Unlicensed contractors bilk thousands from trusting homeowners seeking renovations

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021 at 7:09 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Residents who said they were victims of bad contracting jobs want to warn others, and prevent tens of thousands of dollars from going into the wrong hands.

Last year, the Regulated Industries Complaints Office processed nearly 500 formal complaints involving contractors.

“There is a prevalence of unlicensed activity, especially in the contracting area, in our community,” said Esther Brown, a complaints and enforcement officer for RICO.

Kim Clifton owns a place in Hawaii Kai. She’s done multiple renovations to her unit and trusted that the contractor she hired had a license since she believed it was required in the paperwork she submitted to her building.

Instead, she said he destroyed her home and the contractor made away with $30,000.

“He claims to be a military veteran,” Clifton said. “That’s how we bonded. I’m a former military wife. And you know, military people are like family. He is very likable. He’s very slick”'

The neonatal nurse practitioner said she found the contractor on Thumbtack, an only service that connects people with professionals for jobs.

“I just needed a shelf removed from the laundry area,” Clifton said. “So he came and did that.”

From there, the trust continued to build. She asked him to renovate several other rooms months ago.

Clifton said through a number of payments, she gave him $30,000 in cash. She said she has spent an additional $40,000 on materials and fees to take money out of her retirement.

Before Clifton realized the contractor was doing more damage than renovations, she had already referred him to a friend.

“I called her and said, please don’t give him any money,” Clifton said. “And that’s when she said, I just gave him $12,000 cash. And she never saw him again.”

Clifton said he spent a few weeks working in the unit and even brought in other workers to help out. Eventually, the contractor stopped showing up.

Clifton said the two signed a contract and he agreed to do the job.

She said that because he did not have a license to do the work, it’s been hard to take legitimate action against him.

Sneha Sood was referred to the contractor by her coworker and close friend, Clifton.

“I was planning to convert my laundry room into a bathroom and attach it to my downstairs bedroom for my hanai family member, Vanette DeCorte,” Sood said. “Vanette had lived in my downstairs studio apartment prior to having a stroke and because she was improving she wanted to come back to the house. Unfortunately, because of her physical limitations, she could no longer live in her old studio apartment.”

Sood wanted to make changes to her house so DeCorte could get around easier.

“He said he wanted cash because it took his bank too long to process check payments of such large amounts,” Sood said.

She said eventually, he left her in the dark.

“How could anybody do this type of stuff?” De Corte said. “I don’t know how anyone can do that.”

“Research is extremely, extremely important,” said Brown. “If a consumer is going to be laying out tens of thousands of dollars, they need paperwork in order to back that up. Most legitimate contractors already have a ready-made form. If they don’t, that could be a red flag.”

Brown said it is important to look up a contractor on the DCCA website. There, you can find what license someone has and what specific work they can do.

You can also see if there have been any complaints filed against that person.

“The licenses are very specific, especially in the area of contracting,” Brown said. “And there are numerous specialty contracting categories because you need the experience.”

In Darcie Damaso’s case, she said she hired a different contractor who did have a license, but not for the work he was getting paid to do.

“He worked outside of his expertise,” she said.

Damaso said he was a friend of a friend, and she trusted he had the experience he needed.

She said after spending tens of thousands of dollars in multiple payments, she stopped the work after the contractor asked for more money and wouldn’t provide answers to how the cash she dealt was already spent.

“This situation has been an incredible journey,” she said. “A journey that I wouldn’t want my worst would not want my worst enemy going through.”

Damaso has filed a complaint with the DCCA. There are also complaints filed against Clifton’s contractor.

According to the RICO, about 90 percent of the complaints filed against licensed contractors end in some resolution. But when workers are unlicensed, that’s a different story.

“If you’re dealing with a licensee, there’s every incentive on their part to resolve it, because they care about their license and they care about their reputation,” Brown said. “On the unlicensed side, that’s a very difficult one. They just don’t care about being a legitimate business. So they’re hard to track down.”

Brown said contracting cases can be complicated and investigations can take months and even years.

Damaso has cleaned up most of the rooms in her house thanks to a licensed contractor. She still has an unfinished kitchen.

Most of the rooms in Clifton’s unit sit as how her contractor found them. She sleeps in her living room and expects to use the rest of her retirement on fixing her destroyed home.

“It’s been it’s been very emotionally, psychologically,” Clifton said. “I want to keep this from happening to someone else. I would hate for anyone to have to go through this.”

Lawsuits may potentially be filed in both cases. Hawaii News Now will continue to track them.

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