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Consumer Alert

Be cautious when contract work doesn’t require license

Discussing the importance of using a registered contractor last week produced a bunch of questions from people wondering about home improvement businesses that are not covered by the state’s contractor and licensing laws. There are quite a few of them.

Several people described some pretty bad experiences with these businesses — whether it was with the guy who did their front walk or the company that put in the hardwood floors. Using a registered contractor for certain home improvements — window replacements, roofing, and carpentry to name a few — gives consumers a built-in filter on who to use. Simply, if they are not registered, they shouldn’t be working at your house.

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Same thing with plumbers and electricians, who are required to have licenses. Like contractor registrations, you can check these trades with the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

But if you are looking for someone to install a hardwood floor or carpet, do some masonry work (that isn’t structural), put up fencing, or pave your driveway, it’s a different story. They don’t come under the state’s contractor law, so it’s up to the consumer to do more homework. You should apply the normal advice of checking references, making sure they are an established operation, looking for complaints lodged with the Better Business Bureau, and seeking whatever consumer reviews you can find.

But what if something goes wrong and you can’t work things out? If the problem is with a registered or licensed contractor, then the answer is simple: Go to Consumer Affairs and file a complaint.

If the issue is about interior painting or the front walk and you conclude that you have been taken advantage of, were ripped off, or did not receive what you paid for, you should file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office. And, for good measure, complain to the Better Business Bureau — or anywhere else for that matter — so that other consumers can benefit from your experience.

As much as this space is often focused on complaints, in the spirit of fairness and Labor Day, let’s flip around that last bit of advice. If you’ve had a wonderful experience, you should share that with others, too.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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