I’ve been working in the homebuilding industry since 1983, either as a homebuilder or as a supplier of building materials. As a result, I’ve been witness to some incredible scams, heartbreaking disappointments, and complete nightmares because people didn’t check references from contractors they hired to perform work on their homes.
To date, the following story is the worst I’ve ever been involved with. I’ve changed the names, but the facts are true:
Having sold their home in Connecticut, Mr. and Mrs. Miller confidently strolled into my store in 1996 with a rolled up set of plans for their new home and a set of plans for their long awaited retirement on the Mid-Atlantic coast. They were retiring after working 40 years, he as a plant manager and engineer, she as a school teacher. They had saved enough money to buy one of the most beautiful lots I had ever seen, on the 17th green of a golf course, overlooking a small harbor with beautiful boats and a replica lighthouse. It truly was gorgeous and they were thrilled to buy the lot and have enough money left over to build their dream home and live on interest the rest of their lives, strolling down the beach and playing golf.
But when Mrs. Miller told me who she was using as a contractor, I cringed. Mr. X was well known in the area for being a cheapskate, cutting corners, avoiding prosecution by having the homeowners get their building permits, reusing materials from demolition jobs, and using substandard materials. He would regularly come to my lumberyard and offer to buy “cull lumber” below cost (“culls” are split, damaged, warped, twisted, or bowed lumber). I always refused his low-ball offers after he blew cigar smoke in my face and told me I was a lousy manager. I recommended that they reconsider using Mr. X and cited my concerns.
Mrs. Miller insisted that she and her husband were far too savvy to be taken for a con man’s ride but did say that she already had obtained the building permit herself (strike one). In many states, the homeowner is allowed to obtain the necessary permits if they plan to live in the home and my state was no different at that time.
What could I do? I strongly recommended again that she use someone else and even offered the names and phone numbers of some very reputable contractors, but her response was, “We’re looking to minimize the cost of construction.” She chose Mr. X because his bid to construct the home was far lower than anyone else (strike two), and “The savings,” she reasoned, “would help them afford upgrades in decor and furnishings.”
Mr. X had to call me several times to ask how to frame the custom windows the Miller’s had ordered (strike three) and I gave him the formula for doing so, thinking it was strange he didn’t know something so commonly known in the industry. We continued to ship materials to the home including roofing materials. Oddly, we were instructed to pick up several bundles of roofing shingles for credit … far too many in my opinion (strike four) and I expressed my concern to Mrs. Miller, who said that everything looked okay to her.
Then, we shipped the windows to the job site. The next day, I received a phone call from a screaming Mrs. Miller, who claimed that we had ordered and sent the wrong sizes. Through the conversation, I also discovered that Mr. X had been paid his full amount but had not shown up for a week (strike five) or so and didn’t return any phone calls.
I rushed out to the job and quickly discovered the problem. Mr. X had ignored my instructions (strike six) and instead had framed the window sizes too small. Windows are ordered in feet and inches (a three foot two inch wide window that is four foot six inches tall is called a 3/2 4/6 — “three two four six”). This is standard nomenclature in all regions of the country and though I had explained this quite clearly to Mr. X, he framed the window 32 inches wide (instead of 3 foot 2 inches) and 46 inches tall (instead of 4 foot 6 inches). None of them fit and he was no where to be found (strike seven).
The building inspector subsequently showed up and found several other problems Mr. X had created. He didn’t have the proper number of foundation piers to support the first floor. He didn’t use enough rows of blocks on the foundation (lowering the home’s height by two feet). He didn’t build the proper wall supports. The tray ceiling in the master bedroom was not centered. He used a beam to support the second floor that was grossly undersized (the building inspector refused to walk in the home after he saw that). The roof pitch was changed from a 45 degree angle to a 34 degree angle (thus the excess roofing materials). And none of the custom made windows fit the home.
The home had to be demolished and rebuilt. The last I heard, Mr. Miller had taken a job with a local engineering firm to support him and his wife during their retirement and she was working as a substitute teacher. Their home had to be radically scaled down as their plans for retirement were essentially put on hold for several years.
What’s the lesson?
Do your homework. Don’t neglect to research your builder! Ask to meet with others who live in the builder’s homes. Check references from suppliers, and if he or she wants you to get the permit yourself, run! If you don’t feel comfortable doing this type of investigative work, Angie’s List is a GREAT resource. Thousands of consumers just like you have used Angie’s List to find high quality contractors that have been reviewed by other consumers in your area.
You can try them toll free at 866-945-5801 or connect via the web at Angie’s List.com.
I was offered a great job in another state a few weeks later but this experience taught me the value of checking references. I also learned was that the lowest bid is the lowest for a reason.
How can you avoid getting scammed?
- Ask questions. Ask lots of questions.
- Check references. Check lots of references.
- Interview former customers. Lots of them.
- Check the builder’s or contractor’s supplier references. They probably won’t give you a YES or NO answer, but you can pick up a LOT by facial expressions, body language, and stalled answers. A good contractor will ALWAYS get good responses though.