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Who's on the roof?

When you hire Home Depot to work on your house, it hires contractors to do the work. And it is supposed to make sure they are licensed. They can do it, but you better help.

By IVAN PENN
Published September 23, 2006


You want a new roof, maybe an upgrade of your windows and doors or tile to replace your worn carpet.

To avoid shoddy workmanship and possibly hiring unlicensed or unscrupulous contractors, a lot of people turn to Home Depot.

But the home improvement giant, it turns out, has repeatedly found itself under fire and saddled with fines from local and state construction regulators for permit and inspection problems and use of unlicensed subcontractors.

“I went with Home Depot, well, because of the advertising: 'We stand behind our work. … Guaranteed. Reliable. Quality. Flexible,’” said St. Pete Beach resident Joan Binmore.

She contracted with Home Depot for a $16,196 roof replacement and ended up with as much as $71,000 in damage caused by an unlicensed contractor the company hired. “They screwed up,” she said.

Home Depot officials admit they have had problems with their THD At-Home Services division, but the company says it continues to make improvements to ensure consumers get the best deal for their money.

“The vast majority are done successfully,” spokesman Don Harrison said of the home improvement projects. “Are we perfect? No. Are we getting better every day? You bet.’’

The big warning from local and state construction regulators: It’s no different hiring Home Depot from hiring a contractor yourself. The homeowner must be vigilant and check out whoever Home Depot sends to do the work.

Easier said than done. The state has no central repository of all complaints and citations from local and state agencies against contractors, turning a background search on a contractor into a full-time job.

“A contractor can have his privileges revoked in Pinellas County; then he can just go across the bridge and practice over here in Hillsborough,” said John Heisler, an inspector who oversees the Hillsborough Building Codes Compliance Team. “We need a statewide database on contractors.”

The troubles with Home Depot highlight the point.

The state’s contractor database shows just one “public complaint” against Home Depot, a finding of aiding and abetting unlicensed contracting in West Palm Beach last year. But the state database does not show other Home Depot issues, including:
- Sanctions from the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board for aiding and abetting unlicensed contracting in March and “permit violations and misconduct” in July.

- Citations issued by the Hillsborough Building Codes Compliance Team for expired permits and failure to obtain inspections repeatedly over the past two years.

- The criminal record and state and local complaints against a Home Depot employee who holds one of the licenses that allows the company to conduct remodeling services in Florida.

- Dozens of consumer complaints in Pinellas and Hillsborough and hundreds across the state about shoddy, incomplete or generally unsatisfactory work since 2000.

Lowe’s, Home Depot’s leading competitor, has no state public complaints listed. In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties there is but a single consumer complaint, which was resolved, though investigators say they have to keep a close watch on Lowe’s as well because of occasional issues.

Said Rodney Fischer, head of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board: “The consumer has a lot of confidence in Home Depot. Sometimes that’s misplaced.”

***

Experts say homeowners should contact the Better Business Bureau along with county and state licensing and enforcement agencies to review the history of every contractor, whether an individual or one hired by Home Depot or Lowe’s.

“I would be vigilant no matter who I contracted with, big, small, middle-sized,” said Mark Reddinger, administrator for the state’s Unlicensed Activity and Inspection Program. “In this day and age, it’s just better to check, double-check, triple-check.’’

Joan Binmore figured she wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of researching the backgrounds of the workers that Home Depot sent to replace the 10-year-old roof on her St. Pete Beach home last year.

The company sent Allen Belt Roofing of Tallahassee.

Although state certified, Allen Belt was not licensed in Pinellas, a fact that might have gone unnoticed if it were not for a mistake that damaged one of the home’s grandest aesthetics.

In the rear of Binmore’s home overlooking Boca Ciega Bay, a cathedral ceiling with exposed, pickled and tongue-and-groove beams towers above her living and dining rooms.

Allen Belt’s workers ignored the cathedral ceiling and hammered away on the roof with 2½-inch nails that pierced and splintered the home’s prized attribute.

“I was sick when I saw it,” said Binmore, a retired Realtor who has owned the house since the mid-1960s. “This is what sells the house. This is why we bought it.”

Home Depot admitted the mistake and through an insurance company offered to pay $9,568.69 to fix damaged beams and “install a new layer of tongue & groove ceiling material on top of the existing material.”

Binmore grew more incensed. Home Depot had damaged her ceiling and she wanted it to look as it did before the mistake, not patched. Estimates ranged from $42,000 to $71,000 to install the new ceiling.

She hired a lawyer and filed complaints with the state, Pinellas County and the city of St. Pete Beach.

Pinellas investigators then informed her that Allen Belt Roofing was not licensed in the county.

Because Binmore has filed suit against Home Depot, the company declined to comment about specifics of her case.

***

Home Depot attributes some of its difficulties to the complexity of code requirements in Florida that can vary from one jurisdiction to another.

Atlanta-based Home Depot is the world’s largest home improvement retailer. The company says it performs 11,000 At-Home Services jobs each day nationwide, from windows and doors to roof replacements. The so-called “do-it-for-me” services generated $4.3-billion in revenue in fiscal 2005.

In Florida, Home Depot manages its subcontractors through state required “qualifiers.”

They are individuals who hold the licenses for companies doing business in Florida. Home Depot employees, the qualifiers oversee the subcontractors the company hires.

For Joan Binmore’s roof job, the qualifier was Boyd Alan Lipham, 39, of Lakeland.

It was Lipham whom Pinellas County fined $300 in March for “aiding and abetting” unlicensed contracting because Home Depot hired Allen Belt Roofing under his license.

Responding to the complaint, Lipham signed a statement, acknowledging that “I do not dispute the allegations of fact ... and waive my right to object or to be heard.”

In July, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board suspended his county roofing contractor’s license for “violation of licensing law.”

The fine and suspension in Pinellas followed a $500 fine last year by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation for aiding and abetting unlicensed contractors in West Palm Beach.

Hillsborough County’s code enforcement division repeatedly cited Lipham for contracting violations that include expired permits, lack of proper inspections and failure to comply with an inspection notification dating to March 2004, records show.

The county sent citations to Home Depot’s headquarters for several of the problems, including two $500 citations last February for “gross negligence and failing to comply” and “allowing a violation of the code to go uncorrected for more than 30 days.”

Heisler said he had one case against Lipham for 41 expired permits, which appeared in part to be a problem with a lack of final inspections.

Said Heisler: “As big as he is, he should talk to his attorney if he doesn’t understand.’’

***

For six months, neither Lipham, listed as the qualifier, nor anyone else at Home Depot paid attention to the fact that Marilyn Stewart’s roof job in Brandon had not passed inspection.

The 44-year-old Verizon information technology specialist thought her roof was finished in February. She wasn’t thrilled that workers left nails in her yard where her 10-year-old plays, but she said in August that “the job seemed to be a good job.’’

Then a notice appeared on her house that the job failed inspection.

The subcontractor, Wills Roofing Inc., hammered some nails in too far and others not far enough.

“They’re going to have to totally redo my roof because it failed the final inspection,” Stewart said.

Home Depot told Stewart that they would send a different crew because they were having problems with Wills Roofing, owned by Edward Ronald Wills of Lake Wales.

In September 2005, the state cited Wills for “assisting unlicensed contracting” after he used an unlicensed roofer on a job.

In May the state found another violation against him, for taking $3,900 for a roof job in Cape Coral in March 2005 but failing to perform any work.

The phone number listed for Wills and his company were disconnected.

In an e-mail response to questions about inspection problems and the backgrounds of its qualifiers and subcontractors, Home Depot stated:

“At-Home Services has instituted enhanced systems upgrades to assure that jobs cannot be completed and processed for final close out until a final permit inspection has passed.

“We review contractors’ backgrounds” and the qualifiers “are all background checked and meet the state’s licensing qualifications.”

How then, to explain the issues with Lipham? And Bill Bertier?

Bertier, 36, of Newnan, Ga., is listed with the state of Florida as a residential contractor for Home Depot. He has overseen almost 1,000 projects in Hillsborough County alone.

After a reporter asked about his activities, the Hillsborough Building Codes Compliance Team placed a hold on his license to prevent him from obtaining new permits in the county because permits for several current jobs had expired.

That followed a $500 citation in September 2005 for failure to obtain required inspections at the appropriate times.

In February, the county issued two more $500 citations against Bertier’s license for failure to pay the September citation and again for failing to call for required inspections.

In March, a letter was mailed to Home Depot’s headquarters about Bertier’s citations.

After being alerted to regulatory sanctions against Bertier and Lipham, did Home Depot take action against them?

“Lipham and Bertier were not accused of personally violating any laws,’’ Home Depot stated in an e-mail, even though the complaints specifically cite the men, not the company. “Citations were issued against At-Home Services Inc. The company was cited in theses instances and has addressed this with the State Licensing Board.”

Home Depot’s spokesman said several people play oversight roles in the company. “I don’t think you’re going to find the ability to point the finger at one person,” Harrison said.

Licensing authorities said Home Depot does not understand the law in regard to the role of qualifiers. They said Home Depot’s view that their qualifiers are not being personally held responsible is erroneous.

“They’re absolutely wrong on that,” Fischer said. “We would look to the qualifier. ... He is now responsible for everything the company does. Their position is faulty.”

***

Subcontractor issues rank high in complaints the Better Business Bureau receives about Home Depot’s remodeling division.

“The problems with the subcontractors seem to be the biggest portion of the remodeling complaints,” said Fred Elsberry, president of the agency’s Atlanta office.

After repeated attempts to reach Lipham, Bertier and a third qualifier, Dominick Montalbano, a company spokesman stated that they would not comment.

Montalbano, 47, of Coconut Creek is registered with the state as a Home Depot qualifier.

Home Depot hired Montalbano for the post after the state issued a complaint against his personal contracting license in January 1997 for “assisting an unlicensed contractor.” The state had found that “the evidence substantiated the allegations. However, respondent’s licensure is now null and void and further prosecution is unwarranted.”

This year, operating under the auspices of Home Depot, Montalbano found himself under investigation by the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.

The complaint, filed by South Pasadena resident James Brown, arose from a door installation job last December. Brown complained that gaps around the door frame would allow moisture and bugs in his house, a licensing board report shows.

Home Depot satisfied the customer but not before investigator Donald Balas discovered “that Home Depot may have subbed this project to an unlicensed contractor.’’ A Home Depot official told Balas that “she will find out how an unlicensed sub was assigned an HD job, and correct this problem.”

With the customer satisfied, Balas closed the case before any disciplinary action was taken against Montalbano or Home Depot.

During the time licensing authorities investigated Montalbano, he was on probation in criminal court. He had pleaded no contest to battery in September 2005, and Coconut Creek police arrested him on a new battery charge this year.

Home Depot suspended him after the new charge and reinstated him after that charge was dropped, the company said.

By e-mail, Home Depot emphasized that Montalbano:

- Never was convicted of criminal charges. (When he got probation, the judge withheld adjudication.)

- Never had his contractor’s license suspended or revoked. (The state had substantiated allegations but elected not to take action against his license because it was “null and void.’’)

Asked how contractors and qualifiers with licensing and legal issues could be hired by Home Depot with a policy of background checks in place, Harrison replied, “I don’t have an answer for you there. ... We obviously need to do a better job.’’Lowe’s does background checks, requires training and maintains a code of ethics for their subcontractors, said spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.

The company often has its subcontractors pull their own permits, which requires them to be locally and state certified.

Harrison attributed part of Home Depot’s difficulties to the busy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which he said complicated efforts to secure a solid core of subcontractors.

“There was much, much more work than anyone could handle,” Harrison said. “A lot of subs took off. The supplies dried up.

“Everybody wanted their roof fixed first. Home Depot stood there when you couldn’t find another roofing contractor around.”

To help manage the workload, Home Depot plans to hire as many as a half-dozen more qualifiers, Harrison said.
He agrees with construction regulators that consumers should know all contractors working on their homes, including those sent by Home Depot. Homeowners should note the name and phone number of the qualifier and the subcontractor, Harrison said. These are the first lines of contact when there is a problem.

“It’s not like there’s not recourse here,” Harrison said. “There is a process in place.’’

***

Anthony Pagnozzi and Christine Robinson grew intimately familiar with that process — and sick about it.

The night before Christmas 2004, a cold front brought rain to Anthony Pagnozzi’s house in the town of Hernando in Citrus County. Workers contracted through Home Depot had just finished replacing his roof.

“My kids came in and said, 'Dad, it’s raining in the house,’” the 40-year-old Pagnozzi said.

The Pagnozzis began having problems with mold. They discovered that there was no longer ventilation for two bathrooms because the roofers did not cut in the exhaust. Gutters were hanging low. Roofing nails were left all over the yard.

“I had actual roofing nails go through my foot,” said Pagnozzi, a supervisor at Universal Studios’ commercial property and technical services division. That led twice to tetanus shots.

Pagnozzi, like dozens of others, filed complaints with local and state regulators, and he posted his grievance on the Web site ConsumerAffairs.Com.

Home Depot offered him $9,753. Though Pagnozzi said it did not cover the cost of the needed repairs, he accepted it on the advice of an investigator at the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency, which handles many complaints against the company because it has a regional warranty office in Tampa.

Home Depot says Pagnozzi refused to sign a settlement on some interior damage and still owes the company $6,741 for the roof installation.

Christine Robinson and her husband contracted with Home Depot in 2001 to replace the roof on their Jacksonville home. The couple spent $9,100 for the job but leaks damaged their walls, floors and cabinets.

The roof started leaking a few weeks after the job was completed. Home Depot would patch it, only to have it leak again. Robinson called a lawyer and complained to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Better Business Bureau.

“I get hysterical when I talk about it,” said Robinson, 76.

Harrison said Robinson’s roof job began before Home Depot formed the At-Home Services division. But he noted that the company reroofed Robinson’s house last year.

“It’s been dragging on for a while,” Hillsborough investigator Bob Holland said. “As of May, all of the repairs had been scheduled. Sometime after that she called me again and said there was a problem.”

After five years, the Robinsons are still hassling with Home Depot.

“They had truly given us a hard time,” she said. “I want to sue them for $2-million and be through with them.”
Binmore is suing. She won’t settle for less than having her home fully restored. “I’ve gotten sick over this,” she said. “I’ve gone through a lot of terrible stuff with them.”

Harrison said Binmore, Robinson and Pagnozzi show that customers have recourse, even when they can’t reach agreement with the company.

“For good or bad, those cases are process,” Harrison said. “You’re not going to make everybody happy. ...”

“The fact remains, that big orange box isn’t going anywhere. We’re going to be there to listen when you tell us we did a good job and when you tell us this stinks and I want my money back.”

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Ivan Penn covers consumer affairs issues and can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

[Last modified September 23, 2006, 19:59:21]


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