Unlicensed contractors flourish in Tampa area

Unlicensed contractors flourish in Tampa area

David Kennedy doesn't need consumer complaints to know unlicensed contractors are a problem in Florida. The Hillsborough County licensing coordinator sees it on the way to work every day.

"State law says if you're in the contracting business, you have to have your license number on your vehicle," Kennedy says. "And when I'm driving on the highway, I see a lot of contracting vehicles that don't have [one]."

Aaron Wallace, owner of highly rated and licensed Integrity Finishes of Tampa Bay, says as the economy continues to decline, homeowners turn more frequently to unlicensed contractors, who can charge lower rates since they don't have to pay for insurance or licensing fees. But he calls it a short-term gain for long-term risk. "I've had customers call me saying they had someone unlicensed accept a deposit, do a little work, and never come back," Wallace says.

Beverly Bandzul of Belleair learned that lesson when she paid Concrete Pro a deposit for a foundation job. She then checked them out before the job began, and says she discovered their license number wasn't valid. "When I confronted him, he told me a sob story and [disappeared] without returning my deposit," she says. Concrete Pro did not return calls requesting comment.

Sometimes contractors hold no license due to their interpretation of the law. Tony Hough, president of Relo Interior Services and a highly rated Angie's List Super Service Award winner who operates in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, is one of them. "I don't need a license, because all the work is done by my subcontractors, who are licensed, insured and carry workers' comp," he said.

Regulators see it differently. Under state law, a business that accepts money or negotiates contracts for a job is considered a contractor even if others do the work. "He is absolutely wrong, and if he's taking contracts or holding himself out to be a contractor and doesn't have a license, it's a first-degree misdemeanor," says Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, responding to a reporter's description of Hough's business without mentioning him by name. Violators could face a fine of $500 or more and up to a year in jail. Subcontractors who do work for unlicensed contractors could face the same punishment and possibly lose their own licenses.

After being informed of the state law and regulators' position, Hough told his Angie's List advertising account manager his attorney is investigating the statutes and any discrepancies would be corrected.

State authorities say they've taken unlicensed work particularly seriously ever since Charles Drago, secretary of the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, took office last year and learned it was the biggest citizen concern in Florida.

he department received 2,763 complaints about unlicensed contractors in fiscal 2008 and is on pace to receive the same number in 2009. The state conducted 33 stings and 472 sweeps of unlicensed contractors in the past year, up from four stings and 143 sweeps two years ago. "Public safety is our top priority," says Alexis Lambert, press secretary for the department.

Although unlicensed contractors can be punished, officials say they'd rather just see people follow the law. "Our ultimate goal is to get them licensed," Lambert says.

Florida contractors can be licensed by the state and/or the county. You can check the status of Tampa-area companies online or by phone. Log in to angieslist.com for details.

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