California Contractor License Search

What You Should Know about Hiring a Contractor in California

There are over 280,000 licensed contractors in California, but only about 235,000 of these licensees are active and available for hire at a moment's notice. Hiring a licensed contractor gives you the assurance that the professional is appropriately trained and certified to complete your project satisfactorily. Generally, licensed contractors are also insured and bonded to save you any financial liability arising from damages to your property or injuries to any laborer on site. Verifying your contractor's license and other credentials will save you from ending up with the following:

  • Fraudulent contractors who can disappear with your money
  • Unverified contractors who can put your family's safety at risk
  • Unlicensed contractors who cannot complete your work per relevant industry standards

In California, most trades are licensed at the state level. So, in light of everything mentioned so far, you should consider the following points before hiring a contractor in California:

Who Is a Contractor in California?

Contractors are individuals or businesses that offer services based on a written or oral agreement. Contractors must be licensed by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) before bidding for or working on projects valued at $500 or more (this includes the cost of labor and necessary materials). While the CSLB currently licenses contractors in over 40 classifications ranging from plumbing, electrical, and HVAC work to general contracting, painting, carpentry, and roofing, they can be grouped into two main categories:

  • General Contractors: General contractors oversee construction and home or property improvement projects. These contractors are usually the project owner's primary point of contact and are responsible for coordinating the activities of specialty contractors involved in these projects. The CSLB offers three licensing options for general contracting:
    • Class A – General Engineering Contractor: these contractors oversee construction projects that require specialized engineering knowledge and skill. These typically include industrial-scale projects like highways, playgrounds, airports, chemical plants, and utility plant construction projects.
    • Class B – General Building Contractor: these contractors oversee and manage residential or commercial construction and property improvement projects that involve two or more unrelated building trades or crafts. General building contractors can also perform carpentry and framing work; however, they must subcontract other tasks to appropriately licensed specialty contractors (unless they hold the required license).
    • Class B2 – Residential Remodeling Contractor: these contractors oversee remodeling, repair, and improvement projects on existing residential buildings that involve at least three unrelated building trades or crafts. Residential remodeling contractors can also perform nonstructural work and make minor alterations to existing electrical, mechanical, or plumbing systems (solely for the purpose of installing, repairing, or replacing electrical, mechanical, and plumbing fixtures) on these projects.
  • Specialty Contractors: these contractors are authorized to provide specific construction and home improvement-related tasks, like plumbing, HVAC (heating, cooling, ventilation, and air conditioning) work, electrical work, painting, masonry, and roofing. Specialty contractors are often called "subcontractors" and are typically hired by a general contractor to perform a specific task or provide a particular service related to the construction project. However, you may hire a specialty contractor directly for projects involving a single job.

How to Search for a Contractor's License in California

The Contractors State License Board (CSLB) licenses and regulates 44 classes of contractors. Currently, there are over 250,000 licensed contractors in California available for hire. You can verify whether your prospective contractor has a valid CSLB-issued license using the Uhire professional license search or the CSLB's Check a License page (these tools let you conduct searches via the contractor's personal name, business name, or license number).

Penalty for Hiring a Contractor Without a License in California

While there are no specific penalties outlined for hiring an unlicensed contractor in California, there are several disadvantages to doing so:

  • You risk hiring an unqualified and incompetent contractor, resulting in shoddy and subpar service delivery.
  • Unlicensed contractors are also likely to be uninsured and bonded. This invariably means that you can be held liable for any injuries and property damage that may occur during the project.
  • Unlicensed contractors cannot pull required permits from local building departments. Completing projects without all necessary permits can impact your property's value negatively and result in financial penalties for building code violations.

On the other side, be aware that it is a misdemeanor to practice as a contractor without a license in California; violators face penalties of up to six months in jail and fines of up to $15,000 (repeat offenders face even steeper penalties).

How Much Does a Contractor Charge in California?

Specialty contractors typically charge an average of $50 - $150 per hour for their services, and their overall fees are determined by the complexity and labor intensity of the tasks they are hired for.

The table below provides average hourly rates for commonly requested subcontractors in California (note that factors like your location and the subcontractor's local reputation may influence actual costs):

$75 - $125
$75 - $125
HVACR Technicians
$70 - $120
$50 - $80
$50 - $75
$55 - $110
Flooring Contractors
$50 - $80
$60 - $120
$50 - $95
$75 - $200
Interior Designers
$70 - $185
Excavation Contractors
$100 - $250
Concrete Contractors
$60 - $120
$50 - $75
Appliance Repair Technicians
$50 - $100
$50 - $105
Cleaning Services
$50 - $100
$55 - $150

A typical residential or commercial project requires more than one specialty contractor. To save you the time, cost, and hassle of handling multiple professionals, hiring a general contractor to manage the entire project is smart. The project's overall cost typically determines the general contractor's fees. These fees usually range between 10 to 20 percent of the project's total value and are calculated using any of the following methods:

  • Fixed Price Method: here, the contractor agrees to work on the project for a pre-determined fee. This method is preferable for projects with a clear scope and fixed timeline.
  • Cost Plus Fee Method: here, the contractor charges for actual work done on the project and includes a markup for all services rendered. This method is preferable for large projects with unclear timelines. However, it is advisable to insist on a guaranteed maximum price to avoid costs from ballooning.

In general, construction and home remodeling projects in California can cost you anywhere from $150 - $450 per square foot, with overall costs determined by factors like the following:

  • The nature and scope of the project
  • The cost of required materials
  • Your location
  • Accessibility to the project site and site conditions
  • Contractor charges
  • The reputation and experience of involved contractors
  • The urgency of the required services
  • Permit costs, labor fees, and other miscellaneous expenses

Tips for Hiring a Contractor in California

Considering the amount of money typically involved in the construction, improvement, installation, maintenance, and repair of property and its fixtures, it is necessary to ensure that the contractors you hire are up to the task. The first step to doing this is clearly understanding what the project entails and determining the types of contractors needed. Subsequently, you should consider the following tips before hiring any contractors in California:

  • Always hire state-licensed contractors. You can confirm your contractor's license status with the CSLB online or by calling (800) 321-2752.
  • Get and compare bids for your projects from up to three contractors.
  • Ask each bidder for references and check them.
  • Insist on getting a written contract that includes all project expectations and agreements before any work starts. Make sure you review and understand the contract before signing.
  • Ensure the contractor (and all involved subcontractors) is adequately insured and bonded.
  • Never pay the total cost of the project upfront. Per state law, down payments for home improvement projects in California should never exceed $1,000 or 10 percent of the project's total cost, whichever is less (while this law does not cover commercial projects, you should consider limiting down payments for these projects to 10 – 30 percent of the total cost, depending on the scale of the project).
  • Make sure the project has been completed satisfactorily before making the final payment.
  • Avoid cash payments.
  • Keep copies of all documentation (like receipts, invoices, warranties, and contracts) related to the project.

Is Your Contractor Insured and Bonded as Required by California Statutes?

Per the requirements of the Contractors State License Board (the state's contractor regulatory agency), California contractors must post and maintain a $25,000 surety bond and carry workers' compensation insurance for their employees; contractors without any employees have to provide a signed and certified exemption to this effect. Also, even though it is not compulsory, the board strongly recommends that contractors carry commercial general liability insurance. Note that contractors who wish to offer home improvement and remodeling services must inform their clients whether they have liability insurance coverage.

Checking whether your prospective contractors are properly insured and bonded protects you financially and legally if unforeseen events, like bodily injuries, accidental property damage, and contractor errors, occur during your project. Note that insurance and bonding offer distinct forms of protection. Insurance typically protects the project owner and contractor and prevents the former from incurring out-of-pocket expenses from accidents and injuries. On the other hand, bonds primarily protect project owners and ensure that they do not bear the cost of any damages caused by the contractor's failure to do the job as promised.

Always request proof of insurance and bonding from your prospective contractors before committing to them. Also, ensure that their general liability coverage is adequate for the scope of your project. You can request copies of their insurance (and bond) certificates and contact the issuing agencies to validate them. Contact the Contractors State License Board at (800) 321-2752 for additional information on California contractors' mandatory insurance and bond requirements.

Top Home Improvement Scams in California

Home improvement scams are prevalent in California: approximately 2.7 out of every 10,000 homeowners fall victim to these scams annually. In 2022 alone, the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB) received 20,527 complaints against contractors across the state (licensed and unlicensed), representing a 19 percent increase from the previous year's complaints.

Some common tactics that fraudulent contractors use to scam Californian homeowners include the following:

  • Going door-to-door soliciting for work at a discounted rate
  • Offering free home inspections and suddenly "discovering" problems that need urgent work
  • Using high-pressure sales and scare tactics to get homeowners to sign up for or overpay for services without doing their due diligence
  • Grossly inflating the cost of required materials for the project
  • Requesting complete or large upfront payments and insisting on cash
  • Downplaying the importance of written contracts
  • Offering contracts with malicious clauses or blank spaces (that can be filled in later)

You can avoid these scams by taking the following actions before committing to contractors:

  • Be wary of unsolicited contractors and home improvement services.
  • Always hire appropriately licensed contractors.
  • Get and compare quotes for your project from several contractors.
  • Always do your due diligence on prospective contractors. Request references, look them up online, confirm they aren't featured on the CSLB's Most Wanted list, and ensure they are adequately insured and bonded.
  • Insist on written contracts and review these contracts carefully before signing.
  • Never sign any documents you do not clearly understand.
  • Request lien waivers from your general contractor and all involved subcontractors.
  • Limit down payments to $1,000 or 10% of the project's total, whichever is less.
  • Avoid cash payments.

How to Report Fraudulent California Contractors

You can report contractor scams and seek remedies against fraudulent contractors in California through several agencies, depending on the nature of the case.

California Contractors State License Board

For contractors working without a license, working without adequate workers' compensation insurance, or not paying the prevailing wages, you can file a complaint with the CSLB (matters involving licensed contractors can also be filed with this agency).

California Attorney General's Office

For cases of uncompleted projects, excessive charges, and deceptive practices resulting in financial loss or theft, it is appropriate to report such matters to the California Attorney General's Office. You can also consider reporting these issues to your local DA's office.

Small Claims Court

If the contractor has failed to meet the terms of the signed contract, you may consider filing a small claims case against them (note that you cannot file cases worth more than $10,000 in small claims courts). It is advisable to report the issue to the CSLB and your local DA's office before taking this step. There is a $30 fee for filing small claims cases less than $1,500, $50 for claims more than $1,500 but less than or equal to $5,000, and $75 if the claim is for more than $5,000.

Better Business Bureau (BBB)

Alternatively, you may report a fraudulent contractor to the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau. The BBB encourages locals to file complaints against a contractor, share their experience about a business, warn others about a misleading advert, or report a scam.

The Police Department

Note that when a contractor physically threatens or steals from you, it is best to report such cases to your local police department first.