How to avoid a contractor calamity

Seven On Your Side
July 21, 2009 3:40:47 PM PDT
It's the number 2 complaint by consumers in the five boroughs; getting ripped off by a home improvement contractor. And the bulk of the complaints; unlicensed contractors that operate illegally, some of them wanted criminals that swindle consumers out thousands. The grainy hidden camera video shows a deception about to happen. There are two men talking. One is an unlicensed home improvement contractor. He doesn't know he's selling himself to an undercover investigator with Nassau County Consumer Affairs.

This scene, and others like it, was played out a month ago in a sting house in Malverne. The week long sting catches unlicensed contractors violating consumer law. This particular meeting ends with the contractor arrested for working without a license, consumer officials seizing his truck, and fining him $2,000.

According to consumer laws in New York and New Jersey, all home improvement contractors have to be licensed.

"Unlicensed contracting work on your home is an unacceptable risk." Jonathan Mintz heads up New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs.

He teamed up with consumer officials in Nassau and Westchester to catch unlicensed contractors in the act. The consumer affairs triad announced results of a month long sting operation. Jonathan Mintz says the stings found hundreds of unlicensed home improvement contractors. "We conducted 1500 inspections. We issued 468 violations. We seized 175 trucks. We made 17 criminal arrests."

"This is insane." Mila Odessky is a Brooklyn homeowner who paid more than $7,000 in advance to get new cabinets installed. But when she wasn't satisfied she found she had little recourse because the company wasn't licensed to do the work. "I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it."

Consumer officials say if you work with a licensed contractor, if you do have a dispute, they can act as a mediator. And if you're right, they can pay up to $15,000 to you out of a trust fund.

In Mila's dispute, New York Consumer Affairs helped get her $5,000 of her $7,000 thousand back. It's an expensive lesson Commissioner Mintz says all homeowners can benefit from. "If consumers stopped hiring unlicensed contractors, problem would be solved. There would be none."

The cabinet company wound up paying Mila back and now is a licensed to do home improvement contracting in the city. A company rep acknowledged he made a mistake acknowledging he wasn't licensed to do the work. The best advice? Check to see if your contractor's licensed before you sign a contract or pay any money.

To Check Home Improvement License in NYC

Checking Home Improvement Contractors in Nassau County

Checking Home Improvement Contractors in Westchester County

Checking Home Improvement Contractors in New Jersey


Story by: Tappy Phillips

Produced by: Steve Livingstone

STORY BY: Eyewitness News reporter Tappy Phillips