By Joseph Coleman
In September of 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Southwest Florida, devastating thousands of homes and businesses, particularly on Marco Island. After the storm, Florida was flooded with hundreds of contractors, both licensed and unlicensed, who promised to fix and repair people’s roofs and homes. Many did follow through with these promises. However, some did not. If you signed a contract, paid a deposit, and still have not seen or heard from your contractor in months if not years, this has done nothing but add insult to injury, and has likely added unnecessary stress and fees to your life. You may feel as though it’s just not worth it to fight or complain, especially if you believe the contractor skipped town long ago. This seems like a harsh reality. Fortunately, you do not have to face it alone. Here are just five practical tips you may want to consider if your contractor took your deposit but never started the job:
1. Keep an organized file of everything
Did you have a contract? Was it in writing? Do you know where it is right now? Do you have a copy of all of the payments you made and all of the checks you wrote? Do you have a copy of any communication with the contractor or with his or her workers about your home or construction project? If so, it is always a good idea to keep these files in one place for easy reference in the future. Nothing is more frustrating that trying to refer to an email you lost or to a contract you just can’t seem to find. You may want to consider creating a folder online with each document in a separate PDF. That way it is easy to share and send this information to insurance providers, attorneys, etc.
2. Do you have insurance to cover this theft?
It may be worth considering whether your homeowners insurance policy, or if another similar policy includes a provision protecting you from this sort of financial injury. The first step is finding the most recent copy of your homeowner’s insurance policy and e-mailing them to find out. Be forewarned: while setting up this sort of claim may help you get your deposit back, it also may increase your premiums down the road. You may want to discuss this with a representative via e-mail up front before encountering any nasty surprises on the back end.
3. Determine whether the contractor is licensed and how they were operating
Typically, the contractor will include their license number on the contract with you. To verify their license to contract, use the licensing portal set up by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations at https://www.myfloridalicense.com/wl11.asp. There, you can search the contractor’s license by name, license number, city or county, or by license type. You can quickly see if the contractor has an active license, and if he or she holds the license individually or by doing business as a particular corporation or business. This is important because many times when consumers look to complain to a contractor, they may not even have the right contact information, and they may have spent the last several months shouting into a void and complaining to an abandoned email or neglected website. This also helps determine whether the contractor does or does not have a license, and that can matter for a variety of reasons, including civil liability and potentially criminal culpability.
4. If the contractor is part of a company, look up the company
The State of Florida has set up a very useful corporate search engine, where you can look up any Florida company, at http://search.sunbiz.org/Inquiry/CorporationSearch/ByName. This will help you determine whether the corporation or limited liability company is active, who its main principals are, and who to contact as the Registered Agent. This information will help ensure that you have the right information to contact the right people to address the problem. If you cannot find the company right away, try searching if the company is actually a “fictitious name” owned by another corporation or LLC.
5. Send a letter, via certified mail, return receipt requested, to the contractor
Pursuant to Florida Statute Section 89.126(3)(c), before criminal culpability can be established against a contractor for theft of funds, a certified letter, return receipt requested, must be mailed to the address of the contractor “as listed in the written contracting agreement.” I would suggest also sending it to the appropriate addresses after completing steps 3 and 4, above, if those addresses are different. “The letter must indicate that the contractor has failed to perform any work for a 60-day period, that the failure to perform the work was not the result of the owner’s termination of the contract or a material breach of the contract by the owner, and that the contractor must recommence construction within 30 days after the date of mailing of the letter.”
Bonus: Consult with an attorney
It’s easy to compile and organize documents and run several searches to determine the identity and legitimacy of your contractor. It will even save you time and money up front if you decide to pursue a cause of action or a complaint against them. However, it’s much harder to draft a civil complaint, navigate the bureaucracy of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations, file a police report and consult with the authorities, and/or hopefully resolve your dispute. You don’t have to go it alone. Make sure you consult with an experienced attorney who can help assist you in lodging the correct complaints and enforcing your legal rights.