When Debbie Farson sees the word “licensed” written on the side of a contractor’s truck, she knows all too well that it may refer to a business license. A contractor’s license is what a contractor has to have to do work on your house.
In Virginia, Maryland, and the District, it’s illegal for home-improvement contractors either to do any project or to do projects of a certain size—in Virginia, any job costing more than $1,000—without a contractor’s license. It’s also illegal to hire an unlicensed contractor, yet many homeowners unwittingly do.
“The contractor’s license protects you by indicating a basic level of competence,” says Farson, owner of HomeWise Referrals, which offers homeowners free referrals to firms for which the company has verified licensing, insurance, and references.
In Virginia, contractors earn either a class A, B, or C license. Getting a class C license requires two years of experience and attendance in an eight-hour business course; there are no exams. Earning a class A or B license requires more years of experience—three for B, five for A—as well as passing exams that measure knowledge of business, state law, and building. Class C contractors can’t take jobs over $10,000, while class B contractors can take jobs up to $120,000; class A contractors can do projects of unlimited size because they’ve also met a higher net-worth threshold.
Within the classes are other designations. BLD means a contractor can do most anything, including structural work; HIC contractors are limited to jobs such as installing patios or windows. Other designations indicate licensing for plumbing (PLB), masonry (BRK), roofing (ROC), and heating and air conditioning (HVA).
Mary Broz-Vaughan of Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation says that working outside the scope of a license is one of the top violations her office sees: “Let’s say you’re a class C. You get called out to bid on a job, and you know it will be above $10,000 but you don’t want to lose the job. So you say, ‘Let’s split it into two $8,000 jobs.’ That’s not allowed.” A contractor who suggests dividing up a job may not be qualified to do the work.
In Maryland, there’s just one level of license for a general contractor, who must have two years of experience, must pass an exam testing knowledge of state regulations, must show proof of insurance, and must meet financial-solvency guidelines. A separate license is required to be a subcontractor.
Using a licensed firm can give you some recourse if things go awry. Virginia and Maryland offer mediation for homeowner disputes with licensed contractors and can suspend or revoke a license.
Consumers who have been victimized by certain improper or dishonest conduct may be able to collect some restitution from Virginia’s Contractor Transaction Recovery Fund or Maryland’s Guaranty Fund. The process takes time—Virginia homeowners must prove their case before a judge, and Marylanders sometimes have their cases decided by a commission. But if a homeowner wins, he or she can get as much as $20,000 in Virginia or Maryland. But only if the contractor was licensed.
“Hiring a licensed contractor is no guarantee everything will go smoothly, but working with an unlicensed contractor is a gamble,” Broz-Vaughan says. “Consumers should think twice before hiring someone who chooses to skirt the law. If he’s willing to break the law, what makes you think he’s going to be straight with you?”
Good contractors make their license number readily available—some post it on their Web site; others put it on their business cards or stationery.
To check whether a contractor is licensed, you can visit the Web sites of these state agencies: Virginia’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (dpor.state.va.us/regulantlookup), Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (dllr.state.md.us/pq), and DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (cpms.dcra.dc.gov/bblv/default.aspx).
It’s also a good idea to check if a remodeler belongs to an organization such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (nari.org) or the National Kitchen & Bath Association (nkba.org).Membership in such organizations doesn’t ensure that a contractor is right for your job, but associations such as these require members to adhere to a code of conduct.
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