New investigator to target unlicensed contractors

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County Commissioners have taken a step to address the ongoing problem of unlicensed contractors and construction work done without a permit by creating a new position for a special investigator.

At their Nov. 30 meeting, the board approved the job description for the new position.

Okeechobee County Planning Director Bill Royce said they hope to find someone with experience in construction as well as investigation.

According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, unlicensed activity is a serious threat to the health, safety, and welfare of Florida residents and visitors.

The investigator will respond to reports of possible violations of Florida statutes and Okeechobee County ordinances involving construction or contractor activity, including unpermitted construction, unlicensed contractors and licensed contractors operating improperly or outside their scope of work.

The staffer will be the lead investigator for unpermitted construction and contractor licensing violations, with the authority to issues notices of violation, notices to appear and citations as appropriate.

In addition to conducting field investigations, this county staffer will coordinate investigations with state agencies and other departments as needed. Unresolved cases will be presented to the Construction Industry Licensing Board, Code Enforcement Magistrate, state attorney or other authorities as necessary.

The compliance investigator is a new position that will be housed in the Community Development Department, reporting to the Code Enforcement Supervisor.

The county commission approved the new position during the budget process for Fiscal Year 2017/18. The position will supplement code enforcement efforts by concentrating on violations related to existing building maintenance, unpermitted construction and unlicensed contractor activity.

The investigator will also deal with complaints about contractors and prepare cases and reports for the Construction Industry Licensing Board.

Consumers warned against hiring unlicensed contractors

Unlicensed activity is a serious threat to the health, safety, and welfare of Florida residents and visitors, warns the Florida Department and Business and Professional Regulation. The department has made vigorous enforcement of licensure regulation one of its highest priorities.

Dangers of hiring an unlicensed contractor include:

• Poor qualifications: Unlicensed persons typically do not have the education, insurance, or qualification required of a licensee.

• Poor quality work: Unlicensed contractors typically do poor quality work or do not finish the project, leaving the homeowner on the hook to repair or finish the project.

• Possible criminal background: Unlicensed persons often have criminal backgrounds that may include fraud, theft, violent crime, sexual offenses, and substance abuse.

• Likelihood of being the victim of a scam: Unlicensed persons often disappear after taking your money, and the department cannot discipline an unlicensed person, help get your money back, or require the person to finish or improve the work done. Scams in the construction industry, especially home improvement, are sadly widespread. Con artists pose as contractors and often target vulnerable people and take advantage of homeowners need for urgent post-hurricane property damage.

• Limited resources for broken contracts: When you have a dispute with a licensed contractor, you call the department, which has the authority to discipline and even revoke the license. This gives the licensee more incentive to play fair. However, this type of action is not available against unlicensed contractors and homeowners often find the only answer is an expensive, and generally futile, civil suit.

• No insurance and liability for injuries to others: You may end up being liable for personal or financial injuries to others. An unlicensed contractor typically is uninsured and will have no way to pay you back for any property damage.

• No coverage under homeowner’s policy: Most homeowner policies require that work must be done by a licensed contractor and provide no coverage for work that is not.

• Noncompliance with building codes: Most projects, even small ones, require permits and inspections that unlicensed contractors ignore or are unfamiliar with. If your project isn’t permitted or doesn’t comply with the building code, you may have to remove or repair the work at your own expense and be subject to fines by local government.

• Liens being imposed on your property: You may be subject to liens placed on your property by subcontractors or suppliers.

• No coverage under homeowner’s policy: Most homeowner policies require that work must be done by a licensed contractor and provide no coverage for work that is not.

• Noncompliance with building codes: Most projects, even small ones, require permits and inspections that unlicensed contractors ignore or are unfamiliar with. If your project isn’t permitted or doesn’t comply with the building code you may have to remove or repair the work at your own expense and be subject to fines by local government.

Red flags that you may be dealing with an unlicensed contractor include:

• No license number in advertisement or posting. Licensed contractors are required to list their license number in all advertisements. Rule of thumb: Do not do hire anyone that does not have a license listed in their advertisement, which can be verified.

• Advertisement or invoice lists only a name and telephone number. A legitimate business provides sufficient contact and licensure information on an invoice.

• A claim to be “licensed and insured” but cannot produce a DBPR issued license. This type of claim often merely means that the person has a driver’s license and automobile insurance.

• Want all or most of the money up front or will only accept cash. Never pay cash for your home repairs or improvements.

• Wants check written to them individually or to “cash.” Be cautious of writing checks payable to individuals when a company has contracted to do the work. Include a note on check or money order about what the payment is for.

• Unmarked vehicle and/or out-of-state license plate. Contractors licensed by the department are required to display their license number on the vehicle.

• Blank or generic invoice. Contractors licensed by the department are required to display their license number on an invoice.

• Oral agreement only. The best business practice is to put everything in writing, including a detailed description of the work to be completed, an anticipated completion date and the total cost.

• Ask you to pull the permit. Pulling an Owner-Builder permit is risky business. Licensed contractors must pull the permit themselves.

• Unsolicited phone calls or visits. Some reputable contractors do business this way, but it is generally a tactic of the unlicensed. Be very wary of anyone who offers a bargain price, saying they are doing a job in the neighborhood and have leftover materials.

•High pressure sales pitches or scare tactics. Don’t be pushed into hiring anyone, even during a state of emergency! Dishonest people will prey on your fears.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation offers the following tips for choosing a contractor:

• Before you hire a contractor, ask to see a DBPR issued license.

• Ask to see multiple forms of identification, such as a driver’s license, all contact information and keep copies for your own file.

• Ask for references. A legitimate contractor will be happy to provide you with the names and contact information of recent customers.

• Get a written estimate from several licensed contractors. Make sure the estimate includes the work the contractor will do, the materials involved, the completion date, and total cost.

• Beware of contractors who claim to be the fastest or the cheapest. Hiring them could result in poor workmanship, inferior materials or unfinished jobs.

• Get a payment schedule in writing. Many contractors ask for a 10 percent down payment and then periodic payments during the project. Document what must be accomplished before further payments are made and conditions that must be met before any final payment. A contractor that receives more than 10 percent down must apply for needed permits necessary within 30 days after the date payment is made and start work within 90 days after the date all necessary permits are issued, unless you agree to another arrangement in writing. It is a criminal offense for a contractor when a contractor does not follow this law.

• Check with your local building department about any permit requirements.

• Contact your insurance agent first to verify your insurance covers the repairs before you sign a contract and the process for filing a claim if needed. You do not have to tell the contractor how much your insurance company will pay for repairs, but if you do, get the contractor’s estimate first.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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