 years of schooling and an apprenticeship program as well as Testing before he gets his license? The Health issues abound. Plumbers for lack of better words Protect the Health of the Nation. what do you think our healths would be like if no cared WHO did the plumbing. Why do you think there is a National BUILDING CODE. National PLUMBING CODE ELECTRICAL CODE. Heres some food for thought to all. Think back 10 - 15 years ago, how many Home Improvement Trucks did you see on the road. How many MR. Handy Men did you see ?? compared to these days. Why the big change? Well it started with home computers. The trades started showing a drop in apprentices coming up through the trades. The powers to be saw this as a problem in that if there are no plumbers to create a fair market place ( Competition ) then the ones that are out there will be able to name their price and the consumer will be caught between a rock and a hard place. This goes for all licensed trades. SO, how do we fix this? The answer: Lets pass out home improvement certificates to anyone who will pay $160 for it. These people don't have to prove any thing to get it. No past work record, no schooling, hell we don't even know if they know how to hold a hammer. We won't even have to police them because what they are doing isn't an arrestable offense. If in the event someone should get caught doing work without a license we'll fine them bringing in more revenue for the state. But the main goal was to keep a fair market place. Hell if I can't open up a doctors office and sell my wares as a Doctor / Plumber then why should these guys sell them selves as anything the homeowner needs them to be. LEGALLY they can't, but if no one is looking then who cares. I asked the state why is it that these guys can advertise on their trucks that they do it all Painting, Doors, Dishes, Electrical, Plumbing, Remodels, stone work, & oh yea Painting and no one says anything about it. Their answer " just because someone put that on their truck doesn't mean they do it." In my world if it quacks like a Duck and walks like a Duck then it is normally a DUCK. Why would a H.I.C advertise for their PLUMBER or electrician? BUYER BEWARE if one claims to do every thing then how much of that is good. Better yet RIGHT!! Remember there is good and bad in everything out there, meaning one pass his classes with flying colors and they other guy barley made it out of school Doctors, Lawyers, Plumbers, and Handymen.

I have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors as have these poor people who you cited in your articles. In my case, although I have been taken for many of thousands of dollars, I know I will never recover from these contractors so I feel that there is no point in pursuing them through the courts. I absolutely believe that these are criminal offenses and these people who commit "Theft by Deception" regularly, should be punished as any other thief would be. They should be sent to jail especially if they refuse to make restitution by paying pack the money they stole from their unsuspecting victims!

Hello, Mark! Thanks for your comment. To find out the licensing requirements in your area, check with your county and state governments' official websites. To find this, do a keyword search in a search engine for your location and the words "contractor license."

What if you want to do an odd jobs type of business? No particular focus, but doing a lot of things "around the house" for cheaper than professionals. Because there are bound to be plenty of people who, say, don't want to have to paint their guest room (or don't have time), but don't want to/can't afford a professional service. I'm hoping to start a business filling that void. I've done plenty of DIY stuff in my own home and that doesn't make me a professional, but I still figure I'm capable doing a good job. Is there licensing for that sort of thing? Insurance/bonding I know I've got to get for sure, but considering the nature of the business, getting a bunch of different licenses makes this venture not worth it. Certain things are out, of course. No way am I attempting electrical work in anyone's home but my own.

Thanks for your comment, Chris! All ratings on service companies on Angie's List come from homeowners and consumers who share their experiences and grade their overall satisfaction. Contractors do not pay to be on Angie's List, nor can they rate themselves. This is the main difference between Angie's List and other similar services.

Are you kidding me? "A credit check is a good indicator of what kind of person is in your bedroom while you're in the kitchen thinking how nice that man seems and that he gave you a good deal...." So people with bad credit are criminals now? That is absolutely without a doubt the stupidest thing I've ever heard in a forum. So I guess by this guy's logic people with bankruptcy and companies with bankruptcy are evil and not to be trusted. I've yet to draw a line from licensing to value,either. I don't see a connection there. Licensing is about control pure and simple. People get ripped off because they don't do their research, don't talk to neighbors and friends and don't check references. Licensing is no guarantee of quality. That is proven by the fact of how many contractors lose their licenses every year (how did they get them in the first place if they were so qualified?). And as far as your lowest bid theory....the space shuttle was built by the lowest bidder as are many weapon systems used by our armed forces, so that theory doesn't hold water at all.There is a reason not all states license ontractors, primarily because not all mechanical work needs to be licensed, people just have to do a better job of checking out a contractor first,and I don't mean with Angie's List and similar lists where all the contractor has to do is come up with their monthly payment and they will get listed.

We completed the licensing process last year. It is rigorous. Not only does the process verify education and experience, it also includes a credit check. Do you want a guy with bad credit lurking around your home? Most people with bad credit are irresponsible in one way or another. A credit check is a good indicator of what kind of person is in your bedroom while you're in the kitchen thinking how nice that man seems and that he gave you a good deal. Licensing is about value. If you want cheap, hire from CraigsList. Buyer beware.

Licensing and inspections are two separate creatures. I was a licensed contractor in Washington state 18-19 years ago, AND I was a contractor in Idaho for several years after that. Both states have building codes and inspections, but only WA required licensing for contractors. Inspections are plenty sufficient to ensure safety and code compliance. Contractor licensing, on the other hand, is redundant and IS NOT for safety... if it were for safety, then the state would require owner-builders to get licensed, but they don't... the state agrees that the inspection process is sufficient. If you want a licensed/certified/approved/kosher "expert", then by all means go pay extra for one. But don't force me to hire them and don't tell me it's for my safety. I've been around long enough and have seen plenty of licensed contractors who didn't know what they were doing. Licensing only adds to the customers costs and limits the customer's choices. If they want to hire someone they trust, but who is unlicensed, let them be and mind your own business. They don't need more bureaucratic do-gooders needlessly adding to their expenses.

KatieJ...contractor fails, code officials have sympathy but does not provide you consumer lines of support (roofing really does not require a license in some states.) Then you need to revisit your homework. First off, if you have suffered damage do to work done, then you should contact your homeowners insurance. But, I do understand insurance, and how it works so I can understand your hesitation. You can open up a case with contractor's General Liability carrier, but because Liability doesn't necessarily mean what it means to us, utilize the authority of home insurance...believe me, they manage risks and will negotiate to have the problem fixed. You might hear others...but then your homeowner rates go up!...only if you were negligent in your due care and negligence and the contractor was not found negligent. Negligence and Liability are very tricky legal word, have a good conversation with your agent, find out what it will cost to make a claim.

Well finding a licensed contractor and getting references sometimes doesnt even work? I went through this process to have my roof done. They started the job and left the top of my house with only tar paper on it, over an 8 day peroid I called 5 times asking when they were going to finish. On the 6th call I explained that my living room was ceiling was leaking, they came the next morning to fix. Had the city inspector come out and look at roof and living room. Its now been 35 days later and still have not got anything resolved as to the code violations on my roof nor the 1500 dollers in damage on my ceiling. So now who do I go to when the cost of collecting would be higher than the cost of the orginal roof job?

Wonderful advice Michael!! Wish I knew then what I know now!

Licensing is just another pay-to-play proposition and is no guarantee of quality. What about states that don't require a license? I operate a successful HVAC business in Illinois, where no license is required. I do quality work that I back with a full guarantee. Some of the surrounding towns require certain trades to be licensed, but many of them allow open books during the exam. The best way to ensure quality is use of references and word of mouth. Licenses and orgs. like Angie's List are no guarantees that somebody is going to do the job right and unfortunately many people believe the opposite, and that is a shame.

I compete with unlicensed "contractors" all the time. some do good work, some do not. You usually have more recourse against a licensed contractor, and a licensed contractor has recourse against you if you don't pay. An unlicensed has no legal recourse against you if you do not pay, that's why they ask for too much $$ up front. A well structured draw schedule protects both contractor and client from getting too far ahead of the money or the work. Best advice: Never pay for work until it's completed. If your contractor can't afford the materials (or have credit with suppliers), then you should not hire them. Caveat Emptor!

I just went through a horror show with an unlicensed handyman. The license # on his ad belonged to someone else, he had a bad address and couple of aliases. Next time I will call Consumer Affairs to verify the info first!

Licensing is about being able to legally perform and contract work according to state statutes. Being able to properly permit and have inspected the work performed. This to make sure work is being installed according to written building codes established over the last 100 years. A massive molasses storage container on the east coast burst open and created the first american building codes.

Caleb finally said it well enough to be heard so Hear, Hear!

Caleb, I agree about electricians. Both of my brothers are union electricians and my father retired after over 40 years as a union electrician. I do not think they hold contractors to the same high standard though. I don't know, but I am guessing they just take the test....not the thousands of work hours before the test that you are talking about for electricians. I think the states use the license as an attempt to hold people to a higher standard, but if they don't enforce the laws, it becomes a joke and in my mind, just a source of revenue.

First off I disagree with everyone that says a license is just a way that the state makes revenue. It is a way to maintain safe work practices as well as protecting consumers. It is definitely necessary that the government enforces licensing laws, especially in the electrical trade. To become a journeyman electrician you need 8000 hours of on the job training and 720 hours of classroom theory. After your 4 years of being an apprentice and recording your 8000 hours you can apply for the journeyman's test. This test consists of 70 code questions and you are given 3 hours to complete it. Although this test allows the use of an open code book it carries nearly a 50% failure rate. Of course there will be the occasional licensed electrician that doesn't do the greatest work but at least you know for certain he or she knows minimum safety standards. Electrical work is not something that you should mess around with because you may injure yourself or others. I would also like to stress checking contractors backgrounds by means listed above before hiring them, this will keep you safe from fraud and unsafe work.

A homeowner DOES have the freedom to choose and licensing is voluntary. I do tend to agree that licensing is just the state's way to bring in income, although I think the attempt is there to try to ensure a level of skill. My big mistake(well, among many!) was the idea or thought that licensing DID ensure that level of skill. I should have realized it doesn't because I work in the nursing field and that isn't true in that field either!!! Turned out my guy lied about being licensed anyway....just more carefully checking the person out is all you can really do, licensed or unlicensed.

I disagree with Bryan's premise. After thirty years and being surrounded by unincorporated areas and many unlicensed electricians I can say with absolute certainty that whatever else drives licensing is without doubt about certainty. I was recently called to examine an electrician due to the wiring of a dryer circuit that was incorrectly installed by an unlicensed electrician. Licensing is about control and is essential for safety.

In this "land of the free", and with the economy as sick as it is, should a homeowner have the freedom to choose who works for him? Or should government seek the position of savior/protector of the "ignorant masses" and require everyone to pay extra for the certified kosher? Why not just allow licensing to be voluntary, and let those homeowners who insist on having a licensed contractor freely make that choice, and let everyone else freely make their choices? Really, this is not about safety, but control. We don't need more big brother breathing down our necks, restricting our freedoms in the name of safety and security.


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