No matter the reason or the season—from holiday remodeling projects to gearing up for hurricane season— protecting yourself from fraudulent contractors can save you from unnecessary headaches and expenses.
Homeowners around the nation face the same risks when searching for someone to do repair work or remodeling on their homes. Unsuspecting consumers can be easy prey for unlicensed contractors whose bids almost inevitably will be much lower than bids from licensed contractors. The strong appeal of saving money can be overwhelming, but buyers must beware. The cheapest contractor available may be the one who will cost the most in the long run.
“People don’t understand the risks and therefore don’t do the proper background checks on contractors, and they often end up regretting it,” said Carlos Morales, supervisor of the Orange County Consumer Fraud Office. “Having a license is critical because it protects both parties from anything that might go wrong during the process.”
Morales explained that unlicensed contractors have advantages that enable them to provide the lowest prices. They don’t have to pay licensing fees, don’t have to obtain a bond to protect their work, and, more often than not, don’t purchase liability or workers compensation insurance. Without these added expenses, the unlicensed contractor can provide their services at a rate lower than the legitimately licensed professional, but it puts the consumer at risk.
“If you hire an unlicensed contractor and he falls off a ladder while doing work at your house, you’re liable,” added Morales. “An unlicensed contractor will also try to cut corners on the work because they don’t have to adhere to building codes, so if a hurricane hits, or even a severe thunderstorm, your house may not hold up to Florida weather conditions.”
The goal of the Orange County Consumer Fraud Office is to investigate consumer complaints and work to resolve them through mediation. The Office can also issue citations, refer the complaint to other appropriate agencies and even press criminal charges against the egregious party.
“While many of these contractors are just too lazy and cheap to get their licenses, some of them are real criminals who will take your money without doing the work and even steal your property,” warned Morales. “These are organized criminals who canvas neighborhoods and lure you in with cheap prices.”
While fraud may not know geographical boundaries, the good news is that specific Florida laws have been passed to protect property owners from incompetent or dishonest contractors. The state licensing process tests basic competency and also screens out dishonest contractors. A valid license is the first indication that your contractor might be qualified to do the job. According to Orange County Consumer Fraud Office, you should do the following when hiring a contractor:
- Avoid door-to-door solicitors.
- Insist on references, a proper license, bonding and insurance.
- Check out credentials.
- Make sure the contract can be broken if you don’t receive financing.
- Hire a contractor with a real office, not just a post office box address.
“One of our main goals is to help residents learn to recognize fraud and teach them how to avoid becoming a victim,” said Morales, who also recommended you get three or four bids before choosing a contractor. “Education and awareness are the keys to protecting yourself from fraud. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age, and especially in Florida, where the weather dictates we prepare and repair when necessary.”
For more information on the Orange County Consumer Fraud Office and how you can protect yourself from fraud, go to www.orangecountyfl.net, call 407-836-2490 or 311 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The home repair/construction complaint form can also be found at www.ocfl.net/fraud and you can report unlicensed contractors by calling (407) 836-5960.