June Scheen hired "friends of a friend" to install a new wood deck when she lived in Columbus years ago. Unfortunately, they botched the job. "For a blind person, it would have been great," Scheen said of the shoddy workmanship.
Wary of having another bad contractor experience, June and her husband, Mike, decided to get serious about hiring qualified firms. They joined Angie's List, started asking companies about insurance and bonding, and began checking contractor licensing lists before hiring. "Since then I have become a hard-ass," June says.
But becoming licensed, and verifying someone is licensed, is not a simple process in the Columbus area. The city of Columbus offers licenses in more than a dozen home-improvement trades, such as wood-deck installation. Many area suburbs also require licenses for trades. In addition, the state issues licenses to plumbing and electrical commercial contractors, which some communities also require for residential work.
Columbus handyman Scott Kime grows frustrated as he weighs whether it's worth joining the rolls of licensed home-improvement contractors in the area. Kime founded Clintonville Home Repair Services in January, after his longtime corporate sales gig folded. Fortunately, Kime is finding clients. He often teams with his wife, Connie, an interior designer. "Thank goodness this has worked out," Scott says. "We'd be in foreclosure and living in [debt] with three kids if it didn't."
View more stories on contractor licensing
As a handyman, Kime can perform home repairs as long as the work is not extensive enough to require a city permit. For example, replacing a faucet does not require a permit; moving the sink does. "I want to know the benefits of having a license," Kime says. "Do I really need it? Am I qualified?"
These are complicated questions, often requiring contractors to puzzle through state and local regulations. For example, Kime would like to do heavy-duty electrical and plumbing work. In Columbus, home electrical and plumbing contractors must first obtain a state commercial license, meeting such requirements as a written test, background check, minimum experience and proof of liability insurance. Then they must register as home improvement contractors in Columbus to be able to pull permits for residential work, paying a $420 annual fee and arranging for a $25,000 bond that acts as insurance against damaging city infrastructure.
Many suburbs also require combinations of licensing, bonding and insurance, plus related fees. It can get pricey. One home-improvement general contractor on the List says he pays $4,000 to $7,000 a year to operate in Columbus and more than a dozen suburbs.
The licensing and permitting process protects the public, says Paul Freedman, program coordinator for code development for the Building Services Division of the Columbus Department of Development. Since August 2006, 16 Columbus contractors have been found guilty of violating the terms of their licenses. Of those, four had licenses suspended. No action was taken against the others.
"In some cases, we can be quite harsh, but in cases where we look at someone with no prior infringements and who has given us a good explanation and backed it up, we won't take any action that time," says George Thomas, chairman of the Board of Review of General and Home Improvement Contractors. "Most of the cases are like that."
Kime says he talked to five contractors about licenses, and each said he had no intention of getting one. The expenses are too high, Kime was told. But Kime says cost is not his primary concern. "I'm interested in doing the right thing."
Find out why Columbus stopped requiring written tests for some contractors.
You can check the licensing status of Columbus-area companies online at the Angie's List license check or by phone.
Are you familiar with your state and local licensing rules? Talk about it in the comments below.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on Aug. 20, 2009