Luck sours for first-time homeowner
By ERIC STIRGUS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
LARGO -- For one night at least, luck was on Maryann Spearman's side.
Spearman watched from the audience of a City Commission meeting four years ago as then-Mayor Thomas Feaster pulled her name out of a hat, which meant she would be the new owner of a home at 209 Second Ave. SW.
Spearman wanted the home badly. She loved old homes (this one was built in 1920) and already envisioned how she was going to fix it up.
"I won! I won! I won!" Spearman screamed from the audience, city housing manager Matt Anderson recalled.
Today, Spearman, 38, feels like her home has become a house of horrors. And she blames city officials for it.
The city bought the house in 1996, hired a construction company to refurbish it and sold it to Spearman as part of a program to help low-income, first-time homeowners.
But in June, Spearman wrote a letter outlining 31 problems that she has found in the home since then. She listed hand railings on the front steps that were falling off, a hallway floor that was crooked, the appearance of small holes and improper plasterwork on the ceiling.
Spearman believes the city should have done a better job checking out the company that did the work on her home. The company, Catarelli Construction, was not registered to do construction work at the time of the renovation, state and county records show.
Catarelli Construction is no longer in business. Its owner, Joseph Catarelli Sr., insisted that the company was licensed with the city and the state to do the work.
Unable to reach an agreement on her complaints, Spearman and the city have agreed to let an arbitrator settle the dispute. Spearman is supposed to present the arbitrator early next month with a list of everything she believes needs to be fixed inside the home. Two contractors visited Spearman's residence late last week to inspect the house and gave her repair estimates of between $4,000 and $6,000.
City officials say they have tried to be more than fair to Spearman, offering to help fix the problems even though they say they are under no legal obligation to do so.
"We listened to her concerns. We tried to evaluate her concerns," said Anderson. "We have tried to work with her."
Spearman moved into 209 Second Ave. SW in November 1996. The city bought the home from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development earlier that year and hired Catarelli Construction to fix it up.
The city has a program called homesteading in which it sells homes to first-time homebuyers who may not be able to purchase a home on their own or obtain a bank loan. The program has existed for eight years, and the city had used Catarelli Construction several times without any complaints, according to Anderson.
Spearman, who works to make sure bills are paid to HCA/Columbia hospitals, looked at the hardwood floors inside the house and envisioned turning the place into her dream home.
"I knew, with a little elbowgrease, I could make it into a warm and cozy home," she said.
Construction work began in July 1996. The contract called for fixing up the plumbing, remodeling one bathroom and creating another bathroom and a bedroom.
Spearman was renting an apartment when the work started. Believing that the work would be finished by October 1996, Spearman decided not to renew her lease. After learning the house was not finished, Spearman and her three children moved in with her mother. She now has four children.
Spearman said she loves her mother and relies on her. But Spearman, her three children, and her mother did not fit in her mother's home, Spearman said. By November 1996, Spearman began to press city officials to move into the house.
Anderson was reluctant because an inspection of the house showed that there were several things that still needed to be fixed.
But they let her move in anyway.
Anderson said he now realizes that was a mistake. Anderson's boss, Community Development Director Ric Goss, agrees, and he has criticized Anderson for the decision.
"We felt, maybe, there were a few things that weren't finished, but she needed to be in," Anderson said.
Spearman began to work with the construction company to fix the errors. The city had a warranty with Catarelli directing the company to fix any mistakes within a year after the initial construction work had been completed. Anderson said he stressed to Spearman that she should call him if she had any problems with Catarelli.
But Anderson said he didn't hear from Spearman until early 1998, when he said Spearman called to complain about the screws in the railing on the front steps. Spearman said she called the city several times that year, but she was told the problems were not major.
Joseph Catarelli Sr. came to the house several times to fix the problems, but he was in failing health and did not complete the jobs, said Spearman. Catarelli Sr. asked Anderson to take him off the list of construction companies to fix up homes for the city.
Catarelli, who is now retired, remembered Spearman and the work he did on the house. Reached at his home Friday, Catarelli said he did not understand why Spearman was complaining about his work.
"How long can you guarantee a job for?" he asked.
Catarelli suspects that some of the damage may have been caused by Spearman and her children.
"A lot of people tear up the house after they get into it," he said.
In 1996, Catarelli Construction did not file paperwork listing the company's officers that is required annually by the state's Division of Corporations, state records show. The company received three notices to renew its license or risk being in non-compliance to do business, state officials said. The company did not respond to the state, officials said. Records show the company never re-established its license with the state.
County records showed the company had a plumbing license but could not do any construction work. The plumbing license recently expired, according to the county's construction licensing board. Companies that do unlicensed construction can be charged with fraud, county officials said.
Catarelli said he was licensed with the city and the state to do the construction work.
"Everything was legit," he said.
Before signing the contract with Catarelli, the city checked to see if he was properly insured and had a valid permit to do the work. He did, Anderson said.
Anderson said he did not know about the state licensing issues.
In 1998, fed up with Catarelli's company, Spearman called several local handymen, hoping to find someone to fix her home. Some, she said, agreed to come but did not show up. Some said they could not do all of the work, she said. In June, after nudging from her mother, Spearman notified city officials that she was still having problems with the home.
Anderson said he was surprised. He said he had not heard from Spearman during the one-year warranty period.
The city sent an architect to inspect the house and found some problems that appeared to have occurred during construction. There were holes behind some kitchen appliances. The front steps needed to be redone. A new kitchen floor should be installed. The plate in the front screen door was improperly done.
Anderson, Goss and the architect, Robert Philippi, met with Spearman in June to discuss the situation. Spearman presented a four-page list of problems with the house.
The two-hour meeting at City Hall was contentious. An upset Spearman screamed and hollered and pointed fingers at the trio of men, she recalled. The city was willing to fix the problems Philippi found, Anderson said. They were willing to look at the other things on her list, but Anderson stressed concerns that some of the problems may not have been construction-related.
"A lot of the things were pre-existing" and could not be fixed, Anderson said.
Unable to work out their differences, Anderson asked Spearman if she wanted a mediator. She agreed.
Both sides expressed regret that the situation has to go to a third party.
"She was so excited. She was so much fun to work with," Anderson said. "I'm disappointed that she's not happy because we strive to help people."
Despite the problems, Spearman still speaks highly of the program.
"This is a wonderful program," she said. "I would have never been able to own a home without the program.
"However, I feel the city is negligent because they should have checked (Catarelli) out. They should have reviewed his work. I'm not happy."
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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