Buyers best beware of unlicensed contractors


If you won’t open your front door to suspicious strangers, and you’re wary of offers too good to be true from telephone callers you don’t know, why on Earth would you allow an unlicensed contractor to work on your air conditioner, repair an electrical malfunction, a plumbing mishap or any other kind of breakdown in your home?

Did you ever stop to think that the unlicensed guy who promised to do the job for a whole lot less, especially if you paid him cash up front, might be perpetrating as much a scam as the suspicious stranger who rang your doorbell to propose “a deal you can’t refuse?” Or the person who called your phone number with an “unbelievable offer?”

Try this on for size: In the 12 months ending last June 30, approximately 1,200 criminal complaints were opened against unlicensed contractors in the state. That includes a goodly percentage in Summerlin. Certainly any area with a heavy concentration of senior citizens, and especially those in Sun City Summerlin, is highly vulnerable to scammers.

During the same time frame, 357 unlicensed contractors were convicted of misdemeanors, five for gross misdemeanors and one for felony. That should prove fraud comes in all sizes and shapes.

The numbers were provided by Jennifer Turner, spokeswoman for the Nevada State Contractors Board, which keeps a close eye out for unlicensed scammers and other scoundrels who are looking to pick our pockets by making repair promises they can’t keep. More to the point, the board is there to protect us, the consumers, from those bent on ripping us off.

“There are just too many of these kinds of people floating around in the underground economy,” said Turner, “and they’re looking to make a fast buck from potential victims.”

Members of the Contractors Board often speak at community functions, just as they did in Sun City, to alert the public to the dangers of dealing with unlicensed individuals. But seniors aren’t alone as potential victims.

“Price is usually the reason why anyone is vulnerable to unlicensed contractors. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for,” Turner said. “Unlicensed people should not be doing plumbing, heating, air conditioning or electrical work. That can lead to hazardous results.”

For that reason the Nevada State Contractors Board was established by statute in 1941.

The biggest incentive is “the discount tactic.” Unlicensed contractors will offer as much as 50 percent off the regular price to do the job. In fact, people on the seven-member board will tell you that the bigger the discount, the greater the potential there is for a swindle.

“And if you pay them in cash up front, which they’ll demand if the discount they’re offering is big enough, you may never see them again,” Turner said.

Unlicensed contractors frequently will canvas a neighborhood, going door-to-door and using fear as a pressure tactic, especially with seniors, Turner explained.

“For example, if you have a problem that requires a licensed electrician, they’ll tell you that if they don’t get in there soon and fix the problem, your house could burn down,” she said.

Under the auspices of the Residential Recovery Fund, enacted by the Nevada Legislature in 1999, the state guarantees the work of all licensed contractors. Nevada is one of only 11 states that has such a fund to insure residents against shoddy workmanship.

“Homeowners can file a claim with the Residential Recovery Fund up to four years after the start of the project and may receive up to $35,000 in recourse for damages incurred during their project,” Turner said.

To show that the fund is for real and the board means business, the state awarded more than $433,000 from the Recovery Fund to 39 homeowners in the year ending last June 30. That equates to an average of more than $11,000 per homeowner.

Adding to the guarantee against substandard workmanship is a biannual fee of $600 that the state charges for licensed contractors to maintain their status.

Turner explained that the board conducts background checks on all applicants prior to licensure; all contractors must pass trade and law exams and prove they are financially responsible, and all must maintain workers’ compensation insurance, which eliminates homeowner liability if workers are injured on the job.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.