Crucial Differences Between Licensed & Unlicensed Contractors

Choosing an unlicensed contractor comes with legal liabilities for the homeowner.

contractor and homeowner ljubaphoto/Getty Images

So you’ve got a home renovation project in mind and want professional help. Choosing either a licensed or unlicensed contractor is one of the first decisions you’ll have to make, and there’s more involved here than possibly saving a few bucks.

Defining “Contractor”

The first thing to understand is that contractors are essentially coordinators. It’s a common misunderstanding, but most people who use tools professionally are not contractors. The main work of a contractor is as quarterback, orchestrating a group of tradespeople hired to do the actual work.

This distinction may be the most important issue of all when it comes to choosing a contractor, because their licensed or non-licensed status can affect your personal liability as a homeowner.

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Protection Against Liability

Most unlicensed contractors do not carry liability and/or workers’ compensation insurance. This means you, as a homeowner, are financially responsible for damage that occurs to your home during construction (i.e. that new plumbing sprang a leak, kept running all night and ruined your nearly-finished new $30,000 kitchen). Lack of workers’ compensation insurance held by an unlicensed contractor can also mean you’re legally responsible in the event of worker injury or death while working on your project. In the absence of a properly licensed contractor on your job site, the courts typically consider homeowners to be the official “contractor,” fully responsible for legal and financial liability claims.

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Filter Out the Riffraff

The entire purpose of contractor licensing is to reduce risk and uncertainty for homeowners. Not just anyone can get a contractor’s license and anyone holding a license has passed examinations and paid fees to get it. Sure, it’s possible that a licensed contractor can still do a bad job, and licensing should never take the place of due diligence when researching the track record of any contractor you’re considering. That said, one main advantage of licensing is that it filters out most of the riffraff.

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Licensing & Honesty

The most important quality of any contractor is honesty because there are a million ways a contractor could cheat you. And, while not every jurisdiction makes licensing mandatory, when a contractor chooses to be unlicensed, does it not raise questions? Did this contractor try to pass the licensing exam and fail? Has this unlicensed contractor committed some crime that prevents licensing? If a contractor won’t structure his business properly from the ground up with licensing, what does it say about his technical judgement on your project? When a contractor chooses to be licensed, it’s a public sign that they want to do things right; they’ve proven they’re competent and have the paperwork to prove it.

So is it smart to save a few bucks going unlicensed? I guess that depends on how much you’re willing to take on extra financial and legal risks during your renovation project.

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Steve Maxwell
Steve Maxwell is an award-winning content creator who has published more than 5,000 articles, shot countless photos and produced video since 1988. Using his experience as a carpenter, builder, stone mason and cabinetmaker, he has created content for Mother Earth News, Reader's Digest, Family Handyman, Cottage Life, Canadian Contractor, Canadian Home Workshop, and many more. Steve lives on Manitoulin Island, Canada with his wife and children in a stone house he built himself. His website gets 180,000+ views each month, his YouTube channel has 58,000+ subscribers and his weekly newsletter is received by 31,000 subscribers each Saturday morning.