Alexandria chimney sweep caught up in District loophole

Alexandria chimney sweep caught up in District loophole

It should have been a simple job: relining a chimney and repairing bricks. But the aftermath dragged on for months and cost Jennifer Ware of Alexandria untold hours of stress. Why? The company she hired, Priddy Clean Chimney Sweep wasn't licensed in Virginia.

Without a license, Priddy Clean couldn't get a permit to do the work. Ware says she didn't find this out until a city inspector noticed work being done while driving by her home and issued a stop-work order.

Priddy Clean ultimately finished the job, but Ware says she had to spend months sorting out permit paperwork and couldn't use her fireplace until she signed a statement taking responsibility for the workmanship. "It's a shame, because they do good work," she says.

District tightening standards

District licensing standards have a big loophole: Unlike neighboring Maryland and Virginia, home improvement contractors don't need to prove competency, and general contractors need not be licensed at all. "Anybody in D.C. can become a home improvement contractor just by posting a bond and showing proof of insurance," says Shy Nair, owner of the highly rated and licensed Ant Builder.

But that is expected to change soon, as the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs is instituting a general contractor's license requirement. District authorities say this eventually will cover anyone who does work in the home and involve a competency exam. "Home improvement is the biggest thing residents complain about, with 459 complaints in the last three years," says DCRA communications manager Mike Rupert. "Contractors really want [licensing requirements] because it validates them."

Priddy Clean administrator Christina El-Hage says her highly rated company misunderstood the licensing requirements - confusing a state incorporation number with a trade license number - and will work quickly to come into compliance.

Virginia contracting authorities say Priddy's application, started shortly after Ware's problems, lapsed when the company did not submit requested information.

"Applying in Virginia was a drain," El-Hage says. "There was a lot of runaround." After speaking to Angie's List Magazine, Priddy Clean acquired a Virginia trade license and started the licensing process in Washington, D.C

All three areas have distinct licensing requirements, so homeowners should ensure any contractor is licensed in their jurisdiction to perform the work.

Unlicensed work typically brings a stop-work order and a fine, but in egregious cases can be prosecuted for jail time. In the District, a client can sue an unlicensed contractor to recover money they paid for the project - regardless of the job's quality.

Paul Johnson, owner of licensed and highly rated Nice Contracting in Silver Spring, says he learned this the hard way when he discovered his previous attorney hadn't lined up the proper District licenses, and a client refused to make the final payment. "You better believe I got fully licensed after that," he says.

Contractors say while getting licensed in three jurisdictions is a hassle, it's worth it for the security it provides the homeowner. "You know this person has at least a superficial level of knowledge and experience," says Bill Millholland, executive vice president of highly rated Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda.

As for Ware, she says she now asks for licenses up-front - and verifies them.

You can check the licensing status of D.C.-area contractors online or by phone. Members can sign in to Angie's List for more details, or click here to join Angie's List if you are not already a member.

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