By Richard Lansing
Every home owner in the country wants to get as much as they can for as little as possible. That is reasonable, but it can lead people down some risky paths. One of those paths, which is quite commonly utilized by first time buyers especially, is the hiring of an unlicensed contractor.
Some needed home repairs and a simple web search leads a homeowner to get measurements from a gentleman who shows up at your door. He is dressed reasonably nice for a contractor (jeans and a polo), and all his construction equipment looks right. He takes measurements, provides a quote that is almost too good to be true (1/3rd less than the first contractor you called) and the next week he and his crew are ripping out your kitchen sink or replacing the master bathtub.
What happens when Mr. Contractor gets injured? It might seem “fair” that he’d have to pay his own medical costs. Businesses should carry insurance, after all. Except that without a license, your contractor cannot apply for a business license. According to construction consultant Lyle Charles, “the reality is that home owners often end up carrying that burden when the contractor is uninsured. It is one of the dirty secrets of low-cost home renovations.”
In order to become a licensed contractor, there are a few things a person must demonstrate to the state a number of items, and usually take a competency exam. Contractors must pass a contractor’s exam in order to acquire a contractor’s license. A contractor must also carry insurance when you register as an LLC, or other business entity. That insurance protects employees and the job site. To protect the public, Florida actively pursues unlicensed contractors by performing sting operations in conjunction with local police.
As you can imagine, all this licensing and exam work takes time and costs money. Contractors who charge more for their work have earned the right to do so through state licensure. They carry liability insurance that protects you, the homeowner, from the consequences of their on-the-job injuries.
Before you hire that unlicensed contractor, stop and think about the potential hazards:
Natural Disaster: If your home was recently damaged by a natural disaster, the unlicensed contractor may not be able to perform the work legally. That could limit your insurance settlement.
Property Value: Someone unlicensed who performs major work, such as adding a room to your home, could reduce the property value because the addition will not have the proper permits or be built to the building code. Plus, homeowners are required to disclose unlicensed/unpermitted work when selling their home.
Protection from Injury: Not just of the contractor, but the surrounding area. If the contractor drops a heavy tool on a car, for instance, whatever dent or scratch is left behind might end up costing you for the repair. The same goes for personal injury claims if that contractor hurts a neighbor.
Damages: If an unlicensed contractor fails to complete the work, does it in a poor manner or causes damage, the unlicensed contractor might disappear entirely, and often cannot be found if you need to sue.
There is both good news and bad news. Before we continue, it’s best to speak directly with an attorney, as they will provide recommendations more directly related to local laws you must comply with regarding permits and association requirements for repairs. That said, there are some general guidelines you can keep in mind when you’re looking for a contractor and considering going with someone who is unlicensed.
You can file a lawsuit against an unlicensed contractor if there are damages to your property, or if he causes injury somehow (either to himself or someone else). Being unlicensed is, in some ways, actually a bigger risk than whatever risks come from the job itself. As a homeowner dissatisfied with a job, you can also stop payment to the contractor or refuse payment altogether. Most unlicensed contractors also do not write up agreements, so there is no contract that details their responsibility. Prices change, homeowners refuse payment, and accidents happen.
Generally, if you try and sue an unlicensed contractor you will probably have to show the two of you attempted to work out a solution between yourselves. It should not cost you much more than a few thousand dollars in attorney’s fees to get some representation on your side if you need it for a default (if the contractor doesn’t show). You’ll have to wait a few years to collect, but once that default is renewed you can send the bill to collections and hope for your money to arrive.
If you decide to file a lawsuit, consult an attorney familiar in construction law over someone who is general practice. That expertise will come in handy, as the intricacies of construction law require someone well versed.
Going with an unlicensed contractor might sound great because you will save on the upfront costs, but it can cost you in the long run. There is simply too much risk with injury lawsuits, property damage and a lack of dispute resolution, to chance hiring a contractor who does not carry a license.