Julie Lanham thought she was being a smart consumer when she hired a contractor to build a room addition at her Grovetown home.
"I called some references that he gave me, followed up on them, called the Better Business Bureau - they had no complaints against him," Mrs. Lanham said. "I did my homework. I didn't just give him my money and hope for the best."
After she paid David Edlund a $4,500 down payment on the $18,000 job, however, Mrs. Lanham said he showed up for a few days, tore out her patio, then left early one Friday and never came back.
Days later, Mrs. Lanham and her husband called the builder's Beech Island number and discovered it was disconnected.
That started a long road through the court system, which ruled that Mr. Edlund owed the couple $7,000 for the money he took for the unfinished job and for the damage he did to their yard with a tractor.
Attempts to reach Mr. Edlund for comment were unsuccessful. The phone number for his construction business is disconnected, and he does not have a residential listing in the area.
Even with the court judgment in their favor, the Lanhams have never seen a dime.
"I've pretty much kissed that money goodbye," Mrs. Lanham said. "There needs to be a phone number you can call, not this acts-of-Congress way of finding out who to call to check a contractor."
A new ordinance that is expected to sail through the Columbia County Commission on Tuesday is poised to do that, by requiring mandatory registration for any builder working in the county.
The move would make Columbia County the fifth in the state to adopt a licensing law for general contractors.
Although every state surrounding Georgia requires licensing, only electricians, heating-and-air-conditioning contractors, plumbers and utility contractors must get state approval to work on building projects in Georgia.
Columbia County's ordinance would require the same for general contractors, home inspectors and subcontractors, including roofers, pool contractors, landscapers and yard-sprinkler installers.
"It's intended to protect homeowners in the county," Columbia County building official Richard Harmon said of the new law, which took nearly two years to finalize.
To get a license, workers will be required to show proof they have successfully built three projects in the past two years, show proof they are in good standing in any other state that has mandatory licensing or pass a competency test.
On top of the liability insurance and bonding they already have to show to obtain a business license, the new rule requires contractors to show proof of workers' compensation insurance.
The ordinance is backed by the Builders Association of Metro Augusta, which wants regulation to discourage rogue builders who give the legitimate builders a bad reputation.
Richmond County building officials have been keeping a close eye on Columbia County's ordinance.
"I think the construction board is unanimous in wanting to recommend to the Augusta Commission that they also adopt it," said Rob Sherman, Richmond County's director of license and inspection.
For Rob Hamilton, an Augusta general contractor, the success of Columbia County's law will be measured in how well it weeds out unscrupulous builders.
"If you have a dissatisfied customer, there's nothing that's done about it," he said. "I think the easiest thing to do would just be to revoke their license to do business in the county."
In August 2002, Mr. Hamilton hired Lord's Roofing and Construction in Grovetown to work on a rental house he owns in Columbia County.
When he checked the finished job, Mr. Hamilton said, the work was shoddy, with exposed nails and leaky patches.
Owner David Lord said the problems stemmed from an inexperienced worker on the job.
"He put nails in the wrong place," he said. "We do good work, but I can't be standing over everybody all the time."
Like most of the cases involving building disputes, the matter ended up in Civil Court. In April, Mr. Hamilton won a judgment in his favor for $2,000.
The court has yet to serve Mr. Lord with the court order, however, meaning that Mr. Hamilton has not received his money.
"I don't understand how he can keep on doing business in Columbia County," Mr. Hamilton said. "To me, they ought to be able to shut him down."
The enforcement behind Columbia County's proposed licensing rule includes complaint forms for disputed building work. The homeowner, commercial property owner or a county building official can submit a complaint form, which Mr. Harmon said is detailed enough to focus on legitimate claims of code violations.
County officials will inspect the site and give a contractor 30 days to fix any problem that exists. After that, the case will go before the county's construction advisory board, which can take away a contracting license.
Mr. Harmon said stricter regulations have pushed ahead in Columbia County while a statewide law languished because the local ordinance has the support of area builders.
"I think the benefit is that we will, from the local standpoint, be able to control it a lot better than they can from Atlanta," Mr. Harmon said. "My understanding is that they've been trying since 1976, so it hasn't happened yet."
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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