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June 29, 1999

State targets Snohomish County about perils of unregistered contractors
Survey of property owners shows most rely on word-of-mouth references

EVERETT -- The state is urging Snohomish County property owners to use caution when hiring construction contractors following a survey that shows they may be opening themselves to scams.

A recent state survey of property owners in the county found that two-thirds of them rely on word-of-mouth references and business listings of the telephone directory when hiring contractors. Such methods are not always reliable and could expose many homeowners to potentially shoddy and costly work by unregistered contractors.

Less than half of the homeowners in Snohomish County surveyed recently said they:

  • Knew the contractor they hired was not registered.
  • Did not know if the contractor had the proper registration.
  • Were not aware of a state program to help protect them from unregistered contractors.

State law requires construction contractors to register with the Department of Labor & Industries. The agency oversees compliance for the 50,000 contractors registered in Washington.

"Too many contractors are unregistered and create horror stories for property owners," said Dennis Yonker, assistant chief of the contractor compliance program at Labor & Industries. "Unscrupulous and unregistered contractors are out there looking for someone they can take advantage of."

Recent examples in Snohomish County include:

  • A 63-year-old single woman who paid $4,500 to an unregistered contractor (Stilly Valley Excavating and Construction) to use a backhoe to clear a 20-acre parcel she owns. The contractor performed little of the work. The woman learned of the contractor through an equipment-rental shop.
  • A 62-year-old woman who paid more than $500 to an unregistered contractor (Barry's Floor Coverings) to install vinyl and carpet. The work was done poorly, including carpet installed after it had been left out in the rain. The homeowner received a referral about the contractor from a popular home supply store.
  • A 60-year-old man who paid $2,000 to an unregistered contractor (Fairshake Roofcare Inc.) to re-roof a house and shed in Edmonds. No work was done on the house and little on the shed. When the homeowner sought a refund, the unregistered contractor told him, "Good luck." The homeowner found the contractor through a listing in the telephone directory and also received a recommendation from a local real estate salesperson.
  • A property owner who made a downpayment of $2,400 on an unregistered contractor's bid to install a residential septic system. No work was done for several months and the contractor (A&A Western Contracting Co.) made no refund. The property owner hired the unregistered contractor from a list of certified septic-tank installers at a local government agency.

Labor & Industries investigated each of the cases and issued $1,000 citations to the unregistered contractors.

Since July 1998, L&I has issued 128 citations to unregistered contractors in the regional area from Everett to Bellingham.

State law requires contractors to register with L&I as a means of consumer protection. As a condition of registration, contractors must show they are bonded and insured.

Unregistered contractors do not offer this protection.

To avoid scams, the department offers these tips before a person hires a construction contractor:

  • Try to get at least three written bids before signing a contract. If you sign a contract, make sure you understand its terms.
  • Ask for and check references.
  • Be wary of contractors who ask you to pick up the local building permit - an
  • indication that they might not be registered and do not want to show their faces at city hall or the county building department. Building departments will not issue a permit to a contractor unless the builder provides evidence of active registration.
  • Check if a contractor is registered by using the Internet to access L&I's contractor registration database at www.lni.wa.gov/contractors/contractor.asp

The free database is updated nightly. Users can look up a contractor by business name, owner's name, registration number, uniform business identifier or by city and find out the status of the contractor's registration. It shows bonding information and indicates whether there has been any complaint activity on record with county court systems.

The database also can be used to verify the certification of individual plumbers and electricians.

The department publishes a brochure, Before Hiring a Contractor, which is available at its local service locations and on the L&I Internet site:

For more information, contact the nearest L&I office or call the contractor toll-free contractor hotline number 1-800-647-0982. Information is also available from the state attorney general's office of consumer protection at 1-800-551-4636.

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