Contractors Law Fails to Protect House Owners

Times Staff Writer

Anthony Guastella, where are you?

The Contractors State License Board would like to know. So would the Los Angeles city attorney's office, the judges who have issued bench warrants for his arrest and some San Fernando Valley residents who claim Guastella--an unlicensed swimming-pool contractor who allegedly goes by a variety of aliases--has bilked them out of thousands of dollars.

For 10 years, authorities have been looking for Guastella, who has had 28 formal complaints filed against him by customers. When someone calls the license board's office in Van Nuys to complain about the elusive contractor, investigators inevitably find that Guastella's trail ends at an answering service or a post office box or a bogus address.

"He's shifty," said Cy Kelly, an investigator with the license board. "He certainly hasn't held still long enough for anyone to nail him."

Officials with the contractors board say the tarnished record that operators like Guastella have compiled over the years is only one of many reasons why consumers should not hire an unlicensed contractor. By state law, a contractor must be licensed to perform any work that costs more than $200. At today's prices, officials note, that includes most jobs.

Taking a Risk

License board officials say not all unlicensed contractors are dishonest or incapable of completing jobs, but they insist that consumers are taking a risk if they hire one.

Despite the hazards, hiring unlicensed contractors is quite popular, primarily because they usually offer low rates. This has left state investigators shaking their heads and facing a mountain of complaints and paper work.

"People are gullible," said David R. Phillips, the licensing board's regional deputy in charge of enforcement for Southern California. "They will shop around for a $100 suit, but they will enter into a $20,000 or $30,000 home improvement contract just like that, without any questions being asked."

About 25% of the complaints the contractors board receives at its Valley office involve unlicensed contractors. That adds up to 350 to 400 cases a year. The same proportion applies to the rest of the state, which annually receives up to 22,000 complaints against contractors.

Although the number of complaints against unlicensed contractors has remained fairly steady for several years, it is slowly rising because the rejuvenated national economy has prompted more consumers to spruce up their homes and property.

High Frustration Factor

Although unlicensed contractors make up only about a quarter of the complaints, they represent "about 70% of the frustration," Kelly said.

The state has some control over licensed contractors but little over unlicensed ones. Licensed contractors post bonds and, if something goes wrong, the state can take disciplinary action, including taking their licenses away. The bond may also be forfeited.

To be licensed, a contractor must pass state tests and work as a journeyman to ensure that he or she is capable, for instance, of installing a swimming pool or building a room addition correctly. The board also maintains the addresses of all licensed contractors.

Investigators in the Valley estimate that 40% of the unlicensed contractors who have complaints lodged against them cannot be found.

The most common way unlicensed contractors find their way into people's homes is through community shoppers. State law requires contractors to list their license number in any advertisement, but cursory checks in some of these shoppers reveal that the requirement often is ignored.

Investigators say the license numbers contained in ads cannot be taken at face value anyway. Some unscrupulous contractors use other contractors' numbers or fabricate them.

Unlicensed contractors also enlist customers by cruising neighborhoods.

That is how Vivian Chin and Guillermo P. Avila, board-and-care home operators in Sylmar, happened to hire a man calling himself Leonardo, who presented a business card bearing the message "Jesus is Coming."

Leonardo noticed the owners were preparing to erect a fence on the property in January and he kept dropping by, offering to do the work, Chin said.

Man Disappeared

Eventually, Chin and Avila gave Leonardo the job and $600. After pocketing the money and unloading some iron fence parts on the lawn, Leonardo disappeared, Chin said. The partners paid someone else to build the fence, but the iron parts, now beginning to rust, still rest on the lawn.

They are not optimistic about getting their money back. "Even if you took him to Small Claims Court to sue him, how would we get anything out of him?" Chin asked.

The prospects of restitution usually are slim, state authorities say. If the contractors have not left town, they often do not have money to repay dissatisfied customers, authorities say.

Local prosecutors may file misdemeanor charges of operating without a license or of false advertising. But Mike Camplin, a senior investigator with the licensing board who takes many such cases to court, said judges often do not order a defendant to pay restitution.

That is what Tom and Takako Veteto of Valencia are worrying about. The couple hired Warren Glenn of Saugus to install a Doughboy pool in their backyard last year.

Lawns Were Ruined

Today, the Vetetos have no pool; their front and back lawns are ruined; their sprinkler system and hot tub are broken; a backhoe knocked a hole in their bedroom wall, and, they say, the foundation of their house came dangerously close to cracking.

The Vetetos paid Glenn $3,500 to install the pool, but they say they will spend $12,500 repairing the damage.

The Vetetos say their nightmare began one morning when they discovered a waterfall in their backyard. A plumbing spigot by the unfinished pool had exploded and unleashed the torrent.

Glenn told The Times that the spigot was part of the original plumbing system and that he is not responsible for the resulting mess. In any case, Glenn said, he offered to fix the wall, repair the sprinkler system and resod the lawn but was turned down after the Vetetos hired an attorney.

Camplin said the district attorney's office recently filed misdemeanor charges against Glenn for allegedly operating without a license, advertising without a license and using a license number that was not his.

In an interview, Glenn conceded to a reporter that he was using his father-in-law's license number in newspaper advertisements. When asked why he did that, he replied: "I don't know. It sounded like a good idea at the time."

'You Tend to Believe'

The Vetetos said they were surprised when they learned their contractor was unlicensed. "When someone says he is a contractor and has a license, you tend to believe him," Tom Veteto said.

State Sen. Ed Davis (R-Canoga Park) has introduced a bill this session that would give consumers victimized by unlicensed contractors additional recourse in civil courts. Currently, a homeowner may sue an unlicensed contractor for actual damages, but Davis' bill would allow plaintiffs to seek triple damages and recoup attorney costs. The bill would make it more financially feasible for consumers to sue.

"There is a real problem with unlicensed people getting in over their heads," Davis said. "The more we can keep them from plying their trade without a license, the better off consumers will be."

Often, the customers who hire unlicensed contractors are the ones least able to absorb the loss. The elderly are often preyed upon, investigators said. In a recent case, two elderly women in Glendale were victimized by a man they knew only as "John," who drove a blue Ford pickup truck.

The first woman employed the man to build a bathroom and gave him $3,000 in cash, half the cost of the project. A neighbor asked him to install a bathroom for her, too, and also gave him $3,000 in cash. He dug a small trench for the first customer before he vanished.

State Unable to Help

State investigators were powerless to help the women because they did not even know the contractor's full name.

One man whom investigators have identified to no avail is Guastella. Among the business names the contractors board knows he has used are Anthony Frederico & Associates; Tony's Pools, a division of Alpha-Omega Corp.; Creative Pools & Spas, and Aquatech.

State investigators said Guastella has been charged on seven occasions since 1975 for allegedly operating without a contractor's license. Guastella, however, never shows up for court appearances, they said.

His latest no-show was in January, when he was scheduled to be arraigned on another charge of working without a license, Kelly said. A message was left on Guastella's answering machine that the judge had issued a bench warrant for his arrest.

In general, disgruntled customers allege that Guastella, who has been the target of several lawsuits, does not finish his pools or completes them with shoddy workmanship.

Two of his alleged victims were Carl and Beth Buss of Northridge, who say they ended up paying $10,000 more than they expected to complete their pool after Guastella disappeared. They contemplated suing, but never did.

"I wasn't into paying an attorney $1,500 to try to catch a guy we couldn't find," said Beth Buss, a real estate agent. "I traced him back into Simi Valley. I had a home address, but he was long gone."

Investigators have been stymied in their efforts to find Guastella, who listed his age as 46 on a driver's license. Even locating his answering service has not helped because he paid the service in cash, investigators say.

When investigators tried to locate him through his driver's license last year, they discovered that the Woodland Hills address he listed did not exist. When investigators visited the address on one of his business cards, they found themselves in a dental laboratory.

Lack Power to Arrest

Even if the board did locate Guastella, Kelly said, "We don't have the power of arrest. We can't go out and arrest him." And, he said, apprehending unlicensed contractors is far down the priority list for police.

Guastella could not be reached for comment.

Camplin, the licensing board investigator, said there are several ways homeowners can protect themselves. First, a consumer should hire a contractor who has a valid license that is in good standing. The validity of a contractor's license number can be checked by calling the licensing board.

Additionally, a homeowner should check a contractor's past customers, never pay in cash, provide only a 10% or $1,000 down payment, whichever is less, and refuse to pay for work not completed. It is also generally unwise to deal with a contractor who gives a post office box for his address.

The licensing board will mail, free of charge, booklets that describe in detail the best way to hire a contractor. The Van Nuys office now receives about one call a month for the pamphlets.

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