Contractor took the money and ran -- what do I do now?

Q: With so many contractors out of work, it seemed like a good time for the kitchen remodel I have dreamed about. The contractor I hired was very easy to work with and he understood what I wanted, so we signed a contract. Then the unthinkable happened - he disappeared along with the $5,000 deposit I gave him. Do I have any chance of getting my money back? A: You didn't indicate if the contractor was licensed or unlicensed. If the contractor was unlicensed, he was working illegally and you are pretty much on your own to go after him with either court action or with a lot of luck and persistence. If the contractor was licensed, you can file a complaint with the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) to try to recoup your loss. Licensed contractors are required to post a $12,500 bond, which suppliers, consumers or subcontractors can file against if the contractor cannot meet his legal obligations. Something else you always want to keep in mind when signing a contract is it is illegal for contractors to take a down payment of more than 10 percent or $1,000, whichever is less. You might also want to contact your local District Attorney's consumer crimes unit and notify the Better Business Bureau about your experience. Q: Three old mulberry trees on my property need to come down due to disease, old age and because they are lifting up the sidewalk. I got bids from several licensed tree trimmers. One of the guys had a much lower estimate than the rest. I found out that he does not have workers' compensation insurance, which seems to be the reason for the lower rates. Since this is just a one-day job, is it really necessary to have that insurance? A: Tree trimming can be extremely dangerous work with flying projectiles, power equipment and a lot of heavy physical activity. All it takes is one accident and your homeowner's insurance could be at risk. Any contractor with employees is required by state law to have workers' compensation insurance. Do you really want to gamble on someone who is taking chances on your property? If the prices from the other tree folks seem high, talk with them. Many contractors are willing to negotiate. Q: I had a swimming pool and spa installed about 1 1/2 years ago. It was OK for the first few months, but it started leaking around the pump recently and the water level in the swimming pool has dropped. The company that did the installation and provided the warranty is now out of business. What should I do? A: Gather up your paperwork from the contractor who installed the pool and spa. There is a chance that the warranty was provided through the manufacturer of the equipment, which means you may get some help with repairs. You might also track down the contractor to see if someone has taken over the servicing of his clients or if the business was bought by someone else. Another good resource for links to pool and spa-related organizations is the California Spa and Pool Industry Education Council at Q: I am a licensed contractor who is constantly being underbid by these unlicensed guys who crawl out of the woodwork for major tile and flooring jobs. It seems to have gotten worse with the downturn in the economy. I'm about ready to throw in the towel and find some other line of work. Why doesn't the CSLB do something to stop these people? A: A unit within the CSLB called the Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT) tracks down unlicensed activity around the state through construction site inspection sweeps and sting operations just about every week somewhere in California. Part of the competition problem you're dealing with has to do with educating the public about the dangers of hiring unlicensed workers. When people know just how risky it is to hire unlicensed operators, they're less likely to roll the dice. Q: My neighbor is getting some major landscaping work done and it has been trickling over onto my property. The contractor is parking his trucks in front of my house and has been leaving equipment and supplies on my lawn and sidewalk. I don't really want to call the police, but this has been going on for several weeks now. Can the CSLB do anything to help? A: Talking directly with your neighbor should be your first step. You might also talk politely with the work crews to see if they would be more courteous and clean up their act. If they are only employees, give the contractor a call. The contractor's license number should be listed on work trucks or yard signs that advertise the business. You can look him up on CSLB's online license database at or by calling (800) 321-2752. The contractor is responsible for anyone working under his license and may not be aware of the problem. He may also have liability insurance, should there be any damage to your property. Another possibility is to contact the city our county code enforcement unit for help.The California Contractors State License Board operates under the umbrella of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, licensing and regulating California's 302,000 contractors. The CSLB investigates 20,000 complaints against contractors annually. For more information, or to check out a contractor's license, bond and workers' compensation insurance information, visit the board Web site at ********** Published: March 27, 2009 - Volume 7 - Issue 49