Karen Carlson and Charlene Conde have never met, but they have shared the same nightmare. Both were victims of contractors who were either unscrupulous, incompetent or both. Along with considerable emotional stress, they suffered varying degrees of financial loss before their problems were resolved. What it took was hundreds of phone calls to New Castle County’s Department of Land Use to access bond money that enabled them to hire a new contractor.
The new contractor was Tom Phillips, of Newark-based Phillips Construction, one of the dozen or so who have earned the respect and sanction of the Department of Land Use. To Carlson and Conde, Phillips was the instrument of deliverance from escalating disasters that began as well-intentioned renovations. Phillips addressed the structural problems that made their new additions either unlivable or unsafe, problems the original contractors could not—or simply would not—correct.
“Contractors who build new homes don’t make mistakes like these,” says Phillips, a residential contractor for 15 years. He specializes in renovations and additions. “In the past six years, I’ve rebuilt at least 10 additions with code violations that threatened the structural integrity. Structural mistakes are the biggest mistakes contractors make. They stem from inadequate footings or inadequate bearing points.”
In the case of the Conde home in North Wilmington, the original contractor used inadequate rafters, so the entire cathedral ceiling of the 16-by-25 foot addition sagged. The contractor also had opened up 16 feet of an outside bearing wall without supporting it with temporary walls on the first and second floors.
Work on the project stopped for months before Conde stopped listening to the contractor’s excuses. She called the county, which led to the discovery that the work had not passed inspection—an alarming fact the contractor had not shared with his clients. Subsequently, the house was declared unsafe. Conde, her husband and two children had to move out while temporary walls were installed.
“It was winter, and for months there had been only a sheet of plastic between our kitchen and the outside,” Conde says. “Even worse, rodents were entering through a hole opened in the basement.”
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By the time code violations were addressed and the project was completed—two years after it had begun—the Condes had spent twice the money they’d budgeted. And they discovered that they were one of eight victims the contractor had cheated over several years. Phillips restored their faith.
“Once I met him, I thought, There is a God,” Conde says. “Tom’s history was very important to me, and he came with a squeaky clean reputation with the county. He’s also very knowledgeable. That was clear right away.
“He listens, so he knew exactly what we wanted. And he returns phone calls. He was here every morning, early, and he always returned to check the progress each day. He finished the job in three months, including renovating the kitchen and upstairs bath, and we haven’t had a problem since.”
Karen Carlson was not as lucky. Three months after her addition was completed, the roof started to leak. Because the builder had done a good job on a previous project, she had no reason to suspect incompetence. But when she hired him to expand the living space above her garage, he failed to ensure that the building would have the strength to support it. One year later, the walls leaned and the roof sagged, forcing windows and door openings out of alignment. The contractor returned to remedy code violations, then realized how bad the problem was and skipped town.
“Even the county inspectors didn’t notice that original tie beams [supporting the garage roof] had been removed, which wasn’t according to the plan the contractor had submitted,” Carlson says. “Tom was left with the drudgery of propping up the addition and the garage, then digging four feet under the back wall of the garage in order to pour a foundation. But it took two years before he got involved. By that time the floor had cracked, and I thought I was going crazy.”
Replacing the roof, which had continued leaking even after all code violations had been addressed, required county approval for a second release of bond money. That took almost four years. In the interim, Carlson had given up hope, resigned to placing potted plants under all the leaks. When the county finally acquiesced to Carlson’s repeated requests, it was Phillips who once again made everything right.
“Tom is a partner with his clients,” Carlson says. “He is able to embrace their vision without preconceptions, and he cares as much about the finished product as they do. He is a technician with the soul of an artist.”
Ann and David Duch joined the Phillips fan club after suffering a similarly painful initiation into renovation. When they decided to double the size of their home in Fairfax, the contractor they chose from among three they interviewed came highly recommended by a family member. The Duchs saw no need to ask for additional references.
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Looking back on a project that should have taken four months but instead took two years, the Duchs blame their naiveté. They trusted a contractor who was juggling too many projects and never pulled a permit for theirs. (He produced a fake permit.)
“I just thought you hired a contractor and he would take care of everything,” Ann Duch says. “We didn’t ask many questions, and we never asked how many jobs he was working on. A couple months into the project, his license was revoked, but we didn’t find out for a year—not until we discovered a permit had never been pulled.”
Their trust began to decline when the crew didn’t show up for days at a time, when they noticed laborers were constantly changing, and when excuses became a substitute for progress. “We had a newborn and a toddler at the time, and no kitchen for four months,” says Duch. “But the real red flag was when the cabinets were supposed to be delivered. He told us the wrong ones came in, but when we called the supplier we discovered they were never ordered.”
That was when the Duchs stopped making payments and started threatening legal action. The contractor appeased them with periodic work and false documents to verify county inspections. By the time real inspectors arrived, they had to cut through drywall. “We also had to pay a structural engineer to inspect the foundation, roof and framing,” says Duch. The result was three pages of code violations. When the available bond money was divvied up among the contractor’s seven other irate clients, the Duch’s share was only $3,000—which paid for the engineer, but not for the work that didn’t pass inspection.
Enter Phillips, who tore off the roof in three days and replaced it, doubling the number of ceiling joists and redoing the HVAC, which didn’t meet code. He even added footers and beams in the crawl space, finishing the job in less than three weeks.
The cost was about $35,000—for work the Duchs had already paid for once, work for which there was no bond money. With the help of an attorney, the Duchs mounted a successful lawsuit. “After the contractor was convicted and the judge awarded a sizable settlement, our lawyer went after his insurance company because he thought we’d never see the settlement money,” says Duch. “The insurance money was a godsend. It paid for Tom.”
Page 4: Read Before Renovating
- Don’t embark on a renovation without doing due diligence. Start by checking a contractor’s client references, then call the Land Use hotline (395-5420) to see if he or she is in good standing, as well as bonded. (Bonding is not required in all municipalities.)
- Check with Land Use online to make sure a contractor has a permit for your job (www.nccdelu.org). It’s the only guarantee of periodic inspections by certified county inspectors. Never let a contractor talk you into pulling your own permit. It’s a red flag that he is either not licensed or working too many other jobs.
- Check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau (230-0108) before you sign a contract, and see if they’ve been resolved. Complaints are a natural part of doing business, so they are not necessarily negative. (Read more at www.delawaretoday.com.)