State official is the bane of bad builders

If a contractor disappears with your money and leaves you with a half-finished renovation, the guy you want to call is Charlie Durenberger.

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Charlie Durenberger is the state’s contractor cop. He has stories, advice and warnings for homeowners.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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If a contractor disappears with your money and leaves you with a half-finished renovation, the guy you want to call is Charlie Durenberger.

He is the state's chief enforcer of contractor licenses with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. In an administration that talks about getting government out of the way of business, Durenberger regularly puts contractors out of business. Last year, his office revoked a record 120 licenses and assessed $1.6 million in fines.

Whistleblower sat down with Durenberger last week to talk about how homeowners can protect themselves. The interview has been edited for length.

Q You've been policing contractors for nearly 20 years, ever since the state took over that duty from cities. What have you learned?

A Consumers need to be careful about who they hire and who they let into their home. ... It's really dangerous for a homeowner to enter into a contract with somebody without doing at least a minimal amount of due diligence, which includes checking with us that the contractor is licensed, and that the license is active. You can check litigation history. You can check individuals' criminal records.

Q What is something your office can't do?

A There's an expectation that we somehow police workmanship, and that we'll go out and look at work that a contractor did, and if we don't think that it's up to some standard, that we'll force them to fix it or give the homeowner money to hire somebody else. What we tell people is the only role that government has in enforcing or regulating workmanship is the state building code, and that's enforced at the local level.

If you have a workmanship complaint, call your city and ask the inspector if they'll come out and take a look at it. If there's a code violation, the inspector should write up a correction notice that goes to the contractor. We'll get involved if the contractor refuses to make the corrections ordered by the city.

Q Why do homeowners hire unlicensed contractors?

A I'll bet that for a third of the complaints that we get against unlicensed contractors, part of the response from the contractors is, 'I told these people I wasn't licensed, I told them we couldn't get building permits because I'm not licensed, and they were fine with that.' Yeah, they were fine with it until you started doing really crappy work, or you stopped showing up or you were drunk. I'm convinced that a lot of these homeowners know very well that the guy that they're hiring isn't licensed and all they care about is saving money.

Q Is there any bad contractor case that sticks with you?

A I was just thinking this morning about Rick Gurewitz from Home Update. I was wondering which prison he's sitting in today and what he was having for breakfast. ... [Gurewitz's company] found this little old lady in Minneapolis who had this tiny little house, and he got her to agree to hire him to do some remodeling work on the home. He ultimately ended up taking $750,000 over the course of a couple of years.

The thing that was really infuriating, when we subpoenaed their bank records, we could actually see [Gurewitz and his cohorts] were using these poor homeowners' life savings as their little bank. You could see checks made out to Northwest vacations, Timberwolves tickets.

Q Gurewitz is serving a three-year prison term after being convicted in 2007 of theft by swindle. Some of the less severe contractor transgressions are also criminal violations, so why aren't they being charged?

A Most cops have never heard of this law. Their first instinct when a homeowner calls them and says this contractor ripped me off, is, "It's civil." Part of it is educating these police departments about the laws that are on the books. It's a misdemeanor to work as a contractor without a license. It's a gross misdemeanor to work without a license after we've ordered a contractor to stop.

Q So what happens when you, the state's top watchdog of bad contractors, hire someone to work on your house?

A One of them was a roofer. I'll never forget this, it made me so mad. I knew that I didn't have enough vents in my roof, so I specifically put in the contract that they're going to add four more.

Sure enough, they put the vents right over the roof deck. They didn't even cut the hole. I knew the owner of the company. It was a Friday night, I called up and I got voice mail and I just reamed him out. I said, 'You know who I am, you know what I do and you allowed this to happen. What do you do to your other customers?'

Q Did they come back and fix it?

A Very quickly. I wasn't too brokenhearted when he went out of business.

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