Posted On: September 9, 2019
When it comes to illegal or fraudulent contractor activity, Paul Traider has just about seen it all. And there’s a lot to see.
Because for a homeowner looking to save a buck on a house repair or unscrupulous contractors looking to line their pockets, there are plenty of ways to cut corners. And many of them are illegal. Worse, they can result in disastrous consequences for the customer.
For those who pay close attention, the tell-tale signs are everywhere. There’s the air conditioning contractor who conveniently “forgot” to pull a permit before replacing the condenser. There’s a construction site with no work permit posted, as required by law. At a construction site, there’s a work truck that fails to display the contractor’s license number. Or upon closer examination, the permit or license is expired. Then there’s the homeowner who pulls the permit himself, only to surreptitiously bring in an unlicensed contractor to do the actual work. There also are plenty of so-called flippers looking to buy, fix up and sell houses and maximize their profits by skirting building codes during the repair process.
Despite best efforts to conceal the shady stuff, Traider’s trained eye can spot it almost immediately. It’s his job. As the county’s lone contractor licensing investigator, he patrols the community to protect against the dangers of unlicensed contractors and work being done without the proper permits. To do his job, roughly 80% of Traider’s time is spent in the field. Sometimes he’s following up on complaints. Other times, he’s simply driving around the county proactively searching for indicators that something isn’t right. When in the office, Traider is usually attending meetings, documenting casework, writing violation notices or issuing citations to unlicensed contractors.
“The bulk of my job is self-initiated,” explains Traider. “When I’m not on my way to a specific destination, I’m driving down streets looking at the work that’s being done around the county. I’m always on the lookout.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Traider’s work. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say it can save lives. That’s because unpermitted, substandard work performed by unqualified or unlicensed contractors could result in a catastrophic failure, such as a roof collapse or an electrical fire.
Mike Nelson, Volusia County’s director of Building and Code Administration, says he’s seen some downright scary stuff done by unlicensed contractors. “We’re seeing life-safety issues,” said Nelson. “I’ve seen people run a circuit with the orange drop cord in an attic and wire boxes for ceiling fans. That’s a fire waiting to happen. And you’re not going to have a warning if a fire starts in your attic. That’s the scary part of this.”
In addition, unlicensed contractors usually don’t carry the required liability and workers compensation insurance. That means a homeowner who hires an unlicensed contractor could be on the hook financially if a worker gets injured on the job. They could even get sued, and their homeowners’ insurance policy might not cover the medical costs once the insurer discovers the injured worker was unlicensed. On top of that, if the work is shoddy, doesn’t meet code or pass inspection, the homeowner might end up having to pay twice for the job by hiring a licensed contractor to rip out, correct or complete the work of the first contractor. And then there’s the problem of dishonest contractors swooping in after a big storm passes through and residents are desperate to get their houses fixed. For contractors caught not doing things the right way, the county can issue citations and take other disciplinary action. Depending on the nature and severity of a violation, the county can also bring in local law enforcement, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state Division of Workers’ Compensation, or the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has even conducted a couple of sting operations in the last two years in an effort to put unlicensed contractors out of business.
But none of that is protection for people who hire unlicensed contractors – some homeowners who do it unaware, and others who knowingly do it and ignore the peril. The bottom line, according to Kerry Leuzinger, the county’s chief building official, is that when using an unlicensed contractor, “there are some very serious things that can go wrong.”
To the county’s Building and Code Administration staff, it’s all about consumer protection. “At the end of the day, we’re protecting the citizens – which is our job,” added Leuzinger. “We’re public servants. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Although he’s protecting residents, protecting safety and protecting property, not every homeowner is happy to see Traider show up on a job site. Some residents feel like they’re being hassled and don’t like being told what they can and can’t do on their property. For that reason, a certain amount of grousing and push-back comes with Traider’s job – along with the knowledge and satisfaction that he’s guarding the public, even if everyone’s not happy about it. But if not everyone likes seeing Traider, the responsible, licensed contractors – the ones who’re doing everything by the books – certainly appreciate his efforts. After all, it’s hard, not to mention unfair, for a legitimate contractor to compete for jobs with someone who offers cut-rate prices because they don’t have to factor in the cost of obtaining the necessary licenses, permits and insurance and don’t do the work to code specifications.
“It’s very frustrating when a licensed contractor loses a job because of that,” said Leuzinger. “It’s hard to compete when it’s not a level playing field. It’s just not right.”
Work performed by an unlicensed contractor can even cause the sale of a house to fall through if permits weren’t pulled or the house doesn’t pass inspection because the work was deficient. And, for instance, if it’s shoddy electrical work, loss of a sale can be the least of the problem. “You’re looking at putting lives in danger,” said Nelson.
During a recent day on patrol, it didn’t take Traider long to find someone who wasn’t following the rules. In fact, it happened on Traider’s second stop of the day. The first was a drive by a house on Valencia Avenue near Daytona Beach. Activity there had caught Traider’s attention a few days earlier, and he decided to drive by again to see if any work was being done without permits. When permits aren’t pulled, it’s often a sign that the person doing the work isn’t properly licensed. And that’s a big concern for Traider because without a permit, the job doesn’t undergo the necessary inspections and there are no assurances that the proper materials are used and the workmanship is professional, meets building codes and is safe. “Maybe it’s not up to code. Maybe it’s not going to withstand the next hurricane,” explained Traider. “That’s my issue.” On this, day, however, Traider doesn’t find anything amiss. He’s still suspicious, though not enough to push the issue. But he’ll be back. “It’s still on my radar,” Traider says as he drives off.
The next stop is a house on Granada Avenue, just outside the city limits of Daytona Beach. Traider’s constantly consulting his maps to make sure he’s looking at buildings in the unincorporated parts of the county. His jurisdiction doesn’t extend into the cities. This one was a tip from a county electrical inspector. While inspecting the electrical work in the house, it appeared that there was additional work going on beyond the scope of what was allowed under the roof and electrical permits that were issued. So it was time to call Traider. Sure enough, when Traider arrived, he immediately saw unmistakable signs that the house had undergone extensive remodeling and new windows and doors and an air conditioning unit had been put in. It didn’t surprise Traider. The reason: When he checked the property records, he discovered that this was one of 10 houses owned by the same person. And based on Traider’s experience, investors are some of the worst offenders.
“For many of them, all they seem to care about is their bottom line,” said Traider. “They want to cut corners and re-sell a house for as much profit as they can. I know a lot of their tricks.”
One of those tricks, Traider explains, is obtaining a roof permit and keeping it posted on the site long after the permit has been finaled or expired. Work continues, the entire house is remodeled inside and out, and anyone who comes by and just casually glances at the permit will think it’s still valid and covers the entire project and everything is OK.
At the house on Granada Avenue, Traider takes a look around, documents the activity with photos and quickly concludes: “I see enough going on to warrant a stop work order.” Then he prints the stop work order directly from the mobile office in his truck, talks to a painter at the house to explain what’s going on, and conspicuously tapes the stop work order to a front window.
The next move at the house on Granada Avenue will be up to the homeowner. And Traider will be watching. But that’s for another day. It’s not even 9 a.m. yet, and Traider is on his way to the beachside. Ormond-by-the-Sea is where Traider sees a lot of shady stuff going on. He calls it a “target rich environment” where flippers are attracted to the steady supply of low-priced fixer uppers that sometimes can fetch double and triple their purchase price after some renovation and touch-up work. But Traider is never just mindlessly enjoying the scenery while driving from one destination to the next. His eyes continuously dart in all directions, looking all around from side to side and then back again, driving down side streets while checking for construction activity and those tell-tale signs that something is wrong. Along the way, Traider takes mental note of what catches his attention – and suspicion – and why. Sometimes he stops to talk to someone – always friendly, polite and non-confrontational – or to check his numerous databases in an effort to find out what’s happening.
Some things stick out like a sore thumb – like laborers on a roof and an unmarked work van parked in the driveway, with no display of the company’s name and license number. That doesn’t necessarily mean the contractor isn’t licensed and the job isn’t permitted. But in Traider’s line of work, it’s a red flag that merits investigating. Other signs are more subtle and can be easily missed by the untrained eye – like the sound of someone hammering, or the sight of a small toolbox on the ground next to a guy who seems a bit nervous and avoids eye contact when he sees Traider’s clearly marked county vehicle drive past. Either way, Traider sees it all. And he provides a running commentary of what he observes.
“This street looks clear so far.”
“I don’t see any work trucks or red flags on this street.”
“See that trailer with a pile of debris? OK, it’s just household junk. I don’t see any contracting work going on.”
“This site over here looks a little shady. That one’s going to go on my watch list.”
“This job has permits. They’re good today.”
“Over there is a work van. Looks like there’s some plumbing work going on. Let’s check that out.”
“I’m satisfied that everything here is permitted and looks correct.”
During the travels, he sees construction going on at a business along Ocean Shore Boulevard. Based on his past experience with this particular contractor, he suspects this job is on the up and up.
“Oh, that’s Gary,” said Traider. “He’s going to be the contractor. I’m sure this job is going to be permitted.” Still, Traider stops and checks his computer and just as he suspected, a permit has been pulled for the job. So he moves on.
Traider gets regular lists of expired permits and goes by to make sure working isn’t continuing or completed without the required inspections. And he also spot checks permits pulled by homeowners. For instance, he said, a homeowner pulling a permit for a swimming pool often is a dead giveaway since the average homeowner doesn’t have skill to build a pool.
Still on the beachside, Traider spots an unmarked air conditioning work truck parked at a house. Another red flag, though in Traider’s mind, not sufficient justification to stop and ask questions. But he’ll file it away for another day. “That one’s going on the watch list,” said Traider. It’s a line that he would repeat at least four or five times on this day.
Traider’s next stop is a little shanty on Neptune Park Drive near Ormond Beach. The county’s chief building official has declared it dilapidated and Traider must post a notice on the property directing the owner to correct some potentially dangerous structural problems. While there, he stops to chat with a plumber who’s in the area to work on a septic system at an adjacent residence. He seems to be one of those legitimate, licensed contractors who genuinely appreciates knowing Traider is around to keep an eye on things.
“I’m just out checking on permits,” Traider matter-of-factly tells the guy as he hands him his business card.
“I’m happy to see that,” replies the contractor. “Hope you have a nice day.”
While on the beachside, Traider checks on a case that’s been bedeviling him for a few months. It’s an investor-owned property with lots of demolition work going on and roofing trucks parked on the property, but no sign of any roofing work taking place. There’s a trailer full of debris and no license numbers displayed on the work trucks. As best as Traider can tell, no work has gone on yet that requires a permit. But Traider has a sneaking suspicion that they’re trying to conceal the scope of the work – work that will require a permit.
“The whole thing’s just not adding up,” he says.
On this day, Traider doesn’t see anything to confirm or dispel his suspicions. But he can’t let go of this one. He’ll be back – to make sure that permits are pulled, and to figure out the mystery.
“To me, that’s the fun of this job,” said Traider. “It’s a little bit of a puzzle to be solved. I want to make sure the puzzle pieces fit together correctly.”
Another thing that Traider wants to be sure of is that he treats everyone fairly and with courtesy and professionalism. He doesn’t want to jump to conclusions or jump in with barrels blazing, firing off questions in an accusatory manner. Because it’s a fine line between doing his job and hassling people trying to make a living or get their property fixed up.
“I want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and I want to make sure that I do the right thing,” he says. “I don’t want to be invasive.”
So in some instances, when he sees something that piques his interest, he might drive by a couple of times – both to see, and to be seen. “I like to be seen so they know we’re out here,” said Traider. “Hopefully it makes them think twice about doing something wrong.”
Still out on patrol, this time on Pine Ridge Drive in the Daytona Beach area, Traider spots some windows being delivered to a house. A quick check of his computer shows that a permit has been pulled for the installation work. At another house on the same street, Traider sees a construction dumpster and makes a note to do some follow-up checks there. This day ends with a trip to DeLeon Springs, where Traider posted a notice on a horribly dilapidated residence on West Baxter Street. The county’s Contractor Licensing and Construction Appeals Board wants to work with the owner and give her more time to begin work to remedy the decrepit conditions and hopefully avoid the wrecking ball.
Traider didn’t come across anything on this day that warranted a citation. But that’s not always the case. Just three weeks earlier, Traider encountered two repeat offenders doing structural work without a permit. He issued two citations, each carrying a $1,000 fine. If it’s someone who’s in violation because they simply don’t know the rules, Traider will do everything possible to help them navigate the system and correct the problem. But if it’s a repeat violator who has ignored previous warnings, that’s another matter.
“I try not to be the bad guy, and it sucks that I sometimes have to ruin their day” said Traider. “But it’s usually because of serious issues that could jeopardize someone’s safety. I want to help people, I really do. The job is about ensuring compliance with building codes. I really don’t want to punish people…..” And then, after a brief pause, he adds: “…..unless they deserve it.”
On the average, the county’s Contractor Licensing section conducts more than 400 investigations annually of work being done without a permit. For Traider, as well as the county’s code enforcement officers who also work these cases, it’s a job that keeps them busy.
Nelson, the director of Building and Code Administration, says he wishes he had four more Traiders.
And for Traider, he says it’s a job that’s tailor made for him. “I love this job,” said Traider as he prepared to end his shift for the day. “I’m happy to be here and I get a lot of satisfaction in what I do. I feel like this job was made for me.”
Getting ready to hire a contractor? Here are some things to keep in mind:
You should always obtain estimates from at least three contractors, with the estimates specifying such items as the quality and type of materials to be used and how long it will take to complete the work. Don’t choose a contractor based on price alone. Ask for references and how long a contractor has been in business. Check out work the contractor has done for others and be sure to get any proposal, contract or agreement in writing. And remember this: A handyman isn’t a licensed contractor and can’t obtain a building permit. If they’re doing structural, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, roof or similar repair tasks on your home without a county or state license for those trades, they’re doing unlicensed work.
While it’s not always easy to tell if a contractor isn’t licensed, there are some warning signs to watch out for. For instance, you might be dealing with an unlicensed contractor if:
A large down payment is requested before the work begins. Only partial payments should be made for work that is completed on the project – also known as percentage of completion.
The contractor isn’t willing to put the contract in writing.
You’re asked to pay in cash or make your check payable to an individual or “cash” instead of a company name.
You’re told that the job doesn’t require a building permit. It’s always best to check with your local building department before proceeding, as almost all projects and repairs require permits.
You’re asked to obtain the building permit. If you do it, then you’ll be responsible for complying with the Florida Building Code and for workers injured on the job. (Your standard homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover injuries to workers on a job site).
Someone other than the person or company contracting to do the construction work obtains the building permit.
The contractor is only willing to work on weekends and evenings. This could be a sign that the person is an employee who’s moonlighting without a license.
The contractor says he’s licensed, but can’t provide you with a copy of the license.
The contractor displays only a business tax receipt. A business tax receipt isn’t a license to perform contracting work that requires a permit.
The contractor can’t provide you with proof of insurance.
A contractor displays a “license number” that can’t be confirmed/located/verified on the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation license number search. A person claiming to be “licensed and insured” might be trying to trick you into thinking they’re legitimate when in fact all they really have is a driver’s license and auto insurance.
The newspaper/flyers or yellow page ads for the company only display a phone number, but not a license number.
License numbers aren’t on the vehicle, business cards or contracts.