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Plugging the Licensing Leaks

July 19, 1998

For homeowners looking at leaking roofs, downed trees and assorted mayhem after the winter's storms, there's yet another potential problem: the unlicensed contractor.

In a worthwhile undertaking, the Contractors State License Board ran a sting operation recently in Mission Viejo. In two days, undercover investigators posing as a suburban couple received offers to lay tile and do other jobs from 14 craftsmen who were supposed to be licensed in their occupations but were not. The craftsmen face misdemeanor charges.

State officials said an unlicensed contractor is not necessarily a scam artist. Many can do fine work. They may want to avoid government paperwork, fear the tests or consider themselves too busy to go through the hoops needed to obtain a contractor's license.

But it's definitely buyer beware when a homeowner picks someone without a license to paint the house, build the fence or install the swimming pool.

It's harder to get redress if an unlicensed contractor does a bad job, even if he can be tracked down. Nor are those without licenses required to have workers' compensation insurance, meaning if someone is hurt on the job, the homeowner is at risk.

The chairman of the Contractors State License Board said his agency beefs up its enforcement when disasters hit, aware that unlicensed contractors will appear on the scene, realizing there's work to be done and money to be earned.

The agency gets 30,000 complaints a year and last year cited 2,000 unlicensed contractors. But the board says that two decades ago, half of all contractors that investigators encountered were unlicensed. Today the figure is only 10%, a welcome decline.

Given the criticism the agency received several years ago for not doing enough to regulate builders, it's good to see the board actively enforcing the law.

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