Wait! You need a licensed contractor for that repair

Maybe you’re thinking about slapping a new coat of paint on your house. Or doing a little remodeling. Or making a few home repairs that you’ve been putting off for months.

Maybe Hurricanes Matthew and Irma blew a couple of shingles off your roof.

Or maybe, with the local real-estate market percolating again, you want to invest in some home improvements before putting up that “For Sale” sign.

Whatever the reason, you need to educate yourself on who you can – and, more importantly, cannot – hire to do the work without violating the county building code and, in some cases, state law.

“Most people probably don’t know,” said Dave Checchi, one of the county’s contractor licensing investigators. “They’re just looking for the best price.”

Maybe you’re thinking about slapping a new coat of paint on your house. Or doing a little remodeling. Or making a few home repairs that you’ve been putting off for months.

Maybe Hurricanes Matthew and Irma blew a couple of shingles off your roof.

Or maybe, with the local real-estate market percolating again, you want to invest in some home improvements before putting up that “For Sale” sign.

Whatever the reason, you need to educate yourself on who you can – and, more importantly, cannot – hire to do the work without violating the county building code and, in some cases, state law.

“Most people probably don’t know,” said Dave Checchi, one of the county’s contractor licensing investigators. “They’re just looking for the best price.”

And, all too often, they get the best price from a relative, friend or neighbor who does handyman-type work, or perhaps a retired contractor trying to pick up some extra cash doing odd jobs.

Depending on the type of work you need done, however, going that route could become more costly – in the form of fines ranging from $500 to $2,000, possibly even criminal charges.

According to county building officials, if you hire someone to do any substantial projects, such as those involving electrical work, carpentry, remodeling and even painting, you must select a licensed contractor.

On the other hand, you can do the work yourself – as long as you live on the property and acquire the necessary permitting from the county – and it is okay for friends, relatives or neighbors to help you, as long as they are not paid for their work.

“If you’re doing the work on your own home and they’re helping out, and you’re not paying them? That’s OK,” Checchi said. “But if they’re being compensated, they need to be licensed.”

Yes, that goes for your neighborhood handyman, too.

“There are some things a handyman can do,” Checchi said, “but there are a lot of limitations.”

In fact, the county has a long list of unregulated, specialty-trade jobs that a handyman is allowed to do. It includes installing door knobs, door locks, toilets, towel bars, mailboxes, mini-blinds, shelving and garage organizers; replacing medicine cabinets, sink fixtures, faucets, cabinet hardware, and worn or broken appliance plugs.

Other jobs handymen are allowed to do include assembling furniture, gas grills and closet organizers; cleaning gutters, cleaning and changing ceiling-fan blades, and cleaning and lubricating sliding-glass doors; caulking tubs and sinks, adjusting closet doors, fixing broken drawers and sticky windows, lubricating garage doors, doing paint touch-ups, hanging pictures and changing light bulbs.

But don’t ask the handyman to show you his certification – because this county doesn’t offer a handyman license. Nor do Brevard or St. Lucie counties.

County building official Scott McAdam said the county has never offered handyman licenses, probably because it would be too difficult to enforce the restrictions on what they are permitted to do.

“There’s no way to regulate them, unless you catch them in the act,” McAdam said. “You could get into a situation where handymen are taking money out of the pockets of the licensed contractors who are doing it the right way.”

Not only must licensed contractors pass state – and sometimes local – examinations that test their knowledge and competency, but they’re also required to pay the necessary state and county licensing fees, as well as provide workman’s compensation insurance for their employees.

The county issues nearly 100 types of contractor licenses. You’re probably familiar with terms such as building contractor, master electrician, journeyman plumber and general engineering contractor. Each of those state-regulated professions require applicants to pass a six-hour exam.

But the county also offers contractor licenses in 77 more-specific categories, including air-conditioning, asphalt sealing and coating, burglar and fire alarms, carpentry, dredging, drywall, insulation, irrigation sprinklers, masonry, painting, paving, refrigeration, roofing, septic tanks, solar heating insulation, swimming pools, welding and well drilling.

Applicants for those licenses must pass a three-hour exam.

There is a different type of exam – three hours, open book – for another category of more than 15 specialties that include cabinet installation, fence erection, flooring, garage doors, screen enclosures, tennis courts and waterproofing.

I’m guessing most folks reading this column had no idea so many of these licenses existed. That’s why I’m writing it.

“We see quite a bit of it,” Checchi said, referring to homeowners hiring workmen for projects that require licensed contractors. “We get a lot of calls, most of them anonymous, from people reporting work being done by unlicensed contractors and without a permit.”

And when that happens?

“We go to the site and investigate,” Hunter said, adding that some of the anonymous calls come from licensed contractors who bid on the project, only to see the job go to an unlicensed worker. “We ask to see their license and, if they don’t have one, we stop the job and issue a citation to the person doing the work.”

The homeowners also can be cited, but only if they are aware that they’ve hired an unlicensed contractor.

“Sometimes, the homeowners don’t know any better and were misled,” Hunter said. “Sometimes, they do know . . . and they learn the hard way.”

In addition to imposing the fines, Hunter said the county will report to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s law-enforcement arm anyone who gets caught contracting without a license three times.

That’s a first-degree misdemeanor with penalties of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The state may increase the charge to a third-degree felony, with penalties of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, if the offense occurred during a state of emergency declared by executive order of the governor.

That law and the county code are designed to protect homeowners from potential lawsuits filed by unlicensed contractors’ uninsured workers who might get injured on the job, Checchi said, as well as to ensure projects are properly permitted and, when completed, meet state, local and industry standards.

The regulations also are designed to protect the licensed contractors who make the investment in their business, paying to acquire the required education and certification, providing the necessary insurance for workers and securing the proper permits.

“We’re out in the field a lot, and we try to be proactive, but we can’t be everywhere,” Checchi said. “So we’re mostly reactionary. People call and we check it out. The community is our eyes and ears.”

They’re not going to catch everyone, but they’re trying. “We get calls all the time,” Hunter said.

So before you pay your out-of-work nephew to paint your bedroom or hire the neighborhood handyman to remodel your kitchen, make sure it’s worth the money you hope to save.

It could end up costing you more than you think.

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