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A contractor sold my roof for drug money while I was out of the country

I am a retired TV journalist, all-media writer and blogger. My focus is on personal finance, saving money and parenting.

I got scammed when my realtor recommended an unlicensed contractor

This is a story about how not to hire a contractor. Especially when you’re 8,000 miles away from the job.

My husband and I were living abroad in the Middle East. Like most expatriates, we wanted to maintain a connection back home. We found a two-bedroom, two-bath townhouse in a quiet, tree-lined suburb. Because we had to go back before closing, our realtor acted as our boots on the ground.

Enter the Contractor from Hell.

He was recommended by the realtor based on work he had done on other properties she sold and managed. We tried to do everything right. We met him to outline the scope of the work: interior painting, popcorn ceiling removal and an overhaul of the leaky screened-in porch. We called his references. We asked him if he was licensed and he produced a legit-looking card. But we didn’t take that critical next step: checking his license with the state.

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After handing him one-third of the $6,000 job, we flew back overseas, satisfied that we had made the right decision. Almost immediately, the contractor emailed us photos of his progress: the ceilings transformed from nicotine-stained popcorn into a textured finish, the walls painted into soothing taupe colors and the buckled artificial turf giving way to terracotta tile on the porch.

About a month later, the emails began slowing down. He requested another third of the money prematurely, saying he had a family “emergency.” We still didn’t hear warning bells. We didn’t even call the realtor. We were too far away to allow ourselves to get upset. Our realtor was honest; the contractor must be, too. Shit happens. We wired him another $2,000.

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By October, the emails stopped altogether. His phone was turned off. The realtor didn’t know where he was, but she seemed unconcerned. We emailed a friend to check on the place.

Subject line: “Uh-oh!”

Body: “Your porch roof is gone.”

The attached photo showed a three-foot-tall leaf pile in one corner (remember, this is Florida) and a swath of sky where the flat roof had been.

What do you do from 8,000 miles away in a place with spotty, expensive communication? Was the contractor in the hospital? In jail? Dead? If we accused him of wrongdoing, knowing he had a key to our place, who knows what he might do to it? Could the police do a “welfare check” of a house? Not sure what to do, I wrote him a polite email asking him what was up.

“I’ve had a family emergency,” he wrote back a week later, apologizing for the “delay.” He promised he’d finish the work “very soon.” Then more silence.

I had only one alternative: get on a plane and make the 14-hour trip to get some answers. Driven by outrage, I made the (probably foolish) decision to show up at his doorstep.

“So, where is my roof?” I asked when he opened the door.

He said that his girlfriend, who had helped him with the project, sold the aluminum roof panels for drug money. I felt my blood pressure skyrocket. I wanted to throttle him and curse him out, but I was a woman alone at his rundown place, so I kept my cool.

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“Well, I figure you’re an honorable guy who just got into some trouble,” I said. “So let’s get this fixed.” 

His reaction, I’m afraid, was the anticlimax to the story. He simply did the work the next day. I rode with him and his (new) girlfriend in silence to the aluminum supplier, paid for the supplies, and then supervised the work in an uncomfortable silence. Overcome by jetlag, I simply wrote him a check for the balance. I wanted the work done, I wanted my house made whole, and then I wanted this scammer out of my life.

It was much later that I learned that not only did this man have an expired contractor’s license, but I could have been prosecuted for using an unlicensed contractor. Ultimately, I had to spend another $3,000 to have the entire project redone by a licensed builder.

The real estate agent claimed she knew nothing about what happened and I didn’t have the energy to challenge her.

I also learned the reason for the contractor’s disappearing act: he spent time in jail for fleeing a police officer, a violation of his probation on prior drug charges. I heard various stories that it was he, rather than his girlfriend, who had sold the aluminum panels for drugs. In the end, it didn’t matter.

My story is unique in that I lived overseas and faced more communication barriers than I would have had I lived in the States. Yet my story is far from isolated. Even with today’s technology, homeowners get scammed by shady contractors all the time and the advice remains the same: check references, verify that your chosen builder has an active state license, and have a trusted friend or relative check on the work’s progress often if you can’t do it yourself.

I moved back to the states and into that townhouse after divorcing, so every day I’m reminded of this man: the slightly uneven lines of his paint job; the specks of popcorn ceiling texture I still find now and then and the sunny afternoons I love spending on the screened porch. It's still my slice of heaven despite the contractor from hell. It could have been worse, but I learned an expensive lesson.

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