The Consequences of Doing Unlicensed Contractor Work in California

Tempted to do unlicensed contracting work in California? Thinking you can save money and time by skipping the CSLB’s arduous licensing process by simply making a backroom deal? Maybe you can hire your nephew as a concrete subcontractor under the table and save money on taxes?

Sounds good, right?


When it comes to doing unlicensed contracting work in California, you need to consider the consequences. In California, there are serious consequences for doing unlicensed contracting work on jobs over $500 – including facing time in jail.

Still – you might think you’ll get away with it, but we’re here to tell you: it’s simply not worth the trouble. Why? Let’s find out.

What is a CSLB Contractor’s License?

The CSLB Contractor’s License

The CSLB (California State License Board) contractor’s license is a certification issued by the state of California to individuals and businesses in the construction industry, ensuring they meet the necessary qualifications and standards. It covers various classifications, including general building, specialty trades, and engineering.

The Importance of Licensure

The whole point of a CSLB license is to ensure safety and security when it comes to construction. People need to know they’re safe in their homes, workplaces, bars, restaurants, and go-kart tracks. The CSLB license ensures that you not only have a verified professional doing your job – but that you have a way to fix any issues a contractor may cause you.

A CSLB license signals to clients that you are worth the time and money they’re investing in you – the CSLB serves as a gold standard for construction professionals in the state.

Do I Need a Contractor’s License to Do Contracting Work?

In California, it’s mandatory for any contract over $500 (labor and materials) to be undertaken by a licensed contractor. This requirement safeguards consumers from potential fraud and ensures that all work meets specific safety and quality standards.

While you can stick to jobs under $500 for your whole career – a construction job known colloquially as a handyman – most construction contractors want to reach for the stars and grow their careers and businesses. If you have any ambition as a contractor, you need a CSLB license.

What Happens if You’re Caught Doing Unlicensed Construction Work in California?

Immediate Repercussions

Contractors found working without a license face severe penalties, including fines, cease-and-desist orders, and the possibility of criminal charges – all of which are designed to stop unlicensed activity before anyone can get hurt or suffer losses.

And California is always watching – the CSLB has done at least 10 separate stings just last year, involving over 20 unlicensed contractors operating in the state. Many of these contractors were pulled off the job site, arrested on the spot by local authorities, and compelled to serve jail time.

If you’re doing unlicensed work and someone finds out, they’re going to get you and get you quick!

Who Enforces Contractor’s Licenses in California?

CSLB’s Role

The CSLB is responsible for enforcing contractor licensing laws in California. Through investigations, sting operations, and consumer reports, the CSLB ensures compliance and prosecutes violations.

The CSLB’s license task force is called SWIFT. SWIFT (CSLB’s Statewide Investigative Fraud Team) is responsible for enforcement across the state. They work together with local law enforcement to perform stings against unlicensed contractors operating in the state.

Recent sting operations by the CSLB in counties like Orange and Sonoma have resulted in several unlicensed contractors being caught and facing legal action.

For instance, in June 2023 in Orange County, eight individuals received Notices to Appear in criminal court for contracting without a license, with bids ranging from $7,500 to $36,000 for a painting job​.

Similarly, in Sonoma County, eight suspected unlicensed contractors were cited during a sting operation, with submitted bids exceeding the legal limit of $500, highlighting the ongoing efforts to crack down on unlicensed activities​.

Legal Ramifications for Unlicensed Contracting Work

  • Fines and Penalties: Unlicensed contractors can face fines ranging from $200 to $15,000.
  • Criminal Charges: Engaging in unlicensed contracting work can lead to misdemeanor or felony charges, with potential jail time. Multiple offenders are often placed in jail for six months or longer.
  • Restitution to Consumers: Courts may order unlicensed contractors to pay restitution to harmed consumers. Whenever there are damages to the home or persons, courts will most likely order contractors to make their clients whole.
  • Administrative Actions: The CSLB may issue cease-and-desist orders and place individuals on a public database of violators. If you’re a violator of the CSLB, you will be on their list forever, and you will face much greater scrutiny with everything you try to do through the CSLB.


Operating as an unlicensed contractor in California carries significant risks, including legal penalties, financial liabilities, and damage to one’s professional reputation. The CSLB enforces strict regulations to protect consumers and ensure that only qualified, licensed contractors perform work in the state.

We can’t say this more emphatically – do not do work in California over $500 without a license. There are simply too many consequences and you have too much to lose!

Being caught doing unlicensed contracting work will not only present short-term consequences like jail time and fines, but it also marks you for life in the state – meaning further scrutiny and worse penalties in the future.

This entry was posted in Construction, Contractor Business, Contractor Jobs, CSLB News on by .

About CSLS

Contractors State License Service (CSLS) is the largest school in California devoted to the Construction professional. For over 23 years, CSLS has helped its students pass the exam to become licensed contractors in the State of California, licensing more students than any other school. From our main offices in Southern California, CSLS operates over 25 locations with full-service support and classrooms. We have grown to this extent by providing quality, professional services. In comparison, this provides 7 times the number of convenient locations than the second largest contractor school. Contractors State License Services is one of the only contractor schools in the state that is run by educators, not lawyers or people mostly interested in the bonding and insurance business. Contractors State License Services formerly operated under the oversight of the State of California's Bureau for Private Post Secondary and Vocational Education. As of January 1 2010, the new Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) came into existence replacing the BPPVE. CSLS now operates under the provisions of the California Private Postsecondary Education Act of 2009 (CPPEA), Article 4 Section 94874(f). Our Mission is simple; We can help you pass your California Contractors License Exam. Celebrating our 25th year, CSLS has helped over 120,000 students pass the California contractor licensing exam to become licensed contractors in the State of California. Additionally, we offer complete home study and online contractor’s license programs to help you pass your California contractors license exam. CSLS offers licensing classes for all types of contractor licenses, including General Engineering Contractor, General Building Contractor, Specialty Contractor, Insulation and Acoustical Contractor, Framing and Rough Carpentry Contractor, Cabinet, Millwork and Finish Carpentry Contractor, Concrete Contractor, Drywall Contractor, Electrical Contractor, Elevator Contractor, Landscaping Contractor, Warm-Air Heating, Ventilating and Air-Conditioning Contractor, and many others. For a complete list of contractor licenses, visit and tuned for more informative posts.