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Fixers' Upper : 9 Months After Quake, Valley Contractors Have Their Hoped-For Boom

October 05, 1994|JILL LEOVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Daily invasions into the San Fernando Valley by an army of carpenters, plumbers, masons and electricians signal that, for small construction and repair businesses, the hoped-for boom from the Northridge earthquake has finally hit.

Demand is so heavy that some customers are waiting months for repairs. Some contractors are turning customers away.

"Many people are just starting their repairs now," said Robin Bauer, who co-owns the small Northridge contracting firm ADB Construction & Installations with her husband, Dean. "If no one calls for the next two years, we will still be busy."

Those new customers Bauer is trying to squeeze in must now wait weeks to get small jobs done and months for larger ones, she said.

The surge in business comes from homeowners who were held at bay for months by lengthy insurance negotiations and pending aid checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With that settled, contractors say, they are finally getting hired to attack the big home-repair jobs left by the quake.

Although calls for free estimates and small emergency fix-ups poured in immediately after the Jan. 17 temblor, the major surge for contractors has only begun in recent weeks.

"There was a lag time when no one was getting money," explained contractor John Wurster, owner of John Wurster & Associates Inc. of Calabasas. He said the impact of the quake on his business didn't take shape until July, when his monthly sales surged 100% compared to the same time last year, and they are holding strong.

Jeff Steele, owner of Reseda-based Artisan Concrete, spent the first months after the quake in frustration, waiting for the work to come in. "Now it's not frustrating," he said. "But there's no time left for personal stuff."

Steele has been working more than 60 hours a week since the earthquake. He says his sales this year will be up 30% over last year's, but the downside is he has no time to spend with his sons in football practice. And his phone just keeps ringing. "We are breaking our backs trying to keep up with it," he said.

For contractors--an industry populated by small mom-and-pop companies--the quake-triggered bounty is a reprieve after several bad years. Many had endured losses as a result of a slowdown in new home construction and remodeling. Now these same firms are turning customers away. Some are working strictly by referral, eschewing calls from yellow-page shoppers. Others have abandoned free estimates. Small contractors surveyed say their sales have at least doubled this year compared to last.

What's feeding the construction boom is $665 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants for home repairs, paid out as of Sept. 1, and an estimated $7.2 billion in insurance claims still flowing into earthquake-affected areas. In addition, about $928 million in earthquake-loss loans has been disbursed to homeowners and renters by the Small Business Administration.

Further fueling the boom are homeowners who find the temptation to remodel their quake-damaged homes irresistible.

"People are adding on new bathrooms and new rooms in their houses. We haven't seen that since the '80s," said Jim Alexander, vice president of Woodland Hills-based William Frankel Plumbing.

The repair boom comes as no surprise to staff members at the area office of City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who have learned to keep fraud hot line numbers at their fingertips because they are deluged with complaints of contractor rip-offs.

Nor is it news to the dispatchers at the Devonshire Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, who field a daily smattering of complaints from raw-nerved residents about construction noise. And Ken Knox, senior lead officer for the West Valley Division, said contractor fraud and illegal dumping are the hot topics at Neighborhood Watch meetings he attends.

Responding to reports of fraudulent and unlicensed operators, officials with the Contractors State License Board have conducted numerous sweeps of earthquake-hit areas. So far they've cited 65 people for doing construction work without a license, an offense that carries a maximum fine of $15,000. Another 117 fines have been assessed to contractors who were unable to provide proof of workers' compensation insurance, according to Sam Hayne, a spokesman for the board.

More serious offenses, such as taking payments without doing any work, have also been rampant. The city attorney's office has prosecuted about 50 cases involving earthquake-related contractor fraud, spokesman Mike Qualls said.

Opinions vary on how long the boom will last. Many contractors say that although requests for new jobs may be peaking, they have enough work in the pipeline to keep them busy for months, if not years.

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