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Worker has no license? Be wary

Contractors with the proper credentials must have had four years of job training and carry insurance.

June 01, 2008|Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writer

Steffi Gaines felt confident when she hired a contractor to remodel the kitchen and dining room of her Los Angeles home.

He had been recommended by her handyman, who knew him from church. When she asked whether he was licensed, the contractor provided a number.

Several months into the $32,750 project, Gaines said, the contractor stopped showing up at her Mt. Olympus home. Her kitchen floor was still ripped apart and the exposed electrical wiring twisted around rafters like spaghetti on a fork.

As it turned out, the license number the contractor had given Gaines belonged to someone else, according to state records.

Now, more than three years later, she says she is still paying to fix things that weren't done right.

"It's been one problem after another," she said.

Californians spend an estimated $10 billion annually on home remodeling and construction projects, officials say. Many have provided fertile ground for unlicensed contractors.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 05, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Contractor's license: In Sunday's Real Estate section, an article about unlicensed contractors stated that California requires would-be contractors to work as journeymen or apprentices for four years before they can apply for a license. In fact, three years of accredited technical or apprentice training or other education may be applied toward the requirement, but it must be accompanied by one year of practical experience as a journeyman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 08, 2008 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 7 Features Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Contractor's license: A June 1 article about unlicensed contractors stated that California requires would-be contractors to work as journeymen or apprentices for four years before they can apply for a license. In fact, three years of accredited technical or apprentice training or other education may be applied toward the requirement, but it must be accompanied by one year of practical experience as a journeyman.

"It's safe to say that there are thousands of people out there breaking the law by contracting without a license," said Pamela Mares, a spokeswoman for the Contractors State License Board. "There's a lot of money out there, and they know it."

Last year, agency investigators teamed with local authorities to target more than 700 unlicensed contractors across California.

Undercover sting operations in March, including one in Van Nuys, resulted in 175 misdemeanor citations being issued for alleged violations, including contracting without a license and illegal advertising.

The problem, authorities say, is not just with unlicensed contractors.

In Los Angeles, the city attorney's office has filed 156 criminal misdemeanors against licensed and unlicensed contractors since April 2006. So far, officials say, there have been 56 convictions and nearly $800,000 in restitution ordered for victims.

"We hear a lot of sad stories," said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.

To help protect the public, state authorities say, they require that would-be contractors work first as journeymen or apprentices for four years before they can apply for a license of their own.

After being licensed, they must carry workers' compensation insurance if they have employees and a $12,500 bond that can be used to provide restitution to consumers who file complaints or sue them successfully.

In fiscal year 2006-07, the agency received more than 15,000 complaints from the public regarding contractors. About three-fourths of them were lodged against licensed contractors, state records show.

Complaints investigated

During that period, 11,500 complaints were formally investigated. Of the cases involving licensed contractors, 105 were referred to local prosecutors and 195 licenses were suspended.

Gaines said she should have been quicker in confronting her contractor, Anthony Lopez.

She said she knew problems were developing when Lopez and his two workers started skipping days.

In February 2006, four months after her project began, she wrote a letter to Lopez. "If you don't commit to a schedule of dates and times," Gaines wrote, "I will be forced to hire another contractor and charge this extra expense back to you."

Gaines provided The Times with copies of $27,000 in checks that were cashed by Lopez and a woman named Nancy Kremer. Gaines said Lopez asked that checks be made out to Kremer, whom he identified as his wife.

The pair listed the same address on various records during that period.

Before hiring Lopez, Gaines could have checked the license number he provided -- 686188 -- by searching the online database of the Contractors State License Board, at www.cslb.ca.gov.

Had she done so, she would have found that the license expired in March 2000, more than five years before Gaines began her remodeling project. Records also show that the license had been issued to a person with a similar name, Anthony S. Lopez, who owned a company called T&L Construction.

Gaines' contractor had identified his company on Gaines' contract as Anthony Lopez Custom Carpentry. But state records, which date from 1991 to the present, show that no license was issued to an Anthony Lopez who operated Anthony Lopez Custom Carpentry.

The Times provided Lopez's birth date and driver's license number to officials at the License Board so they could check other internal agency records to further verify his license status.

"I have no information that shows that he either was or is licensed," said Rick Lopes, spokesman for the agency.

Gaines gave a reporter copies of three letters of recommendation that she had received from Lopez. One was from Kremer, who said Lopez did a remodel of her living room that was "master craftsman quality."

Gaines said that she spoke to Kremer but that Kremer never mentioned that she listed the same address as Lopez. (When Gaines wrote the checks, she said, she did not make the connection to the letter of recommendation.)

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