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Victims of unscrupulous contractors rarely recoup their financial losses. Stock photo
Community CommentaryOpinion

Stephan: Are you licensed for that?

Now that we are fresh in the new year, you may be thinking that it is the perfect time to embark on a home remodel or bathroom upgrade. 

Before you go looking for the most affordable contractor, a few words of caution: Any person providing home improvements or repairs above the $500 handyman exception is required to have a state issued license from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB).

Hiring an unlicensed contractor can leave you with substandard, unsafe projects that end up needing to be repaired by licensed contractors at additional costs to homeowners.

Even though unlicensed contractors may charge less for home improvement projects, it’s very likely you could end up paying more for their work in the long run. You could end up on the financial hook for injuries suffered by anyone employed by an unlicensed contractor without legally mandated workers’ compensation insurance.

The District Attorney’s Office prosecutes criminal violations of contractor laws including unlicensed contractors, unauthorized use of someone else’s license number, requesting more than a 10% deposit, failure to have workers’ compensation insurance and even theft for failing to deliver services or materials that were paid for by the homeowner. 

Here are some of the laws a licensed contractor must follow in California. They are in place to protect homeowners from unscrupulous actors in construction: 

• A contractor’s license is required for all home improvement projects valued over $500, including labor and materials.

• Only the licensed contractor can use the license number assigned to them.

• Licensed contractors are required to display their license numbers on all advertisements, business cards, bids, contracts, invoices and vehicles. 

• Home improvement contracts over $500 must be in writing and include the total cost of the project; any changes to the contract are required to be in writing.  

• The maximum down payment a contractor can request is 10% of the total cost of the home improvement or $1,000, whichever is less.  

• Progress payments to the contractor are limited to the value of the work that has been performed or the value of delivered materials.

• All businesses in California with one or more employees are required to purchase and maintain workers’ compensation insurance for all employees, which pays benefits for injuries that occur at work, including medical treatment and lost wages.

• Licensed contractors are required to have a minimum $25,000 surety bond. 

You can check the contractor’s license on the CSLB’s webpage. If it is in a suspended status, stop and find someone else. 

This site contains a wealth of consumer protection information and provides quick license verification using either the license number, contractor’s name  or business name.  

Although doing a background check on your contractor may seem like quite a bit of effort up front, it will save you time, money and heartache. 

Victims of unscrupulous contractors rarely recoup their financial losses from the criminals and always wish they had spent more time researching their contractor. 

These crimes are not rare in California; the CSLB even maintains a “Most Wanted” list. If you suspect you have been the victim of construction fraud or an unlicensed contractor, report it to the CSLB by phone at 800-321-CSLB (2752) or online at

Summer Stephan is District Attorney of San Diego County.

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