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Tampa-area contractors face licensing 'labyrinth'

It is important to hire someone with a trade license, because it provides consumer protection benefits. (Photo courtesy of Mark Love)

It is important to hire someone with a trade license, because it provides consumer protection benefits. (Photo courtesy of Mark Love)

Logan Steege, owner of highly rated Jack O'Trades in Tampa, says he had been working as an unlicensed handyman for several years and knew he'd occasionally done work that required a permit or crossed the line into license-required territory, including many home repair jobs in Pinellas County.

But late in 2009, Steege says several things happened to persuade him to get licensed. He injured his shoulder, opening up more time to study; a large project went awry because he didn't have the right permits; and the Angie's List trade licensing team, which had begun auditing advertisers in Tampa, alerted him that he was operating illegally.

"These things happening at once was like a sign: 'Hey, wake up, what are you doing?'" Steege says.

So he hired a tutor and spent months studying for Florida's grueling, 7.5-hour competency exam. The process included paying a $295 exam fee and hundreds of dollars for books. He passed the first time, and in February received his state residential contracting license.

In addition to passing the competency test, licensed contractors must hold a minimum amount of insurance - so hiring someone with a trade license provides consumer protection benefits and qualifies them for help from the Florida Homeowners' Construction Recovery Fund. It also opens more doors, Steege says. "The knowledge and confidence it gives is very important," he says.

Contractors working in Florida could potentially report to two licensing authorities. The state licenses many trades, and counties may require license-holders to register locally. Counties may also enforce additional regulations. For example, painting is not licensed on the state level, but Pinellas County requires any painter to be licensed.

Pinellas County authorities say they take licensing very seriously. "We're probably one of the three or four strictest counties in the state," says Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

Florida law requires license numbers to be displayed in all advertisements by trade-licensed contractors. PCCLB investigator Connie Garriques says she reviews advertisements every day for violators. Some she finds by studying the Yellow Pages or local newspapers; others are brought to her attention by the public or others in the field.

"Contractors feel it's not fair that this person or that person has no license or isn't advertising it," Garriques says.

Garriques says she issues hundreds of citations for ad violations each year. In February, she checked advertisements in the January Tampa edition of Angie's List Magazine and issued 17 citations for companies that lacked state licenses or Pinellas County registration.

Nine companies successfully appealed their $500 fines by registering their state license or proving they didn't work in Pinellas County. Steege received a citation, but he avoided the fine because he was able to show he had been state-licensed prior to the date of the violation, and he registered his license with the county.

Complying with county licensing laws can sometimes be a bureaucratic labyrinth, according to Roman Albano, vice president of Tampa-based Contractors Reporting Service, a consulting firm that helps contractors sort out licensing and registration laws.

"The biggest hill is all the red tape," Albano says. "Trying to keep up with all the counties can be a big hassle. Not doing things the correct way can cause a huge delay [in getting registered]."

Steege says he ran into that when registering his state license with each county he works in. "The whole system is set up to make money," he says. "You go around and each one wants $35. It's more annoying and tedious than anything. There's no consistency whatsoever between counties."

Fischer and Garriques say county registration is important, even for state-licensed contractors, because it provides additional insurance verification and consumer protection at a local level. "We can respond to complaints quite a bit faster than the state," Garriques says.

Angie's List member Neil Gobioff of Tampa says he learned a lesson about licensing when he hired Jason Pantapas of Bay Area Custom Doors to install custom sliding doors in his home.

Gobioff says he paid Pantapas $5,000 in advance, but Pantapas continually delayed the project. He says Pantapas eventually told him the doors were ready and he would bring them over, but Gobioff declined the offer until Pantapas could provide photos of the doors, which he never did.

Gobioff later learned Pantapas had multiple judgments against him for incomplete work and been arrested for unlicensed contracting work in Pinellas County. "I'll definitely be more inclined to ask and research someone's license prior to giving them money," Gobioff says.

Pantapas, who is free on bond, says Gobioff never picked up his doors, and he declined to give a refund because he was going out of business. Pantapas pleaded not guilty to fraud, unlicensed contracting and grand theft charges. The cases are pending.

Ken Arbor, owner of highly rated Ken Arbor Home Services, had his ads pulled from this magazine and our website after Garriques informed the trade licensing team he was unlicensed. Arbor says he plans to acquire a state contracting license by the end of the year.

In the meantime, Arbor says he continues to work as a handyman and remodeler, and when a job requires a permit, he usually has the homeowner or a colleague who's a general contractor pull the permit.

"The biggest thing in Florida is protecting the homeowner from scam artists," he says.

Garriques says it's illegal for contractors to pull permits for anyone who's not an employee, and she cautions homeowners against pulling permits for unlicensed contractors.

"You have to sign an affidavit saying you're doing the work yourself," she says. "Homeowners could be subject to fines if the work isn't done correctly. It could cause you not to be able to sell your home or get homeowner's insurance if work was done without permits or inspections."


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