There is no State wide law requiring a contractor that is performing home improvement in New York to have a license. However, almost every jurisdiction, if not every jurisdiction, requires that contractors hold a home improvement licenses before they can perform home improvement activities. The lack of a uniform rule and definition of "home improvement" across the state of New York presents a problem because it prevents contractors from working across jurisdictions without obtaining a new license and can often confuse contractors about whether a license is needed in the first place.
My legal practice focuses primarily in the New York City metropolitan area so I can state the following with certainty: if you perform home improvement work within the City of New York (Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan or Staten Island) you must have a home improvement license issued by the New York City Office of Consumer Affairs; if you perform work within Westchester County you must have a home improvement licenses issued by Westchester; if you perform work within Nassau County you must have a home improvement license issued by Nassau County Consumer Affairs; and if you perform work in Suffolk County you must have a home improvement licenses issued by Suffolk County Consumer Affairs. There are also a number of Villages and Towns that require a further license. For example, the Town of South Hampton requires a home improvement licensed issued by South Hampton in order to perform work within the Town of Southampton - even if you have a Suffolk County Home Improvement License! The problem, for contractors, with the licensing statutes is that even if you are licensed in one jurisdiction, you likely still cannot perform work in another jurisdiction without a license from that other jurisdiction. For example, if you hold a home improvement license in New York City and want to perform work in Suffolk County you must obtain a Suffolk County Home Improvement License before you can perform the work in Suffolk.
Notably, there are a number of exceptions to the home improvement rule. Be sure that the work you are performing actually constitutes home improvement. For example, some jurisdictions do not consider demolition work to be home improvements. Other jurisdictions consider landscaping to be home improvement. Also, a number of jurisdictions have exceptions to the licensing requirement if the home is a "new construction". If you are at all uncertain about whether you need a license, check; because the consequences for performing work without a license can be severe.
There are a number of potential consequences for performing home improvement work without a proper home improvement license. First, the Courts in New York have determined that if you do not hold a home improvement license, and perform home improvement work and are not paid, you do not have the right to file a lawsuit to collect your money. That's right - even if you did the work and did a wonderful job, if you have no license, that's it - end of story. Second, if you do not have a valid home improvement license you do not have the right to file a mechanic's lien in New York. Of course since you cannot file a lawsuit to collect your unpaid balance the mechanic's lien will provide you with little help in any event. Third, you can be subject to administrative fines for performing home improvement work without a valid home improvement license. Fourth, you can go to jail! That's right, in some jurisdictions performing home improvement work without a valid license is a crime.
With all of these consequences it is vital that contractors make sure that they hold the proper license before engaging in any home improvement work. If you are not sure, consult with the local licensing authority or consult with a local construction attorney. A simple phone call might prevent you from working for free or, worst, going to jail.
There are a number of people within New York, including the author of this article, that believe the licensing statutes and the severe consequences need changes to prevent hard working contractors from being punished for what may be nothing more than a mistake in knowing that license was required. There are cases working their way through the court systems that are trying to challenge, and at least limit, these statutes and their consequences. We will keep you updated on these developments right here at the New York Construction Law Update.
Vincent T. Pallaci is a partner at the New York law firm of Kushnick Pallaci, PLLC where his practice focuses primarily on the area of construction law. He can be reached at (631) 752-7100 or firstname.lastname@example.org