A Fine Mess
The old saying "there's no such thing as a free lunch" definitely applies to contractors who like to do things their way, with little or no regard to licenses, building codes, or good practice. Most of the time, it's risky to deal with these people. Their preference for operating on the fringe typically colors every aspect of how they do business. Many refuse to be licensed or carry insurance. They might ignore safety concerns and local ordinances, or refuse to get permits or inspections. All of this causes risks for anyone who hires them. The best advice: Stay far, far away.
Underground contractors are people who work a little beyond the pale. They might be freelancing — taking on additional work on top of their usual jobs — or they might simply like to be renegades. As such, they're usually part of an underground economy that trades in cash, doesn't pay taxes, and adheres to as few rules and regulations as possible.
These individuals surface in a variety of ways. Some of them take advantage of disaster situations and prey on homeowners when they're most vulnerable. Others surface via word of mouth; someone will tell you about a guy (or gal) that does great work for a great price. This may very well be true, but more often than not, there's a price that comes along with getting things done cheap. More than one homeowner has had to fix problems caused by an underground contractor, and ended up spending more than he or she would have if they had bought aboveground talent in the first place.
How can you tell if an individual is an underground contractor? The following are good tip-offs:
They are not able to provide a permanent address or other permanent contact information.
They do not want to put things in writing.
They want cash payments, or offer a discount if you pay cash.
They tell you that it's not necessary to get permits or have inspections on their work, or that things will be cheaper and go faster without them.