From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 105, Number 8 - February 21, 2008
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

SPECIAL REPORT: Unlicensed contractors costly and dangerous

by Alecia Warren

Since Wild Horse Realty owner Barbara Hodges hired an unlicensed contractor to build three condos last year, the builder’s incompetence has become the “bane of her existence,” Hodges said.

From leaking roofs to leaking plumbing, repairs have cost the new homeowners $8,000, as the contractor refuses to honor the promised one-year warranty.

“I know I’m not alone in this — I’ve talked to other realtors, and they’ve had the same problems,” Hodges said. Other realtors who were contacted declined to comment. “I work very hard to make everybody happy and get things fixed, and I explain to clients, ‘I’m sorry, this is the way it is in Sublette County.’”

Because Sublette County doesn’t require contractors to hold a license proving their training, anyone who can carry a level or a hammer can advertise themselves for jobs ranging from home building to heater and air conditioning installation.

And in recent years, the number of unqualified people who do has escalated, with homeowners in Pinedale and Sublette County suffering expensive and sometimes life-threatening mistakes as a result. The county does have authority to create a contractor license requirement so that no contractor could legally operate without the proper training.

But the county commissioners refuse to pursue such a regulation.

“Wyoming is a Right to Work State,” said County Commissioner Bill Cramer.

“We figure that if you get out here, you sell yourself, and if people aren’t happy with ya, they won’t do business with you. We don’t want to be in the regulatory business.”

The Town of Pinedale also has independent jurisdiction to set a contractor licensing requirement, but the Town Council hasn’t heard complaints about contracting problems and doesn’t see the need, said Mayor Stephen Smith.

Any member of the public could make a proposal to the Town Council to create an ordinance establishing the requirement, yet no one has attempted to.

Gene Pearson, president of All-Tech Heating and Air in Pinedale, said he sees the effects of this every day.

Nearly half of his customers hire him to fix unlicensed contractors’ mistakes, and on occasion he’s refused to perform installations because previous construction mistakes made his work impossible without redoing everything else first.

Problems have ranged from heating ducts leaking within six months of installation, preventing homeowners from getting heat in their homes, to “short cuts” in wall construction.

Another licensed Pinedale contractor, who preferred not to give his name, estimated that 70 percent of his jobs involve repairing unlicensed contractors’ mistakes.

The worst he’s seen included a furnace installation with vents blowing carbon dioxide into a home. The owners walked into their house shortly after the installation to discover their three dogs dead, the contractor said.

Such mistakes were rare eight years ago, Pearson said, but in the last few years, unlicensed contractors have flocked to Sublette County to follow the energy boom’s opportunities. “We get builders from out of state who come in and basically put in (a home or an installation) and cash the check and leave,” Pearson said. “If they’re not trained and certified, it can be dangerous.”

The Town of Jackson adopted a contractor-licensing program four years ago, when local contractors approached the Town Hall with these very concerns.

Contractors in Jackson must now earn a license by presenting their qualifications to the town Board of Examiners, or by taking an international building code exam, said Steve Hockett, building official for the Town of Jackson.

“I would say that our contractor licensing program has absolutely increased the level of contractor competence,” Hockett said. “I have contractors who contact me with questions regarding specific sections of a code, because they now have a code book in their possession, which is a great thing.

“Contractor licensing has not eliminated all of the code issues, but it certainly has reduced the building violations we’ve see here.”

The license requirement also “levels the playing field” in requiring all contractors to cover issues like liability insurance, workman’s compensation, permits and license bonds, Hockett said.

“I would recommend contracting licensing in general, but you have to have the teeth in the ordinance to make it work,” he said. “You need to adopt the appropriate codes and the appropriate personnel to enforce the codes and the contractor licensing program.” Four years ago, Jackson adopted multiple international codes, including the International Building Code, the International Mechanical Code, the International Plumbing Code, and the International Fuel and Gas Code.

Each is held to nationally recognized standards, Hockett said, so any out-of-state builders will already be familiar with the regulations. Teton County plans to consolidate these codes.

Although the Town of Pinedale adopted the International Building Code in 2003, Sublette County has yet to adopt any building code.

Cramer said the commissioners haven’t looked at adopting international building codes because they’re not in favor of creating “a bureaucracy” to dominate local construction methods.

Hiring building inspectors has also lowered the number of construction blunders in Jackson, Hockett added, which neither Sublette County nor the Town of Pinedale has done.

Mayor Smith said Town Engineer Eugene Ninnie occasionally drops by construction sites in Pinedale to check on progress, though, and he has yet to see a need for inspection beyond that.

“I certainly won’t say we’ll never have a building inspector,” Smith said. “It’s something that the Town Council will continue to look at.”

Cramer said the commissioners know that unlicensed contractors can make dangerous mistakes, but he thinks hiring inspectors might only create more problems.

For instance, building inspectors would “spend their lives on the road” traveling across a county the size of Connecticut, Cramer said. Homeowners and builders would have to wait days or weeks to make even a dry wall installation until the inspectors could fit in the time to drop by and give approval.

Applications to build might also increase from $75 to thousands of dollars, said Planning Director Bart Myers. The county wouldn’t want to require all taxpayers to provide for inspectors that only a few would benefit from, so increased fees would have to offset the price of the inspection staff salaries.

Locals should just rely on common sense before they hire someone to build a home or make a complicated installation, Cramer said, alluding to his own home that he built successfully without a licensed contractor or supervision from an inspector.

“If you hire someone to do something, it should be your job to make sure they’re doing it correctly,” Cramer said. “Hire a reputable person. Check their references. Don’t look to the government to baby-sit you.

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