William Deen says the man he hired to finish the basement of his Alexandria town house "seemed like an honest guy."
When Deen checked with the Better Business Bureau, there was no record of complaint against the man or the company. Moreover, the contractor's policy of hiring fellow church members to do the labor impressed Deen and gave him a "warm feeling."
But no more.
The contractor abandoned the partly completed project after collecting $1,900 from Deen in what investigators say was part of a widespread home improvement scam. Fairfax County police investigator Larry Wilkins has statements from 10 homeowners who paid money for work that was never done by the contractor, Joe Ferguson, who had been doing business as Riteway Home and Building Care in Springfield. An arrest warrant has been issued for Ferguson. So far he has eluded authorities.
Officials say this case is only one example of contractor abandonment -- an old consumer problem that has assumednew significance in today's inflationary economy.
"Abandonment is our biggest problem at the moment," said Albert Wynn, director of the Prince George's County Consumer Affairs Commission.
Statistics from the Prince George'sand other local consumer affairs offices show that home improvement problems -- including owner dissatisfaction with completed work as well as abandonment -- rank as one of the top two problems for consumers in the Washington area. The other is automobile sales and services.
With money tight and prices rising homeowners are hungrier than ever for bargain deals -- the kind most likely toend in abandonment, officials said. They said homeowners are most likely toget into trouble when they hire unlicensed contractors who advertise in circulars and in classified sections of newspapers.
Officials also said that the ranks ofcontractors offering deals have swelled as men without regular employment turn to contracting to earn a living. s
"Every time the economy tightens up, we get an increase in contractors who take deposits and don't do the work," said James Dyson, a home improvement investigator for the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs.
The Washington are home improvement problems are part of a national pattern. A new federally funded study by the Consumer Federation of America said that home repairs -- a $40 billion a year business -- are the most costly of all consumer problems. The report recommended that repair firms be required to post bonds or deposit homeowner payments in escrow to make sure the operators don't take the money without performing work as expected.
In the District of Columbia, home improvements generate more complaints than any other single category. A spokesman for the D.C. office said that 15 percent of the estimated 4,000 complaints received last year came from homeowners with home improvement problems.
Moreover, the average complaint involved work costing between $7,000 and $10,000. That makes home improvements the costliest consumer problem that the D.C. office has to deal with.
In the surrounding jurisdictions, home improvements generally lag behind automotive as a complaint.In Montgomery County, for example, home improvement complaints represent about 15.1 percent of the total caseload, compared to automotive's 34.9 percent. In Fairfax County, about 9.9 percent of the complaints concern house repairs,compared to automotive's 20.3 percent.
consumers here who have been stung by abandoments include:
John and Gale Kalen, a Herndon couple who paid $800 toward construction of a half-bath in their town house basement. None of the work was done. The contractor, Gary Gregory Embry, a licensed contractor, went bankrupt.
The Thomas Tyree family which has ahome in Seat Pleasant, contracted to have a driveway constructed, brickwork placed across the front of the house and the front yard leveled. They paid $950 down to the contractor, a District resident named Byron W. Jackson. After one day's work, Jackson disappeard. Neither the Tyrees nor local consumer officialshave been able to trace Jackson.
Cleo and Coretha Jones, who lived in Hillcrest Heights, hired a contractor to replace a back-yard patio that had been damaged by snow. They paid $1,900 to William Whaley, a Suitland licensed contractor. According to the complaint against him, Whaley hauled off the old patio's debris and vanished with the $1,900. A warrant for his arrest has been issued in connection with other cases.
The Maryland Home Improvement Commission, a state agency, has filed charges against Whaley in the DistrictCourt in Prince George's County. The charges allege that Whaley abandoned the contract work for the Joneses, a commission investigator said.
Consumer investigators said the contractors who are most likely to abandon a job fall into one of several categories:
Fast buck artists who take money without any intention of doing the work.
Novices and part-timers who have limited assets and who do contracting in place of regular work or in addition to full-time jobs.
Well-intentioned and skilled regular contractors who suddenly experience economic setbacks and prevent them from fulfilling their obligations.
When architect Peter Rosen and his wife Linda decided to have the kitchen of their McLean home remodeledlast year, they hired Embry.
"We saw the work he had done on otherjobs and it was good," Peter Rosen said.
Embry set to work stripping the old kitchen to make way for new cabinets and appliances. But before anything new was installed the contractor abandoned the job, Rosen said.
Embry later filed personal bankruptcy. A lawyer for Embry declined to put a reporter in touch with Embry.
Despite the Rosens' experience, professional contractors said that homeowners are less likely to have problems when they hire licensed and bonded companies.
"Generally the contractor goes out ofhis way to do what the homeowner wants -- even things that are not in thecontract," said Moses Voloshen, a local contractor who is president of theWashington area chapter of the National Home Improvement Council.
Voloshen suggested that a homeowner ask to see the contractor's financial statement if there is a question about the contractor's resources.
Voloshen also said that the contractor "isn't always the bad guy" in home improvement deals. Sometimes the contractor does what he says he will do and the homeowner refuses to pay the amount agreed on.
He said that had happened to him.
"One woman took 10 percent off on theawning job I did because it took longer than we had agreed on . . . and there wasn't anything I could do about it."