Hiring unlicensed contractors is often expensive


Chris Meyer, owner of All Service Plumbing and Heating in Oak Bluffs, got a call recently to fix another man’s work. The homeowner, he said, had hired an initial plumber “at a real low cost,” only to later discover that the job had not been done properly.

“Now she needs another plumber,” Mr. Meyer said. He had to pull new permits and begin work anew on the project. “What does she gain by that real low number?”

After signing two checks for the same job, the homeowner would likely concede what Mr. Meyer has long known: “Sometimes the bargain you see isn’t the bargain you get.” Nonetheless, it’s a lesson she had to learn for herself – as have so many others – since the temptation to pinch pennies by hiring an under-skilled or unlicensed worker for home repairs can be a strong.

Though the state of Massachusetts requires most trades people, including plumbers and electricians, to be licensed and insured and to pull permits for every project, some people each year evade the requirement. It’s a problem that’s grown worse lately, as a sluggish economy has enticed many qualified workers to moonlight and many unqualified workers to advertise services for which they aren’t properly trained.

Last year, the Massachusetts Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters fined an apprentice plumber in Vineyard Haven for practicing without proper supervision and advertising services he was legally prohibited from performing. Earlier this summer, an unlicensed worker’s illegal use of a propane torch caused a fire in Lawrence, New Hampshire that destroyed an apartment building and left 50 people homeless, fire officials concluded.

“It’s a lot more frequent now. Some of the bigger companies are laying off people [who don’t have their own licenses] and they’re going out and moonlighting,” Al Ferland said. Mr. Ferland owns Al’s Plumbing in Edgartown.

In other cases, according to Walter LaBell, owner of LaBell Electric in Oak Bluffs, the economy has led some homeowners to perform complicated repairs themselves. “Everybody’s an electrician, everybody’s a plumber, everybody’s a carpenter. People are trying to wire their own houses, even though 90 percent of them have no training whatsoever and are relying on a store clerk for info.”

Dollars to donuts, those who spoke with The Times say, the primary impetus for practicing a trade without a license, hiring an under-skilled worker or taking on large-scale, potentially dangerous home repairs one’s self comes down to cash. “People don’t have money; everybody’s trying to save a buck,” Mr. LaBell said.

In some instances, Mr. LaBell said he couldn’t fault the consumer for trying to save money. “America was built on trying things.”

And most people are hurting for money right now. He’s seen several non-professionals do fine work, as well as homeowners who have run into little or no trouble by hiring an unqualified worker or performing work on their own. Few would argue with a person’s right or ability to fix his own leaky faucet, after all. But, Mr. LaBell said, “Some people don’t know their limits. There are a lot of people who know just enough to be dangerous.” Should something go wrong, it’s the homeowner who pays the price.

“Some people just go in there and do what they have to do to get the job done,” Mr. Ferland said. He has been hired to fix mistakes made by others, including appliances installed incorrectly and drains not working properly, to name a few examples.

“Down the line, something can go wrong or stop working, and [the homeowner has] to call someone else in, and that can get expensive. They want to know why, and you want to tell them, ‘Well, if you had hired someone licensed in the first place, someone who knew what they were doing and pulled the proper permits, you wouldn’t be in this mess.'”

“If you don’t conduct business with a licensed professional,” Mr. Meyer said, “there’s no leverage. You’re just out of luck if he walks away. There’s no recourse.” State licensing boards protect consumers from shoddy work and can fine or strip the licenses from those who are found to have improperly performed their job. Without a license, that punishment option is moot.

Mr. Ferland added that licensed workers must buy insurance to cover the cost of damages should something should go wrong. “God forbid someone floods a house or burns it down. An insurance company will come in, survey the damage, and say, ‘Okay, it looks like this flooding started upstairs and you had a plumber in here recently. Who was the plumber? Was he a licensed plumber? Was a permit pulled?’ The cost eventually goes back to the lap of the owner.”

Though many customers balk at the high price of home repairs on the Island, Mr. Ferland cautions that much of that bill goes toward ensuring that the job will be done correctly and that a consumer is protected under the law. “If someone is doing something on the side, you can get it done a lot cheaper,” since an unlicensed worker usually has little overhead and “most likely won’t have insurance.”

All the same, a high bid and a license doesn’t ensure quality. “That doesn’t mean you’re getting a quality plumber, you’re just buying a price tag,” said Mr. Meyer. He believes that surveying the landscape should involve more than simply verifying that someone has a license.

“In a field where you’re dealing with people, there is no other qualification than a license, but a license doesn’t ensure quality,” Mr. Meyer said. Many licensed professionals are trained these days, he says, not to do a job correctly, but to pass as licensing test. “Check with Better Business Bureau. Go to the town inspector’s office. Ask them: ‘Who do you have problems with? Who does his job?’ Go online to license boards, see who’s been in trouble.” Such checks can be made at license.reg.state.ma.us, where a consumer can validate a person’s license and find out whether a complaint has ever been levied against a business or individual. He also suggests using trades people who have been in business for many years, since satisfied customers have likely sustained them.

“It doesn’t cost you any more money to do it right or do it efficiently,” Mr. LaBell said. He is nonetheless quick to point out that “99 percent of people” on the Island do excellent work.

“We’re proud of that. We have good craftsmen here,” he says. Just don’t let tight finances defeat common sense when making your selection. “The consumer sometimes can be their own worst enemy.”

Vanessa Czarnecki, a 2006 graduate of Boston University, is a freelance writer living in Chilmark. She most recently worked as managing editor of the Boston Phoenix.