Booking photo

Investigators take photographs of some of the contractors detained this week as part of the sting operation in Van Nuys. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The beige stucco home in Van Nuys looked nice enough from the front yard, but the kitchen and bathroom needed fresh paint and new tile. One by one, men advertising themselves as contractors stopped by to offer services to two women, Susana and Bertha, who said they owned the place.

As it turned out the women didn't own the home. And those weren't their real names.

They were state investigators taking part in undercover sting operations Wednesday and Thursday across California to crack down on unlicensed contractors.

"We're here to get you on the right track," Lydia Patron, an investigator with the Contractors State License Board, told a man as he sat handcuffed in the garage of the Van Nuys home. He didn't respond and just sat on a folding chair, seemingly dazed.
FOR THE RECORD:
Contractors sting: In the March 14 California section, a headline and subheadline on an article about state investigators taking part in undercover operations to crack down on unlicensed contractors said, "Unlicensed and unwelcome. A sting in Van Nuys, part of a larger operation, lures contractors who lack state approval." The individuals cited in the two-day operation were suspected of being unlicensed, but had not been convicted. The headline and some captions with an earlier online version of this article also referred to unlicensed contractors.

Last year, more than 700 unlicensed contractors were targeted by the state board in statewide undercover operations.

But authorities say the figure represents a small portion of the estimated thousands of unlicensed contractors working in the state on any given day. The illegal work undercuts legitimate businesses and poses a risk to homeowners should problems arise with projects.

Since April 2006, 56 people have been convicted in Los Angeles for failing to have contractor's licenses and other violations connected to home-improvement projects. Each has received jail time or community service, according to the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

In Van Nuys, 27 suspected illegal operators had been cited by Thursday evening on misdemeanor charges and were told that they would be mailed notices to appear in court. If convicted, they could face penalties, including jail and/or a $500 fine.

The two-day operation in Van Nuys was one of seven in California, including Anaheim, Solano Beach and Placerville.

On Thursday afternoon, authorities were still tallying the citations but said 92 had been issued statewide.

Investigators arrived before sunrise Wednesday at the Van Nuys home, on a quiet, tree-lined street near Lake Balboa.

Patron, who supervised the operation, set up a computer in the garage to check the status of contractor's licenses and hid inside with a state investigator and three officers from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Meanwhile, Susana and Bertha, actually board investigators, waited in the house to get bids as the would-be contractors arrived for appointments. They were identified from on-line advertisements and a "sting file" of names obtained from informants.

Jaime Renteria allegedly wanted $4,800 -- half of it up front -- to do work that included laying brick. Renteria was lured into the garage, where officers handcuffed him while they checked for warrants. He was released after being cited for failing to have a license and asking for an excessive down payment.

Under state law, contractors can generally only ask for a deposit of 10% of the project or $1,000, whichever is less.

Homeowners also can check the Contractor Board web page, www.cslb.ca.gov, to check a license status or call (800) 321-2752.

In an interview, an angry Renteria admitted not having a license but said authorities needed to target those who commit serious crimes. "It's not right," he said. "I'm just trying to work and feed my family."

Everyone cited was given a packet with information on obtaining a license. "One of our goals," Patron said, "is to educate people."

Abel Briones, cited after bidding to remodel the bathroom, said it was a positive experience. "Thank you," he told investigators as he shook their hands. "This has changed my life. I'm going to get my license."

robert.lopez@latimes.com