Is your contractor up to the job?

Published April 22, 2007

For many of us, hiring a contractor for home improvement is about as pleasant as having a root canal. As Floridians, we also face the very real prospect of needing a contractor for emergency storm repair. But horror stories abound.

There are many licensed, qualified, hard-working contractors in Florida. Consumers need to take the right steps to find them. Knowing what to do before signing on the dotted line can make all the difference in protecting your home and your wallet.

A contractor's license is required for any structural additions, roofing, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical or alarm work, pool or spa work or any job that requires a building permit.

In addition to licensing by the state, your local building department may require a license for other specialty contractors. These contractors must be licensed in each county they work in, not just the county in which the business is located.

"Handymen" are not excluded from licensing rules. If you hire one to change a light bulb, he doesn't need a license, but if you hire one to install a new light switch, he does.

Ask to see the contractor's registered or certified license. Licenses awarded by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation include a wallet card. Verify that the information on the license matches the person you're dealing with.

Call the DBPR at (850) 487-1395 or log on to www.state.fl.us/dbpr/index.shtml to confirm the license is current. You can also check any complaint history the contractor may have. For local building departments call: Citrus County Building Division, Department of Development Services, (352) 527-5310; citrus.fl.us/building/onlinepermitting.htm; Hernando County Development Department, (352) 754-4050; www.co.hernando.fl.us/bldg; Hillsborough County Contractors Licensing, (813) 635-7309 or (813) 635-7308; www.hillsboroughcounty.org/pgm/contractor; Pasco County Building Development, Contractor Licensing, (727) 847-8797; opal.pascocountyfl.net and; Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, (727) 536-4720; www.pcclb.com.

Ask how long the contractor has been in business. Take names and phone numbers of references and check with each. Ask for a detailed written estimate that includes material specifications, how long the job will take and the total cost.

A contract should include the contractor's name, address, telephone number and professional license number, a detailed description of the work to be done and specific material specifications. It should list all of the subcontractors and materials suppliers. Finally, it should state the total cost, with payment schedule, if applicable, any warranty agreements and a commencement and completion date.

Don't sign a contract with any blank spaces. Read everything and ask questions about anything that is unclear. If the job is especially large, you may even want to have your attorney review the contract.

If your contract exceeds $2,500, become familiar with the Florida Construction Lien Law. Get a release of lien before you make any payment. If you pay in installments, get partial releases for each stage of work for which pay.

Don't make a final payment or sign a certificate of completion until you are completely satisfied with the work. Get receipts for each payment, and never pay in cash.

If you've had a good experience, tell everyone. If not, file a complaint with DBPR online or in writing at 1940 N Monroe St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1039. Also contact your local consumer protection office, building officials and licensing board and the Better Business Bureau.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call your Action number, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request. Requests accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.