Debate continues over licensing N.H. contractors

When Bob and Kathy Gagne hired a contractor to build their Chichester home they did everything they thought they were supposed to — including checking his references and signing a contract. In return, they received a year and a half of aggravation, legal battles and a depleted bank account.

Rebecca Field’s story revolved around a roofing contractor who took a $1,400 deposit but didn’t bother to show up, return phone calls or respond to registered mailings until three days after a second contractor hired by Field had finished the roofing job.

“I came home from work three days after my roof was finished to find the first contractor on the roof pulling off my new shingles,” Field said.

Tales about dishonest contractors are not uncommon in New Hampshire; in fact, reports about faulty contracting jobs are consistently at the top of the complaint list, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Connie Stratton. In 2004, 400 (roughly 13 percent) of the 3,102 complaints received by the attorney general’s office were related to home contracting jobs that included everything from building to painting, plumbing or electrical work.

“It is a huge problem. There is a huge amount of money involved,” Stratton said. “Last year money lost just with contractors who we prosecuted totaled over half a million dollars.”

Despite the growing number of complaints, however, a split remains among lawmakers, state officials and Granite State homeowners over how best to address the issue.

While many believe licensing homebuilders and remodelers would offer the greatest protection to consumers, others would prefer to forego licensing in favor of stricter legislation.

“Licensing doesn’t really address the issues,” said N.H. Rep. Will Infantine, R-Manchester, and co-sponsor of three related bills that went before the House and Senate earlier this year. “Licensing contractors becomes more of a fee generator for the state than anything else.”

According to Infantine, state licensing – whether it has to do with electricians, plumbers or owners of tanning machines – is based on a level of formal education, something less common in the contracting industry, in which most are products of on-the-job-training, coming up through the ranks of working and learning from established craftsmen.

“To introduce licensing without educational criteria doesn’t bring up the standards,” said Infantine, who contends licensing in other states has met with limited success. Currently 23 states have licensing requirements for contractors, a dozen more mandate some form of registration.

Supporters of contractor licensing cite licensing as an additional means of protection for homeowners.

The AG’s office, said Stratton supports licensing because “it is an additional tool people can use to make decisions about who they hire and who they decide to do business with.”

Increased accountability

Both sides agree, however, that the number of dishonest contractors doing business is small – 419 contractors have had complaints filed against them in the last six years combined, according to Stratton.

“It’s unfortunate that we are looking at making laws for the 2 or 3 percent that intend to defraud someone,” said Infantine who believes, along with Sen. Bob Clegg, R-Hudson, that legislation allowing for increased accountability and harsher penalties for individuals who set out to take people’s money will be more affective than licensing.

“There is no reason for people to cheat people,” said Clegg, who is working with Infantine to redraft House Bill 177 for the January session.

The measure will include a mandate for a detailed, written contract between contractor and homeowner if more than a 10 percent deposit is required prior to the start of the project and will make taking-the-money-and-running a criminal offense under the fraud statutes.

“These people will no longer be able to hide behind their ‘corporation,’ they will be held responsible personally and they will face jail time,” said Clegg, who himself holds a Massachusetts contractors license and said he knows first hand how contractors – both credible and disreputable – work around the licensing issue.

“Contractors without licenses will try to rent another contractor’s license or just hire a subcontractor that does have one,” he said.

While a revised HB 177 does not include licensing mandates, both Clegg and Infantine see it as a step in the right direction when it comes to protecting homeowners. An additional step, according to Rep. Ken Hawkins, R-Hillsboro, would be the adoption of a statewide building code for residential construction.

“The problem with licensing is that there is no statewide residential building code,” said Hawkins, who served as chairman of the committee formed as a result of HB 307, which reviewed the feasibility of contractor licensing in the state. “How do you license someone when there’s no requirements?”

Kendall Buck, executive vice president of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of New Hampshire, believes most homebuilders would welcome a statewide building code for residential construction.

“Uniformity has a great deal to do with the standard of safety and quality,” said Buck, who believes a uniform building code would promote safety and affordability in house construction. “We are pleased to see that this topic has been introduced and we will certainly be urging legislators to pass it.”

Remains an issue

The state moved a step closer to the adoption of a statewide building code following last month’s findings by a six-member committee charged with reviewing the idea of licensing.

The committee, chaired by Hawkins, determined that licensing would be impractical, recommending instead the introduction of a statewide residential building code, Senate approval for mandated written contracts between homeowners and contractors prior to job starts, and the listing of names of individuals and companies convicted of wrongdoing on the Attorney General’s Web site.

For Dover resident Leo Callahan, the introduction of a statewide building code may mean progress, but it isn’t the final answer.

“Just because we have a statewide building code won’t make this issue go away,” said Callahan, who involved himself in the debate after his daughter and son-in-law lost $12,000 to an unscrupulous contractor. “Right now you have contractors who will take money from people, file for bankruptcy and then start all over again under a different company name. It’s unjust.”

Infantine and Clegg are hopeful the legislation they plan to introduce in January will help to address these issues without having to institute licensing mandates.

“If we can’t solve these problems, I’d be the first to say maybe we need to license,” Infantine said. “But I think we can by addressing these underlying issues.”

But for supporters of licensing, a building code and tougher enforcement will simply serve as the steppingstone to their final goal, which they see as the only answer to getting ride of crooked contractors.

“The number of bad contractors is a small percentage. The rest are wonderful — they’re skilled and they’re honest,” Callahan said. “There’s just no way of separating the good from the bad, and what we need is a way to protect against the sons-of-bitches that are out there.”

Categories: News