June 18, 2012 -- In its annual spring spot check of home improvement contractors, the Westchester County Department of Consumer Protection found overwhelming compliance with the law requiring that they have licenses.

Inspectors form the department made 430 stops at worksites throughout the county during April and May. Of these, 92 percent (or 395) had the proper licensing. The numbers were comparable to 2011 and up slightly from 2010.

County Executive Robert P. Astorino said of the compliance, "This is very impressive, but I hope that the next time we will have 100 percent. This law protects our consumers and protects the contractors."

Westchester County law requires home improvement contractors working in the county to have a license from the Department of Consumer Protection. To be licensed, a contractor goes through an extensive background check. This law was enacted to prevent homeowners from being taken advantage of by fly-by-night companies. It also protects legitimate contractors, who are licensed and insured and have worked successfully in the county for years.

Licensed contractors must display a department-issued bumper sticker with a license expiration date.

In the latest sweep, inspectors from the department seized vehicles and equipment from six unlicensed companies. They face penalties for operating without a license. These range from $1,000 for a first offense, $5,000 for a second offense and $10,000 for a third offense within 10 years. Offenders can also be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

There are currently more than 7,600 licensed contractors in Westchester.

John Gaccione, acting director of Consumer Protection, offers these tips for hiring a home improvement contractor:

  • Avoid unlicensed contractors. To find out if a contractor is licensed you can check online at using our "Find a Licensed Contractor" search. 
  • Avoid contractors who show up at your doorstep unannounced or contact you unsolicited by phone or e-mail.
  • Avoid contractors who demand payment in cash or want more than one-third of the total payment before work has begun.
  • Get at least three estimates. In reviewing the estimates, don't always go with the lowest bidder. A higher bid may be worth it if the contractor is the most experienced, uses better materials and keeps to a timeline.
  • Be wary of an extremely low bid. It may be an indication that the contractor is overeager for your business, made a mistake in preparing the bid or is not including all the work quoted by the other bidders.
  • Ask each contractor for current references, and call the references to see if they were satisfied with the work. Also, see for yourself by visiting the homes where the contractor has done work.
  • Once you've decided on a contractor, insist on a written contract that sets forth all the important details of the job. These include a detailed scope of work, a start date, a completion date, cancellation clause, warranty information and a schedule of payments. Do NOT agree to an oral contract.