Home Improvement: Ask the Contractors Board

Q: I want to do my part for the environment while getting some work done on my house.  I’ve seen a number of articles on how solar, wind power and other “green building” techniques can help the environment and save some money for me in the long run.  How do I find a contractor who knows about this kind of technology and do they have different credentials than other contractors?
A: “Green” is an emerging trend in the contracting trades.  But, old fashioned homework and research will help you find someone who is knowledgeable about the newest techniques and materials available.  One of the best ways to find a qualified contactor is to ask family or friends if they were satisfied with similar work done for them.  A local builders exchange or trade union might also have information available about their members. Regardless of the recommendations you receive, make sure your contractor has a valid contractor’s license by visiting the CSLB Website, www.cslb.ca.gov. or by calling (800) 321-2752. You can also get more information about hiring a contractor.  There are 43 different types of contractor licenses, including general and specialty contractors like C-46 Solar.  A general contractor usually oversees projects and coordinates with specific subcontractors to complete a project.  Talk with a qualified licensed contractor to see if they share your green vision. 
Q.  It is time to get some new floors at my house.  I’ve been checking out a number of flooring shops and finally found what I think is the best deal.  The owner of the shop said he will install the floors for me.  I found out that he is not a licensed contractor.  Am I leaving myself open for problems?
A. Anyone installing flooring or doing any kind of contracting work in California that is valued at over $500 must hold a valid license from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB).  Many retail-flooring outlets provide floor installation through licensed subcontractors. Ask for the name and license number and then verify your installer/contractor status by visiting the CSLB Website at www.cslb.ca.gov or by calling (800) 321-2752).  There will also be information on the contractor’s complaint history and if they hold workers compensation insurance for employees.  Although general liability insurance is not required under the law, it is a good idea to ask about it.  You and your homeowner’s insurance policy could be held liable if unlicensed or uninsured workers are hurt while on your property. 
Q.  We are undergoing a major kitchen remodel.  The contractor I hired to build and install the cabinets did not measure correctly.  The cabinets, which are the wrong size, were paid for, in full, and are currently sitting in their original boxes in my garage.  I talked to the contractor only one time before he stopped taking my calls.  Now, I cannot seem to locate him at all.  He is licensed, but not responsible.  What should I do?
A.  If you are unable to communicate with your contractor and resolve issues on your own, it is time to contact the Contractors State License Board (CSLB).  You can get information and file a complaint at: www.cslb.ca.gov, or you can call CSLB at 1-800-321-CSLB (2752) and request that a form be mailed to you.  When you mail in your complaint form, be sure to attach copies of all relevant information like contracts, photographs and change orders.  The more evidence you provide, the better.  Once CSLB receives your complaint form, they will send you a letter confirming the receipt of your grievance.  To find out more about the complaint process, go to the CSLB Website, www.cslb.ca.gov and download the brochure “A Consumer Guide to Filing Construction Complaints.” 
Q.  My brother is a licensed contractor.  It really upsets me to see unlicensed people underbidding him on jobs and blatantly breaking the law.  Not only are they taking work away from my brother who is trying to be an honest businessman, but I know for a fact, they are doing substandard work.  What can I do to help in this situation?
A.   Since your brother is a licensed contractor, you know that anyone performing construction jobs that are valued at more than $500 needs to be licensed by CSLB.   Unlicensed operators are part of a multi-billion dollar underground economy that do not pay taxes or carry insurance.  Many of these individuals have other problems with the law or can even be part of an organized crime network.  Homeowners who hire unlicensed workers leave themselves vulnerable to theft, project abandonment, substandard work or even lawsuits if someone is injured.  The CSLB Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT) goes after unscrupulous operators through stings, sweeps and complaint investigation.  You can provide the SWIFT team with tips by either calling CSLB at 1-800-321-CSLB (2752) or by downloading a tip sheet at www.cslb.ca.gov.  You can also use that contact information to see if a contractor is licensed and if there are any complaints posted.  Licensed contractors must pass competency tests, be fingerprinted and bonded and undergo a background check.
Q.  I recently ordered some new windows and a door at the local branch of a big home improvement store.  They will also be installing them.  The store wants the entire amount upfront or they suggested putting it on a credit card. I thought contractors could only charge 10% down or $1,000.  Are they operating legally?
A.  The vast majority of contractors in California are legally limited to the “no more than 10% down or $1,000” law for home improvement projects.  There are about two dozen companies that have blanket performance and payment bonds that range in value from about $20,000 to $8 million.   It is insurance, that if something goes wrong, there will be a financial landing pad to cover losses.  To see if a company or contractor is one of these rare birds, you can look up their license on the CSLB Website at www.cslb.ca.gov or call (800) 321-2752.  There will be information about bonds, insurance and even complaint activity.  No matter what company you deal with, make sure everything you request is detailed in writing, in your contract, including a work schedule, materials that will be used, and any warranties that are promised.     
Q. My neighbor, who lives by herself, is a sweet lady in her 80s.  I noticed that a handyman has been spending a lot of time at her house over the past couple of weeks.  I am worried that he maybe trying to take advantage of her kind nature.  What can I do to help? Or, should I just mind my own business?   
A.  Your neighbor is fortunate to have someone looking out for her.  If you are friendly with your neighbor, ask her what kind of work the handyman is doing for her and how it is working out.  If you can, get the name of the handyman, and then check him out with the CSLB to see if he is licensed or see if the Better Business Bureau has any complaints on file against him.
It might also be a good idea to get the name and contact information of her family members to notify in case of an emergency.  If the situation looks serious and there are no family members, a call to Adult Protective Services might be in order.  You can check out contractors or file complaints about unlicensed individuals by calling the CSLB at (800)321-2752 or checking out the Board’s web page at www.cslb.ca.gov.  Useful publications like “What Seniors Should Know about Hiring a Contractor” are also available. 




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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