There are few things more frustrating than the decision to build a home, renovate your old one, or make extensive repairs. You are investing thousands of dollars of your hard-earned money, and there are hundreds of additional determinations to be made – choices that require special knowledge you don’t have. If you do not choose contractors wisely, you could make the wrong decisions or, worse, they could walk off with your money in their pockets… leaving your dream house a hulk of lumber, bricks, and wiring.
In Florida, self-proclaimed contractors are especially likely to scam consumers during and after hurricane season. This is a time when homes may have been damaged by wind or floods and people are at their most desperate. If carpets are under water or roofs are leaking, unsuspecting homeowners – many of them retirees – are especially vulnerable to shady contracting schemes. Faced with catastrophe, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a fast-talking con artist who promises quick results at a bargain price!
Here’s the story of just one unlicensed contractor who wreaked havoc with Palm Beach County homeowners after Hurricane Wilma in 2006. It’s a cautionary tale of upfront deposits, little or no work, and unpaid subcontractors.
According to court records and reporting by news agencies, one alleged roofing contractor in Palm Beach County has managed to dupe hundreds of residents. More than two dozen of these unsuspecting consumers now face foreclosure or the loss of their life savings because of debts to subcontractors. The unlicensed contractor, who is the sole owner of a roofing company, fled to Florida from Ohio, where, according to court records, he faced numerous judgments, foreclosures, bankruptcies and tax liens.
Even though this “contractor” was jailed in 2006 for not having a license, he continued his fraudulent scheme. Innocent customers gave him money up front, received shoddy roofs at best, and found themselves being sued by subcontractors who were not paid by the contractor. Many victims have filed lawsuits, hoping to reclaim at least some amount of their financial losses.
So what’s the lesson?
Before you spend a dime, put some time and effort into checking licensing status, references, and written bids.
Here are some guidelines for improving your odds of finding a professional contractor who will do your home improvement job properly without fleecing you of your savings.
- State, county, and municipal licensing laws vary from state to state, so first find out what the laws are in your area. In Florida, for example, a good resource is the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Check out their website or call them at 850-487-1395 to get information and find out whether contractors you are considering hold licenses in Florida.
- Check your local resources. For example, in Palm Beach County, the Construction Industry Licensing Board establishes criteria for licensing contractors who work within the county, provides for testing and licensing, and has the power to revoke licenses. Check out the Contractors Certification Division of the county’s Department of Planning, Zoning & Building at or phone this office at 561-233-5530.
- You should check with your county’s building department to confirm the status of a contractor’s license, even if the contractor has provided a license number. In most counties, you can learn whether complaints or lawsuits have been filed, and whether a license has been revoked.
- Additional information about various kinds of contractors can be obtained from area trade unions, which generally require training and experience for membership. Also check state and local chapters of professional organizations of building-related industries, many of which have Codes of Ethics to which members must adhere. These groups include, for example, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the Roofing & Sheet Metal Contractors Association, and affiliates of the National Association of Home Builders.
- Just because a contractor is licensed doesn’t mean he or she is competent or that clients have had good experiences. When you are interviewing a potential contractor, ask for three references from customers for whom the company has done similar jobs. Be sure to get complete information: Names, addresses, phone numbers, emails.
- Then contact all of these references to learn about their experiences. Remember that no customer is ever entirely satisfied; you want to know whether the contractor is honest, honored a written estimate or bid, and completed the work as promised, on time. Be sure to ask if the customer would hire this contractor or recommend them again in the future!
- Before you make a decision, get three written bids from licensed contractors who, from your research, have earned good reputations with their peers and their clients. Make sure you’re not comparing apples and oranges: give each bidder the same job description and check bids to see that the same or similar tasks and materials have been included.
- In addition to our Building Contractor Checklist, here are some questions to ask before you make a final decision:
- Do you have proof of workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
- Do you handle getting building permits? (If so, check the track record.)
- Are there elements not included in your bid that would be in our contract? (Ask to see a sample contract.)
- Who takes bottom line responsibility for the job? When you are not available, whom can I call with questions and problems?
When you are interviewing a potential contractor, ask for three references from customers for whom the company has done similar jobs.
Here are some additional resources for information and help when you need it:
- Better Business Bureau
- Florida Division of Consumer Affairs
- Florida Attorney General Fraud Complaints
- Building Contractors Checklist
Make sure you have all the information you need before you sign a contract – and before you make any kind of payment. You should make payments by credit card – never cash – to preserve your options if something goes wrong.
Your contract should state accurately the correct name of the contractor or company, contact information, license numbers for the company on the contract, and a detailed description of the work to be done with corresponding costs. There should be a work schedule, with completion dates – including cleanup; a list of materials and products; and warranties and guarantees associated with work and materials. Most important, there should be a payment schedule to which you have agreed. You should not make final payment until liens from subcontractors and suppliers have been paid, and you have received a Certificate of Completion from appropriate authorities.
No job is too small and no house is too unimportant to pay attention to details in the building or repair process.
If you have had a bad experience with a contractor, you should contact your county’s Department of Consumer Affairs and your area’s Better Business Bureau. In the event that you are unable to resolve a serious dispute with a contractor, attorneys at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley may be able to help you pursue your rights through the justice system. Please fill out the contact form on this page, or call us at 800-780-8607 to arrange for a free, confidential consultation.