A home builder and his companies have been ordered to pay nearly $1.28 million for accepting payments from customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and then failing to build their houses, the Maryland attorney general's office said yesterday.

The office's Consumer Protection Division ordered Jeffrey Bryant and his companies to refund payments of more than $762,000 and to pay penalties of $516,000. At least 32 consumers made payments for work that was never completed or, in many cases, even begun, the division found.

"People paid a lot of money to have homes built and were left with nothing," said Assistant Attorney General Jeston Hamer Jr., who handled the case. "I mean, these are people who are making the biggest purchases of their lives and they're losing life savings, they're losing investments."

Eric Friedman, chief of Montgomery's division of consumer affairs, said the latest order, though it confirms that Bryant violated the law, may not result in financial relief for those who lost money. "I'd be surprised if he comes up with a penny," Friedman said of Bryant.

Among those who lost money was Tirlok Singh of North Potomac. Singh said he gave Bryant a $5,000 deposit to hold a building site in Germantown. Singh decided not to build the house, and he said he never got his money back. Singh got a court order requiring the builder to reimburse him, to no avail.

"I didn't recover the money, and I don't know how I can get my money," he said. "I'm not counting on it right now."

Efforts to locate current phone numbers for Bryant and the companies -- Advanced Building Solutions Inc. of Beltsville and the Precision Group Inc. of Bethesda, both of which Hamer said are out of business -- were unsuccessful. A message left for Bryant's attorney, James W. Salter, was not returned.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued a cease-and-desist order against Bryant and the companies in April 2004, barring him from acting as a home builder in the state. The complaint said Bryant had been operating without a proper builder's license. It said that Advanced Building Solutions' license expired the previous September and that Precision Group's application for a license had been denied after its check bounced.

Friedman said Bryant has more recently been acting as an unlicensed home improvement contractor, a criminal offense for which he faces charges in Silver Spring District Court.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.