Home contractor horror stories too common in KC area. Here’s how to not get sunk

Be careful who you trust with your house. Bad contractors pop up in lawsuits and consumer complaints — even at your door if you don’t do your homework first.

One unlicensed Johnson County contractor faces legal action for what the district attorney called “a pattern of shoddy and incomplete work” and an “unconscionable” cancellation fee.

The county had sued seven other contractors last summer after a church and other customers cried no work, no materials and no refunds.

A Kansas City homeowner complains that her contractor collected more than $9,000 for work he never did. She also had lent him money to help replace his stolen truck and tools.

“I know, I know,” Laurie Mathes said, acknowledging her misplaced trust. “I really thought he was an honest, decent person just struggling with things.”

Last year, 18 other area homeowners found themselves in a remodeling nightmare when Lee’s Summit-based Building Pro LLC shut down after collecting $360,000 on unstarted and unfinished projects.

Officials in Missouri and Kansas investigated Building Pro, a remodeling business based in Lee’s Summit, after consumers complained and the company shut down. Shelly Yang The Kansas City Star

Complaints about home improvement and construction rank second nationwide only to complaints about cars and car repairs.

Local licensing officials, prosecutors and private groups do what they can to prevent such pain and work to shut down bad actors. They agree, however, that the most effective protection comes from homeowners who ask questions before writing checks.

“We’ve always had problems with contractors,” said Jan Burchett, executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry whose members are vetted for insurance, licensing and other factors. “It’s nothing new.”

Look for a license

One safeguard, Burchett said, is to work with licensed contractors. It helps avoid what she called “Chuck in a truck” who has no insurance, no overhead and no business acumen.

Many municipalities require contractors to obtain a license, but Burchett said a contractor license from Johnson County stands above others because of its requirements.

“We like to think those communities that have that first line of defense help weed out those people who decide to throw some stuff in a truck and go to work,” said Jim Sherman, who heads Johnson County’s contractor licensing.

Homeowners can search the county’s licensed contractor list online. Sherman suggests calling if you don’t find a listing for the contractor you are considering, as the county may have additional information. The number is 913-715-2233.

Still, Sherman said, consumers need to do their own check ups even on licensed contractors before hiring anyone.

Look to see whether the individual or business has been sued by other homeowners, suppliers, lenders or tax collectors. Ask for and contact references. When possible, visit work the contractor has done.

It makes finding a good contractor tougher, and good contractors are in high demand.

“Everybody is so busy, it’s not uncommon that you don’t hear back from somebody,” Sherman said. “It’s not that they’re rude or they’re somebody to suspect. They’re overwhelmed. There aren’t enough trade people out there.”

Watch for hidden fees

Contracts offer homeowners protection, but consumers need to read them carefully.

The contract needs to detail the work to be done, set expectations for when the project or stages of the project will be complete and tie payments to completion of the work.

A contract also can hold perils. Consider the cancellation fee one unlicensed Johnson County contractor slipped in.

“Any canceled job will be a 25% charge of the job canceled,” it said, according to a lawsuit filed by Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe’s office.

Howe’s office sued Cory M. Richards, his ex-wife Ashton N. Chandler and the business KC Handyman LLC that they operated from their home in Mission. The couple also appears to have done business as AKC Home & Remodeling LLC, according to the county’s lawsuit and a small claims complaint against Richards.

The county sued after complaints from 10 consumers in two years had revealed “a pattern of shoddy and incomplete work,” the lawsuit said. It called the cancellation fee “unconscionable.”

Richards, contacted by The Star, said he was aware of the lawsuit and acknowledged that he has met several times with the district attorney’s office. He did not discuss the complaints about workmanship and the cancellation fee.

Chandler could not be reached.

The county’s lawsuit seeks $9,684.50 in restitution for four consumers, an order permanently restraining Richards, Chandler and KC Handyman LLC from “engaging in any consumer transactions as a supplier” within Johnson County, at least $40,000 in civil fines and penalties and an additional $20,000 for two instances of “violations committed against a ‘protected consumer’“ under state law.

From good to bad

Homeowners can run into trouble even with contractors whose work has been satisfactory.

Mathes, the Kansas City homeowner who is out $12,000, said she hired Joshua Weyer after a family member had connected the two. She said Weyer did good work at the Northland home she had bought after relocating from Wichita.

Calls to Weyer’s phone number were not returned.

Mathes said Weyer successfully remodeled her basement, replaced sliding glass doors with French doors, installed an electrical outlet above the fireplace and replaced baseboards in parts of the house.

He earned her confidence and more work. Mathes also said she paid him before the work was complete.

Mathes says she’s out nearly $4,300 for a bathroom upgrade that sits unfinished, $1,500 for the bathroom’s custom vanity that sits in her garage, $2,300 for a downstairs bar that never happened and $1,100 for molding replacement and some painting that also were not done.

And there’s that helping hand she offered.

Weyer’s wife had started dropping him off at Mathes’ house in her car, Mathes said.

“Supposedly, his truck and tools got stolen,” Mathes said. “That’s why I offered to help him.”

Mathes said she lent Weyer $3,000. Two weeks later was the last time he showed up. Some of his earlier work also began to sour.

A heavy mirror Weyer hung came loose on one side, Mathes said. She discovered that a waterline he installed for the ice maker in a second refrigerator had been leaking into the furnace room downstairs.

Mathes said she has had to pay other contractors to fix that damage. She said other contractors have been reluctant to complete Weyer’s other projects because his work was poor.

“I just really trusted the guy, and that’s why it’s so frustrating,” Mathes said.

Tips for picking a remodeling contractor

Ask friends, family, coworkers and others for contractors they have used.

Read reviews of the contractors at online sites you trust. Contact the Missouri and Kansas attorney generals’ offices for consumer complaints.

Check with local governments — city, county and state — for licensing requirements and whether the contractors meet them.

Get written estimates from three contractors, making sure their prices cover the same amount of work.

Ask contractors to provide insurance information, showing personal liability, property damage and workers compensation coverage.

Ask for references to previous customers with similar jobs you can visit and see the contractor’s work.

Work with contractors who agree to a written contract that schedules the work’s progress and ties payments to the completion of the schedule.

Useful resources: Kansas attorney general, Federal Trade Commission, HomeAdvisor

If things start to go wrong

Raise concerns with the contractor in writing and seek a solution acceptable to both sides.

Ask for help from groups the contractor has joined, such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry or the Better Business Bureau, especially if the contractor is willing to take part.

If the contractor is on HomeAdvisor, contact its customer solutions team.

Contact the Missouri or Kansas attorney general’s consumer division for help with dispute resolution or to file a complaint.

Dispute payment of any bills paid with your credit card.

Other resources: Missouri attorney general, Kansas attorney general mediation program, National Association of the Remodeling Industry, Better Business Bureau

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Mark Davis writes about business for The Kansas City Star with attention to Sprint, investing, the economy and scams. He has been a winner and finalist in national competitions held by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.