Travis County, TEXAS (KXAN) – When you visit the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation website, just click on the link called ‘Find A Licensed Contractor,’ put in your zip code, browse through a list of those showing current International Construction Code qualifications then print out the standardized contract form.
It sounds convenient and safe. However, in Texas such a simple-sounding, state-level protection for consumers looking for a home remodeler does not exist. According to some lawmakers such a service is not likely to be developed until the demand for such a service increases.
“In Texas we’re a free market state, so we don’t want to do things to create a barrier for people getting into the business,” State Rep. Paul Workman (R) explained to KXAN.
“There are a lot of people who complain about the pick-up truck guy who may be out there doing work and not be qualified. On the other hand, if you start licensing contractors, even the little guys, you’re going to create a barrier for them to get into the business to start with,” said Rep. Workman who once was a commercial contractor.
And yet 22 other states have rules that legislate contractor licensing or regulation either at the state or local government levels. Some have no licensing, but require a contractor to register their business with the state. Texas requires neither.
The closest thing to home contractor licensing was the short-lived Texas Residential Construction Commission. It was formed to mediate between new home buyers with complaints and Texas home builders. In 2010, after seven years, the legislature shuttered the agency in after it was found to be ineffective.
UPDATE: A day after KXAN’s Investigation aired, we received an email from a Williamson County man who wrote of his involvement in the political opposition to the TRCC’s formation.
Wayne Caswell pointed to a white paper he says he wrote in 2009 and was part of a lobbying effort from a registered non-profit that argued, “In Texas you personally need a license to drive a car or catch a fish. And your doctor, barber, tattoo artist and tow truck operator need a professional license to practice their art. But your homebuilder doesn’t need a license. Neither do the trades that install structural elements of our home such as the foundation, framing and room. That’s absurd.”
While the TRCC was abolished, KXAN’s investigation found no current registration requirements for Texas contractors.
One Central Texas city, San Marcos has taken the contractor oversight issue to heart. Several years ago, city leaders passed an ordinance requiring all contractors doing work in the Hays County city to register annually, prove they have completed International Construction Code course, as well as annual continuing education hours. Seguin is said to be considering similar rules.
Between a rock and a hard place
That reality leaves Travis County homeowners like Jeff Voorhis stuck. He hired an independent contractor for a ‘quick job’ and now he says he is facing a significant financial loss. Voorhis told KXAN a simple deck refurbishment project turned into a months-long ‘nightmare’ after a series of delays and missed expectations. He blames the contractor he hired in January to do the work.
“This was supposed to be a week and a half job and it’s now almost seven months,” Voorhis said, showing KXAN the area under the deck which appeared to need further wood trim and reinforcement on the sheet wood floor.
Voorhis and his family own a property overlooking Lake Travis – it’s a wood frame home with a stone fireplace and large rooms. Voorhis says his father built with his own hands in the 1970s. It features picture windows from Austin’s Driskill Hotel, a restful–feeling property the County Appraiser valued at more than $600,000 this year.
Voorhis says he intended to waterproof the old deck and have a spare room and extra storage space built underneath. His goal was to have the work done by last March so he could rent the property in time for SouthBySouthWest festival.
“You feel helpless and out of control because you have no way to control him in the sense of contacting him or getting him to do the work,” Voorhis said. “It’s hard to tell someone, please do this for me, or do what you’re supposed to do and you get no response.”
The contractor, Shane Williams, says he’s worked as a contractor for 11 years. He told KXAN the delays were due to lost days because of rainy weather this winter and trouble finding trades who could perform the work with him. He says there were other delays when Voorhis extended the scope of the project and asked for a second weatherproof coating under the deck.
Voorhis confirms the plan to expand the project, but says his expectations were different.
Either way, time dragged on and the price of the project went up. KXAN repeatedly asked both men for evidence of the others’ wrongdoing but it appears to be a lengthy miscommunication that ultimately may end up in civil court.
Voorhis showed KXAN a termination letter he sent to Williams in July after he contacted an attorney to discuss a settlement or civil action against Williams.
By the end of July, Voorhis says a settlement deal had been reached where the contractor would repay some costs over time.
Would a state-licensing agency have prevented this legal mess where in this case, no criminal act was determined? Experts around the debate say not necessarily.
“You’re not going to legislate fraud out,” Rep. Workman said, “You can try, but the fact of the matter is if somebody wants to take someone from their money for not building a deck or whatever it happens to be, they’re going to do it,” He also said he’s unsure there really is effective consumer protections offered in other states which require licensing of contractors.
Rep. Workman points out existing permitting and building codes in urban and incorporated areas to ensure quality home renovation work, no matter who does it.
In 2010, KXAN reported a deck collapse that injured six people. It was determined the structure had been built by an independent contractor who neglected to get a city permit for the project. Therefore, it was never inspected before 30 people piled on one summer’s evening.
Consumer options for hiring a contractor
Options for consumers include word-of-mouth, to reviews on sites like Yelp! and agencies like the Better Business Bureau which reported this year into July so far have recorded 15 complaints involving contractors doing business in Central Texas.
KXAN discovered one local group of remodelers which has created its own Code of Ethics and Best Practices.
The site for the Austin chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry shows it has more than 100 members in all related trades.
Its government liaison David Davidson tells KXAN “We’re constantly fighting what we call ‘Chuck-in-a-truck’… In a market as hot as Austin if somebody can start a project in a few days or in a week, you really need to be concerned,” he said.
The Office of the Attorney General also lists tips to hire a qualified contractor.