By Lance Henderson
When purchasing many products and services, one phrase seems to come up fairly consistently — Buyer Beware.
No one wants to get swindled, so when navigating uncharted commercial waters, consumers need to do their homework to make sure they get what they want from an upstanding business playing by the rules of the city, state and country. That way nothing can come back to haunt them. Nowhere is this more important than when hiring a contractor to build or remodel a person’s most expensive investment — their home.
As the sun comes out, many homeowners and those looking to build homes take advantage of the nicer weather to take on a home construction project. Doing just a little bit of homework on the companies you choose to work with will make the entire experience much more enjoyable and headache free.
Elaine Fischer, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, said the number of registered contractors is down to 58,000 from 63,000 last year.
“What we suspect is the contractors who didn’t renew are still out there working. They just let their registration lapse,” Fischer said.
Bill Quehrn, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County (BIAWC), said most consumers will undergo a major remodel or home construction only once in their lifetime, which means they are not the most knowledgeable of building industry practices and are susceptible to slick, fast-talking and unlicensed contractors.
“This is unfortunately a down time, so we are probably going to see more unlicensed contractors out there working under the table. The cost of the license or registration and the insurance costs are expensive, so the consumer has to be extra cautious.” —Karen Zender, co-owner of Z Construction
I know a guy…
What happens, Quehrn said, is a contractor will get laid off, or is unemployed and from another area, and they will try to apply their trade without getting the proper insurance or registration with the state.
“They know how to build a house. They have built hundreds of them elsewhere, but they haven’t bothered for whatever reason to get a contractor registration. They have all the knowledge in their head; they just don’t have the ability legally to operate in the state,” Quehrn said.
In a perfect world, hiring this person may sound fine, but the main issue is when things go wrong like an injury or unfinished work, Quehrn said.
“If anything goes sideways, they have no recourse against that person other than going to court and trying to sue for whatever assets that person has. If they are appropriately licensed, it places all of the liability on the business, not on the customer,” Quehrn said.
These dubious contractors will also present deals that are too good to be true, Quehrn said. Since they are not paying the proper registration fees, taxes and insurance premiums, they can pay employees cash and offer bids (illegally) that undercut the local competition. They will also offer materials procured through illegitimate means.
“These folks will come to you say, ‘If you give me $10,000 up-front, I know a guy who can sell me a whole bunch of lumber that didn’t get used on another job.’ And just like that, he’s gone and there is probably not a way in the world to track the guy down to recover it,” Quehrn said.
Karen Zender, co-owner of Z Construction, a registered and insured general contractor that has worked in both residential and commercial construction for the past 27 years, said that of all the decisions made in a construction project — choosing a licensed, reputable contractor is the most important one.
“You want to make sure that the people who work on your project are legitimate and trustworthy and working above board in your best interest,” Zender said.
From Zender’s perspective in the building industry, she said operating without a license is against the law. Period.
“If you get caught without a license, there are some stiff penalties to pay,” Zender said. “It’s a $3,000 for not complying with registration guidelines. It’s consumer beware. You don’t want to get caught having unregistered people working on your project.”
Zender said after being in the construction industry for more than 20 years, she has seen her share of hills and valleys in the economy and when the economy is down, it seems the unlicensed contractor comes out to play.
“This is unfortunately a down time, so we are probably going to see more unlicensed contractors out there working under the table,” Zender said. “The cost of the license or registration and the insurance costs are expensive, so the consumer has to be extra cautious.”
Knowledge is power
As a consumer looking for a contractor, Quehrn said the best thing to do is to ask questions of every person you encounter because the best defense is a good offense.
“If you have never done this before, call the BIAWC or just ask the first contractor you call. ‘Are you folk licensed or registered under Washington state law?’ Usually what you will want to find out is their contractor registration or license number. If they can’t give you that, then you should probably go on to somebody else,” Qhehrn said.
For Zender, when a customer sees that they have not cut corners with their business responsibilities, the customer will know they can be trusted.
“It means that the contractor is fulfilling obligations to meet the requirements that the state has imposed on our industry,” she said.
Zender also agreed that doing research on contractors and asking questions is critical. Questions like: How long has this company been in business in the community? Do they do background checks on their subcontractors? Do they offer a warranty?
“It is key for us to do background checks on anyone who is working for us, so that our customers know that everyone working on our job sites is properly licensed,” Zender said. “We also offer warranties. If something goes wrong, we will come back to fix it.”
For more information on a contractor, Quehrn recommends checking with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division to see if the contractor in question has any complaints against them. He also said most companies are also willing to give references.
“A lot of them have thick notebooks with letters of appreciation. Usually the recommendations that the business is willing to provide you are great resources,” he said.