There are exceptions for certain specialty trades. New Hampshire does require licensing of plumbers, electricians, septic system installers, water well contractors, asbestos abatement and lead abatement contactors. The Department of Transportation also requires bidder prequalification for its projects, a process that does inquire somewhat into the bidder’s experience and abilities. But when it comes to most tasks involved in the construction process, be it digging a cellar hole, pouring concrete, framing, roofing, installing HVAC or masonry, anyone can be in business, whether or not they know which end of a hammer to grab or which lever of a backhoe to pull. It’s not that our Legislature thinks that contractors can do less damage than barbers (they surely realize that a bad haircut eventually corrects itself, a bad building doesn’t). Still, every time a bill has been before the Legislature to require statewide licensing of contractors, it has been defeated. Soundly.
If I may offer my $0.02 here, I don’t see a compelling need for contractor licensing, even in the residential arena where owners tend to be less sophisticated than their commercial counterparts and less likely to engage an architect or other professional to protect their interests by reviewing compliance with plans and specs and certifying payment of requisitions.
First, in construction settings the market does a particularly good job of weeding out incompetence. The various trades involved in constructing a building are coordinated by a general contractor who interfaces with the owner, relieving the owner of the burden of hiring individual subs. The GC is in a far better position than the owner to check on the competence of drywallers, insulators, painters, etc. – and has every incentive to hire only the good ones, because the GC is on the hook to the owner for their performance. If they are bad, they make the GC look bad -- and in this era of electronic communication and Better Business Bureau/Angie’s List websites, bad builders don’t last in business.
Second, most municipalities have building inspectors and code enforcement officers whose job it is to review construction for compliance with building code requirements. When they do their job right, this regulatory inquiry provides owners with at least some basic protection from unsafe structures – which is precisely the rationale of a licensing scheme. Sure, they miss things occasionally, but a builder can’t count on that, and so must at least try to build a code-compliant structure.
I am not saying that there is no need for legislation of any kind related to contractors – but I do think that where problem areas are identified, legislation addressing them should be targeted and narrow. For example, one of the largest category of complaints against contractors made to the Consumer Protection Bureau at the Attorney General’s Office is not poor quality construction, but abandonment of the project after taking a substantial deposit. That type of fraudulent practice can be dealt with by requiring a surety bond as a condition of taking a sizeable deposit. A full blown licensing law would be overkill here.
All things considered, the quality of construction in the Granite State does not appear to be below average. If it ain't broke . . .