As the weather cools and trees drop leaves, many central valley homeowners may find themselves in need of someone to either trim or remove trees on their property. The Contractors State License Board (CSLB) warns consumers to make sure the company they hire for tree work is properly licensed and insured.
As a case-in-point, eight of the 21 people caught this past week (November 2-3) in a CSLB undercover sting operation in Madera, provided bids for tree trimming, tree removal, and stump removal. None was properly licensed to do that work.
In California, anyone who offers to perform home improvement work exceeding $500 or more in materials and/or labor needs a state contractor’s license. The tree bids provided during the Madera undercover sting ranged from $1,125 to $3,000.
In the operation, at a home near Madera High School, investigators with CSLB’s Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT), partnered with the Madera County District Attorney’s Office and the California Highway Patrol.
SWIFT investigators posed as homeowners and called suspected unlicensed individuals to solicit bids for work that included the tree work noted above, as well as exterior painting, installation of a new water heater, replacement of a garage door, installation of an outdoor kitchen, installation of an ornamental iron fence, and the replacement of a roof. These bids ranged from $785 to $9,880.
The 21 people caught, all from the Valley, were all issued Notices to Appear (NTA) in court in February 2017 to answer various misdemeanor charges, including contracting without a state license (Business and Professions Code (BPC) section (§) 7028). First-conviction penalties for contracting without a license include up to six months in jail and/or up to $5,000 in fines. Penalties are more severe with each successive violation.
In addition, 20 suspects received citations for illegal advertising (BPC §7027.1) for failing to state in their ads that they were not licensed. Eleven suspects could also face a charge of soliciting an illegally large down payment (BPC §7159.5(a)(3)) By law, a home improvement down payment cannot exceed $1,000 or 10% of the contract price, whichever is less.
“In many cases there’s a reason why these people don’t get a license,” explained CSLB Registrar Cindi Christenson. “Some suspects have a criminal history, a record of victimizing unsuspecting consumers, or some other reason why they’re trying to fly under the radar.”
One of the suspects caught during this sting was recently arrested in a Department of Justice operation for illegally modifying weapons. Five others were caught in previous CSLB stings; one for the third time.
“That’s why it’s critical that consumers verify that the person they’re considering for a home improvement job has the appropriate contractor license using CSLB’s Instant License Check feature on our website,” said Christenson. “Spending a little time beforehand doing your homework can save you a lot of grief and aggravation later.” Consumers can also make sure the contractor carries workers’ compensation insurance, covering injuries to workers while on their property. Unlicensed operators rarely, if ever, carry workers’ compensation insurance. This is especially important for dangerous work high off the ground.
Fortunately, it’s possible that many of the other suspects caught could qualify for a license; so application packets were made available and suspects were encouraged to apply for a license prior to next February’s court date.
Consumers also should be aware that in the course of their routine work, gardeners can only perform incidental pruning of trees measuring less than 15 feet in height after planting (BPC §7026.1(a)(4)).
Those cited are scheduled to appear at 8:30 a.m., Feb. 7, or Feb. 9, 2017, in Madera County Superior Court.
CSLB, operating under the umbrella of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, licenses and regulates almost 290,000 contractors in California, and is regarded as one of the leading consumer protection agencies in the United States. In fiscal year 2015-16, CSLB helped recover almost $41 million in ordered restitution for consumers.
Contractors State License Board