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Contractors Law Fails to Protect House Owners

March 10, 1985|LYNN O'SHAUGHNESSY | Times Staff Writer

Anthony Guastella, where are you?

The Contractors State License Board would like to know. So would the Los Angeles city attorney's office, the judges who have issued bench warrants for his arrest and some San Fernando Valley residents who claim Guastella--an unlicensed swimming-pool contractor who allegedly goes by a variety of aliases--has bilked them out of thousands of dollars.

For 10 years, authorities have been looking for Guastella, who has had 28 formal complaints filed against him by customers. When someone calls the license board's office in Van Nuys to complain about the elusive contractor, investigators inevitably find that Guastella's trail ends at an answering service or a post office box or a bogus address.

"He's shifty," said Cy Kelly, an investigator with the license board. "He certainly hasn't held still long enough for anyone to nail him."

Officials with the contractors board say the tarnished record that operators like Guastella have compiled over the years is only one of many reasons why consumers should not hire an unlicensed contractor. By state law, a contractor must be licensed to perform any work that costs more than $200. At today's prices, officials note, that includes most jobs.

Taking a Risk

License board officials say not all unlicensed contractors are dishonest or incapable of completing jobs, but they insist that consumers are taking a risk if they hire one.

Despite the hazards, hiring unlicensed contractors is quite popular, primarily because they usually offer low rates. This has left state investigators shaking their heads and facing a mountain of complaints and paper work.

"People are gullible," said David R. Phillips, the licensing board's regional deputy in charge of enforcement for Southern California. "They will shop around for a $100 suit, but they will enter into a $20,000 or $30,000 home improvement contract just like that, without any questions being asked."

About 25% of the complaints the contractors board receives at its Valley office involve unlicensed contractors. That adds up to 350 to 400 cases a year. The same proportion applies to the rest of the state, which annually receives up to 22,000 complaints against contractors.

Although the number of complaints against unlicensed contractors has remained fairly steady for several years, it is slowly rising because the rejuvenated national economy has prompted more consumers to spruce up their homes and property.

High Frustration Factor

Although unlicensed contractors make up only about a quarter of the complaints, they represent "about 70% of the frustration," Kelly said.

The state has some control over licensed contractors but little over unlicensed ones. Licensed contractors post bonds and, if something goes wrong, the state can take disciplinary action, including taking their licenses away. The bond may also be forfeited.

To be licensed, a contractor must pass state tests and work as a journeyman to ensure that he or she is capable, for instance, of installing a swimming pool or building a room addition correctly. The board also maintains the addresses of all licensed contractors.

Investigators in the Valley estimate that 40% of the unlicensed contractors who have complaints lodged against them cannot be found.

The most common way unlicensed contractors find their way into people's homes is through community shoppers. State law requires contractors to list their license number in any advertisement, but cursory checks in some of these shoppers reveal that the requirement often is ignored.

Investigators say the license numbers contained in ads cannot be taken at face value anyway. Some unscrupulous contractors use other contractors' numbers or fabricate them.

Unlicensed contractors also enlist customers by cruising neighborhoods.

That is how Vivian Chin and Guillermo P. Avila, board-and-care home operators in Sylmar, happened to hire a man calling himself Leonardo, who presented a business card bearing the message "Jesus is Coming."

Leonardo noticed the owners were preparing to erect a fence on the property in January and he kept dropping by, offering to do the work, Chin said.

Man Disappeared

Eventually, Chin and Avila gave Leonardo the job and $600. After pocketing the money and unloading some iron fence parts on the lawn, Leonardo disappeared, Chin said. The partners paid someone else to build the fence, but the iron parts, now beginning to rust, still rest on the lawn.

They are not optimistic about getting their money back. "Even if you took him to Small Claims Court to sue him, how would we get anything out of him?" Chin asked.

The prospects of restitution usually are slim, state authorities say. If the contractors have not left town, they often do not have money to repay dissatisfied customers, authorities say.

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