An Owings contractor pleaded guilty in Calvert County Circuit Court last week to violating the 1986 Custom Home Protection Act, a little-known state law designed to protect Maryland residents who are custom-building homes.

The charges against F. Marshall Peck, an Owings contractor, stemmed from improper use of bank withdrawals Peck made while constructing a home for Owings resident Aubry Jones.

Jones said he lost nearly $200,000 in his dealings with Peck, who violated the protection act by withdrawing money set aside for construction costs but neglecting to pay an array of subcontractors he had hired. According to separate civil court documents, Peck also faces about half a dozen liens placed against him by area subcontractors, a fact the Custom Home Protection Act forces builders to acknowledge on any new contracts. Peck's contract with Jones did not mention any outstanding liens.

"I wasn't doing anything that 90 percent of home builders weren't doing," Peck said in a phone interview on Friday. "I'd never heard of the Custom Home [Protection] Act. Ignorance is no excuse, of course."

Calvert County State's Attorney Robert B. Riddle agreed that many builders may be unaware of the 13-year-old act, but said it's their responsibility to know the rules. Riddle said residents can protect themselves by checking courthouse records of any filings related to builders they hire for custom homes.

"The whole system works kind of on faith," Riddle said.

Jones said Peck told him he was the head of a company called Old South Construction Inc., a corporation also mentioned in court documents. But according to the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, Old South forfeited its charter in 1992, making it illegal for the company to conduct business in Maryland since that time. Peck declined to answer questions about his now-defunct business.

Jones, an elevator contractor, said he wishes he had been more cautious when he was looking for a builder.

"It was supposed to be the home of our dreams," Jones said of the house he ended up completing himself. Jones and his family now live in the four-bedroom brick home, but he said they are still working to repair the roof and prevent the basement from flooding during rain. "It's not like a new house. You think you can move into a new house and relax and be comfortable for five years or so before you have to worry about repair."

Peck originally faced a related forgery charge, but it was dismissed as part of an agreement with the prosecutor under which Peck pleaded guilty on Wednesday to violating the contracting law. Riddle said he will recommend a suspended sentence for Peck, contingent upon restitution payments. Sentencing is set for Dec. 8.