Why you should always check a contractor’s license

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Out of money and out of patience!

That's how a local couple described their frustrations after their home construction was put on hold due to the work of an unlicensed contractor and rules, or lack thereof, from local regulators.

The On Your Side Investigators discovered, the same thing could happen to you.

It was a hot Monday morning when we met Ulice Benson, Jr.

At the time, MLGW workers were trying to restore power to the home Benson plans to share with his girlfriend.  It was a day they had been waiting on for weeks.

Benson is helping to renovate the fixer upper, but before power could be turned on, they needed a new weatherhead and meter box.

After getting three quotes, they hired Paul Atkins of Charter Electrical Contractors.

"I haven't found any problems with his work," said Benson.

However, that's where things get complicated.

"It was only when we went to Code Enforcement we found out his license was no longer good," Benson explained.

Benson and his girlfriend needed to have Shelby County Construction Code Enforcement conduct a safety inspection of Atkins' work before MLGW could turn on the power.

Unfortunately, that couldn't happen.  Director Allen Medlock explains why. "Without an issued permit, we can't make an inspection."

Turns out, Atkins' state license expired in April.

Medlock says computers caught the lapse, but the only problem was, Atkins had already done the work and paid for the permit.

"You get the permit and you do the work, you don't do the work and get a permit, the reasons are obvious," Medlock added.

What's not as obvious is a clear way to police that process.

You see, contractors submit their application and fee, but they're only notified if there's a problem.

So, it's pretty standard procedure for contractors to assume the permit's approved.

Code Enforcement actually issued Atkins nine permits after his license lapsed and before their computers caught it.

While his state license expired in April, their system had his local registration date as June 30th which coincides with a local, license renewal period.

WREG asked Medlock, "What if you had a process where you contacted them no matter what?"

He said lack of manpower prevents that type of communication. "I'd have to hire about 50 more people to do that."

Medlock says his inspectors watch out for unlicensed work in the field.

Contractors can also check the status of their application over the phone, and Shelby County is hoping to eventually move to an online system.

The good news is that, after the On Your Side Investigators got involved, Code Enforcement completed the inspection.

Medlock said, "We really hated to penalize the homeowner and we tried to make some kind of allowance to try to get her power on."

Atkins has since renewed his state license.

The On Your Side Investigators asked him for an on camera interview and he refused, so we spoke over the phone.

Atkins claimed, "I never received renewal is what happened so I forgot about it."

However, state officials confirmed it's not the first time it's happened.

His license also lapsed for a month in 2012.

Atkins also has two open complaints at the state level.

The Board for Licensing Contractors scheduled a formal hearing regarding one of them.

The complaint alleges Atkins never pulled a permit after being paid in full for his work.

The board also sent him two warning letters for other complaints, including another where the homeowner said Atkins didn't finish the work, and didn't get an inspection done.

He was also accused of claiming to be a member of the Better Business Bureau and other trade organizations when he wasn't.

Atkins also failed to appear before the local, Electrical Board in 2013 after doing work without the proper permits.

Benson says they've learned a costly and time consuming lesson. He has some advice for others searching for a contractor.

"Ask about their previous work, find out if there were any problems and just sort of do a better job looking into it."

You can search to see if a company is licensed here.

You can also find out if the person has faced any disciplinary action in the past or see if the company is on the Problem Contractor's List.

Medlock says area residents can also check for licensing and registration at his office. Call 901-222-8300 and press the command for the specific division you're interested in contacting.