Dear PoPville – Would we be crazy to use a non licensed contractor?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Néstor Sánchez Cordero

Dear PoPville,

We are getting ready to begin a bathroom renovation followed by a kitchen renovation. I am in the process of getting bids from various contractors, however, we have had a number of contractors recommended by neighbors who are not licensed in DC or bonded. Has anyone had experience in dealing with similarly situated contractors? Would we be fools to use a company that claims to be new to the area and is not licensed in DC?

30 Comment

  • Yep. Only licensed contractors can get permits, and you will need a permit for a bathroom renovation. If you don’t get a permit and do the work and the city finds out you’ll get a stop work Order and hefty fine, that you will have to pay. Also, if they’re not bonded and they screw something up and damage your house, you will not be able to sue them for damages — they’re all judgment proof. Then your insurance won’t pay for the damages b/c you hired unlicensed and unbonded contractors. There are plenty of licensed and bonded contractors out there looking for the work, so there’s no need to put yourself at risk.

  • Do not hire an unlicensed contractor. We did an extensive renovation in our house *with* a licensed contractor and it was a complete sh*tstorm trying to get them to take care of the damage they caused to parts of our house. If it was that big of a headache for us, I can’t imagine what it would be like with an unlicensed company.

  • greenroofgoddess

    Under DC law, you can use an unlicensed contractor, but they are not allowed to request/demand or accept payment until the work is completed. If you can find an unlicensed contractor that does good work and will accept those terms, go for it. Just complete the bathroon rennovation before you have them start the kitchen so you are not stuck with two half-baked rennovations if something goes bad.

    Also, depending on the extent of the work, you can pull most of the permits yourself, and “postcard permits” should cover most of the work if you are simply repairing and replacing exhisting cabinets, etc. Unlicensed contractors can get insurance policies for your project in DC, but make sure you are listed as an additional beneficiary so that you can file a claim (not just them) if something goes wrong.

    • …most of the permits except the plumbing and electrical…which would be central to any bathroom/kitchen renovation.

  • Depends.

    Most folks don’t need permits when they renovate bathrooms/kitchens as you can demo, frame (under a certain linear feet of non structural framing) install tiles, all without permits.

    99% of people, even in a serious renovation don’t change plumbing or electrical alignments. They slap a new tub/toilet/vanity in and put n some new tile.

    Same for kitchen (appliances, cabinents, flooring etc)

    If your scope of work meets the above, and you are being recommended someone who has been in the area awhile and has references (especially ones known to you) then sure I would use a non-licensed contractor and have done so in the past.

    If you are doing any structural changes, moving plumbing or electrical then I would make sure your guy is licensed as it makes it easier to recoup damages if he does any.

  • If you don’t pull permits and nothing goes wrong are there any repercussions later when perhaps selling? If you went from a half to a full bath is it not ‘official’?… Though I’ve seen plenty of listings that didn’t match to the official city assessments.

    • The “official city assessments” are rarely correct. Mine says I have A/C, 4 bedrooms, and 2 bath. I actually have no A/C, 3 bedrooms, and 1 bath.

      So maybe I should renovate without permits to match the city’s assessments?

  • Depends. Do you feel lucky?

  • If you have a good idea of what’s involved in the renovations, know how the work ought to be done, and are willing to micro-mange, then you should go for the cheapest contractor available who can demonstrate the capability to do decent work and not worry about licencing (unless you really care about permits and need ones that you can’t pull for your project). Otherwise, you should hire the best, most extensively referenced/reviewed licenced contractor available and not worry much at all about price.

  • Let me be less vague:

    I’ve worked with both. I have an unlicensed guy I trust. He has someone that pull permits for him. He is much cheaper than most and does a pretty good job. He usually leaves 1 or 2 things 95% done and I have to finish it up trim, patching etc. For his price I can live with that.

    I also used an unlicensed guy who was good but didn’t pull the permit and we got a Stop Work Order and a fine for 2G’s- I won’t be using him

    I’ve also used licensed contractors for the roof, the heavy up electrical, some plumbing and a retaining wall. They’ve all been pretty good but 2x as expensive as my unlicensed guy I trust.

    Hope this helps.

  • I would never use a contractor who is “new to the area and unlicensed”. I have done multiple renovations to my condo and actually managed an entire common areas renovation of our historical building. I have only used 2 contractors, both of which I have gone to multiple times. Once is licensed in DC (Danny) and one is not (Jose).

    The one licensed just did my entire kitchen and it came out great. He also did extensive hardwood floor repair after a radiator leak.

    The unlicensed one did the entire condo building renovation which had extensive plaster/wall repair. I know he does kitchens and baths…I actually recommended him to a fellow resident and he did a total bath for him. He also stripped all paint from the walls and trim in my place and restored the plaster walls and painted everything perfectly.

    If your kitchen may need wall repair, I suggest Jose as he is absolutely the best at wall restoration (and at painting by the way). He can do pretty much all.

    If not, then Danny would be fine. If you need floor work as well, Danny is the guy.

    Both guys have their quirks as with all contractors. If you need info let me know.

    • PDleftMtP

      Totally off topic – please to explaining the handle?

      7 Mile and Livernois

    • I would love to get more info about you guys.

      • sure. send me an email to detroitkarma at yahoo. It’s my junk email so i’m not worried about it getting flooded but I’ll keep an eye out for your message.

        Ref the handle question… I’m from Detroit where I spent some years as an electronic music event promoter, in which “karma” was a part of the production name.

  • I have used both. I would say that the most important consideration is the contractor’s experience with DC houses and his/her reputation. There are some great unlicensed contractors out there and also a bunch of hacks, so don’t use anyone who does not come highly recommended. Same goes for the licensed ones. For licensed contractors, I always start with Consumer’s Checkbook (, which rates contractors (and other trades/professions) based on member feedback. There is a small membership fee, but I have found it well worth it.

    • Kenyon,

      Thanks for the feedback. I am not familiar with Is it any better than Angie’s List? I’m about to start interviewing contractors for a major renovation and am very interested in finding the “best” contractor I can.



      • I’ve never used Angie’s List. I know that Checkbook is local, and it’s non-profit. I have found their recommendations to be pretty reliable. In addition to member reviews, they also do price surveys. For each contractor, they will give you the feedback stats and then identify a few that get their top rating for price and for quality. I generally look for contractors that get top ratings in both, and it has worked well.

  • Depends.
    Back when I was younger I had a contractor do the kitchen, he wasn’t licensed yet, but he had done a bigger job for some friends of mine and at the time all his business was via word of mouth. I was happy with him. Fast forward to now where I have some grey hairs same contractor has done major $$$ work on the house and his company (he’s gotten bigger since our younger years) is now doing work on my house as I type.

    I did some serious digging and interviewing of his references when he was unlicensed. If you really like their work AND you can pull the postcard permits yourself AND you’ve asked some hard questions for his/her past 3 references, then go for it. If you are a weak interviewer, don’t know what their previous work looks like, or what you need done goes beyond the postcard permit, don’t do it. If they are so new to the area that they don’t have any east coast references, don’t bother (if they are out from the west coast don’t bother either, the time differences to catch up with the references is too much of a PITA). Oh, and if those references aren’t really glowing, don’t bother, and move on to the next guy/gal.

  • I used an unlicensed guy (recommended by a neighbor) on a bathroom renovation at my first property. His quote was by far the cheapest of the 3 I obtained for the project. Going with him was one of the best financial decisions I’ve ever made. Several years later, we’ve maintained a relationship and he’s remodeled a bathroom, a basement and two kitchens for me. I suppose I lucked out. I did use a licensed electrician for a heavy-up, mainly because of required permits.

  • I’ve used a neighbor-recommended non-licensed contractor for a few small projects – laying floor tiles, installing a garbage disposal etc. I hesitated over having him install a new water heater because of the licensing issues, but did decide to go with him – since I would technically be “allowed” to install it as a DIY project anyway. Was so impressed with his work that I simply loaned him the money to get his license – to be worked off in future jobs.

  • There are so many contractors in DC and it’s a competitive market – I don’t think price and license are necessarily correlated. But someone that has made the investment in their business to get the license and insurance conveys that they are more serious and professional to me than one who hasn’t. I wouldn’t take chances with unlicensed contractor unless you know enough to oversee their work very closely. Maybe you pay a little more but you have some protection if things go wrong if you hire a licensed contractor. And believe things DO. GO. WRONG. tell your unlicensed guy to call you when he goes and gets his license. As a homeowner it is faster for you to go to the homeowner center at dcra to pull permits yourself. Definitely recommend going that route if you are doing more than just putting in some new cabinets and that kind of thing. Do yourself the favor of working with licensed tradespeople though.

  • there are few easier things in dc than to obtain an “home improvement contractor” license.

    I got one and I don’t know a thing about it

    red flags if they don’t.

  • I’ve used unlicensed contractors and licensed ones.

    Surprisingly, the worst experience I had was with the licensed one.

    I would say, over all, it depends.

    If its simple, with very little safety risk or property damage risk, then go for the cheaper one.

    One thing i think is very important to consider is that you may be liable for the safety of contractors – so you need to talk to your insurance company. If they are bonded and insured, you dont have to worry.

    This is particularly important if they’re getting on ladders and getting on your roof.

  • I had an awful experience, a friend recomended me a guy because he did some remodeling in her house, after having doubts I asked her what kind of job he did for her, and she says “oh, he is great he did a backsplash in my tiny kitchen” he found about him in CRAIGLIST, a big red light went on, then I google the guys name, and he has scary reviews. my advice, subdivide your project, and give a particular kind of job, to a specialized contractor (plumbing to a plumber, drywall to a drywaller, electricity to an electrician, you may risk to pay an incompetent and lose the money, the materials and have to redo everything, be careful.

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