Rebuilding? Use caution when hiring a contractor
The Contractors State License Board (CSLB) and Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office urge survivors of the North Bay wildfires to remain alert as they search for a contractor to assist them in the rebuilding process.
This warning comes after a CSLB undercover sting operation netted 13 suspected unlicensed contractors bidding for work on a house that was seriously damaged in the October wildfires.
The sting, conducted on Jan. 27, targeted individuals believed to be unlicensed and advertising illegally on craigslist.org. Suspects were invited to a sting house in Santa Rosa where only part of a garage remained from one of seven wildfires that swept through the North Bay, destroying almost 8,900 structures.
CSLB investigators posed as owners of the home and got bids, depending on the type of work the alleged unlicensed operator advertised for. Jobs were either framing and rough carpentry for an approximately 10- x 20-foot room, or reestablishing electrical or plumbing service to the structure. For the framing job, bids ranged from $850 to $13,000, plumbing from $1,500 to $4,500, and an electrical bid for $2,100.
Ten of the 13 suspects will now face at least one felony charge for contracting without a license in a declared disaster area. Contracting for home improvement work in a state or federally declared disaster area that costs $500 or more (labor and materials) without a valid California contractor license can be charged as a felony. Punishment may include a fine of up to $10,000, and up to three years in state prison, or both.
Two of those suspects will face an additional felony charge of illegally using a contractor license number. The two were formerly licensed contractors, but one’s license expired in 2003; the other in 2010. Punishment for that charge may include a fine of up to $10,000, and up to one year in state prison, or both.
All 13 suspects will also face a misdemeanor charge of illegal advertising. California law requires that contractors include their license number in all forms of advertising, including those online. Operators without a license can advertise as long as the ad states that they are not a state-licensed contractor, and the type of work advertised is for less than $500.
CSLB and Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office investigators are also seeing an increase in unlicensed activity during weekly sweeps conducted through the burned-out areas, especially for jobs like tree removal and fencing.
“It’s clear that unlicensed contractors are itching to work in the fire zone,” said CSLB Registrar David Fogt. “That’s why fire survivors need to be extra vigilant and make sure the contractor they hire is properly licensed and qualified to do the needed work.”
CSLB has introduced a new website feature to help fire survivors start their search for a contractor. The new “Find My Licensed Contractor” feature enables users to build a list of all licensed contractors, sorted by trade, in a specific geographic area.
CSLB encourages consumers to always “Check The License First” by visiting www.cslb.ca.gov or calling its toll-free automated line: 800-321-CSLB (2752). Also, visit CSLB’s website for tips about how to hire a contractor and to sign up for CSLB Email Alerts. CSLB’s Disaster Hotline is also available for fire survivors to call Monday-Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at 800-962-1125.
CSLB tips for dealing with a building contractor
• Only hire contractors who have an “active” CSLB license, and ask to see the contractor’s plastic pocket license.
• Don’t hire the first contractor who comes along.
• Don’t rush into repairs, no matter how badly they’re needed.
• Verify the contractor’s license at www.cslb.ca.gov or 800-321-CSLB (2752).
• Don’t pay more than 10 percent or $1,000, whichever is less, as a down payment.
• Don’t sign over any insurance checks to a contractor.
• Don’t pay cash, and don’t let the payments get ahead of the work.
• Get three bids, check references, and get a written contract.
• Contact CSLB if you have a complaint against a contractor, or if you’ve been solicited by someone who isn’t licensed.