Sunday, October 24, 2004

Contracting Chaos

Dwayne Escobedo in this week's Independent News [formerly the Independent Florida Sun] reports that "Ivan crushed an estimated 18,600 homes in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties... ." On Pensacola Beach alone, according to Friday's News journal, "Of the 975 homes and businesses included in the first assessment, 869 were deemed to have suffered major damage or been destroyed, with 803 ruled to be uninhabitable."

These are staggering statistics. In many instances, they are buried in the middle of conventional stories warning residents against hiring unlicensed contractors. Such stories are a media staple in the wake of every major storm in Florida. Local newspapers, television, and radio stations dutifully publish the usual warnings against fraudulent and unlicensed contractors, sprinkled with quotes from building industry spokesmen warning of dire consequences if you hire your own work force.

About roof damage, alone, the Pensacola News Journal has reported --
FEMA has already installed almost 20,500 roof tarps, and still people are coming for more. Officials estimate another 25,000 roofs need covering, with crews putting up about 1,000 a day.

When you incorporate the knowledge that many homes no longer exist, or aren't worth covering with a tarp, you begin to grasp the extent of the damage.

Worse, earlier this week the PNJ quoted some as saying that homeowners may have to wait more than two years before trading their blue roofs for a real one, due to a shortage of contractors as well as roofing materials. (There's no use trying to link to the PNJ web site since the newspaper's new search function is at least as bad as the old one, and now the paper charges a fee for any article older than 7 days.)

At least three licensed contractors have told me that the home repair and construction situation facing local victims of Hurricane Ivan is "desperate."

"There just aren't enough contractors or qualified workers," one said privately at a social event. "The [Escambia] county commissioners have to lighten up on the licensing rules or people aren't going to get their houses repaired for years. I mean years."

The other two echoed the same sentiment. One of them added this bleak observation:

"Maybe they'll do something in Santa Rosa County," he said. "But Escambia County will never give up the old system. The politicians are still determined to see that all the money flows to the usual good ol' boys. Yes, there aren't enough licensed local contractors. But that isn't going to stop the crowd who's running our county from keeping out the competition."

But what about governor Bush's emergency order to allow counties to issue temporary roofing licenses? I asked.

"Meaningless," he said. "To get that license, you still have to have worker's comp insurance and post a bond. There are thousands of perfectly competent roofers out there in Florida and neighboring states, but very few of them have the money to pay for a worker compensation policy. It's a mirage to think the governor's order is going to help."

The disconnect between need and the means to meet it led me to do a little digging. Although the local building and contractor associations are not likely to let you in on the secret, home owners who choose to do so are allowed to act as their own general contractors. And so far as I can discover it's perfectly legal to hire muscular help even if they aren't licensed.

This right is spelled out in one section of the Florida Statutes that exempts many homeowners from the licensed contractor laws.

Fla. Stat. 489.103(7) states licensing requirements do not apply to:
Owners of property when acting as their own contractor and providing direct, onsite supervision themselves of all work not performed by licensed contractors, when building or improving farm outbuildings or one-family or two-family residences on such property for the occupancy or use of such owners and not offered for sale or lease, or building or improving commercial buildings, at a cost not to exceed $25,000, on such property for the occupancy or use of such owners and not offered for sale or lease. In an action brought under this part, proof of the sale or lease, or offering for sale or lease, of any such structure by the owner-builder within 1 year after completion of same creates a presumption that the construction was undertaken for purposes of sale or lease. This subsection does not exempt any person who is employed by or has a contract with such owner and who acts in the capacity of a contractor. The owner may not delegate the owner's responsibility to directly supervise all work to any other person unless that person is registered or certified under this part and the work being performed is within the scope of that person's license. For the purposes of this subsection, the term "owners of property" includes the owner of a mobile home situated on a leased lot. To qualify for exemption under this subsection, an owner must personally appear and sign the building permit application. * * *

Not everyone is suited to supervising construction workers, of course. Some are too old, or too sick, or not handy enough, or, like me, too stupid about "joists" and galvanized whatchamacallits, and stuff like that. Others may not relish the risk of a lawsuit or the moral guilt if a worker were to be injured while working on their property.

But it's nice to know there is an alternative, even if limited to the circumstances described in the statute, to waiting for Escambia County officials to lighten up on the contractor licensing rules.

For that, don't hold your breath. You'll turn as blue as your roof long before it happens.

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