CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Fla. — The real estate market is booming. But be careful, not everyone is building dream homes with a solid foundation.
More than 20 homeowners who’ve spoken to Fox 4 over the last two years say their problem is simply they trusted the wrong person to build their house.
Fox 4 uncovers that those homeowners represent a small fraction of about 2,000 complaints filed with state and local construction agencies against multiple contractors within the last two years. complaints range from code violations to unlicensed work to misconduct. A third of the complaints filed in Collier County were unfounded by the county's licensing board.
The state agency - Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation - has closed more than half the cases. Even if cases are closed, wounds for customers are still wide open.
Dan McAtee and his wife Tina signed a contract with Rhino Custom Homes in 2018 to build their dream home. Two years later, they’re still waiting to move into what was supposed to be part of their happily ever after.
“It’s not only a gut-punch, but I was expecting to retire at the end of last year,” said Mr. McAtee.
Even after paying Rhino Custom Homes, more than 75 percent of the total cost for their new home, the McAtees say all they got for their hard-earned money was completed a concrete shell and a roof that had to be replaced because it had rotted.
When they confronted Rhino owner Mark Southwick about their rotted roof after they received this violation order from Charlotte County Code Enforcement, he replied “I’m calling inspector" and “I’ll get it taken care of right now." That was in February.
Southwick did not respond to my requests for comment within the last two weeks. The attorney who previously spoke on his behalf told Fox 4 he's no longer representing him.
In August, Southwick told the Charlotte County Licensing Board he did not oversee the build of the McAtee's home.
“Board Member: With respect to the McAtee's home, _______ testified that the quality of the work was poor. What's your response to that, and do you supervise your job sites? Or do you have someone that does?
Southwick: I was not at that time. We went over all this before. I grew way too fast.
The McAtees say Southwick shouldn't have bitten off more than he could chew.
“We’re going to be out by about $200,000 at the end of the day - at least!” said Mr. McAtee.
Since then, the McAtees have hired a new contractor, Vantage homes. Instead of retiring, McAtee says he is now working a few more years just to pay for his home, but also for Rhino Custom Homes not finishing the job they were paid to do in the first place.
Ben Bailey, Director of Charlotte County Community Development says the county’s licensing board has revoked Mark Southwick’s permitting privileges in the county. So, he cannot work under any permits issued by the county under his name or his company rhino custom homes.
Amira Fox, State Attorney for the 20th judicial circuit says she’s working to assure homeowners that all Southwest Florida contractors finish the jobs they start in a timely manner. At the cost outlined in original contracts moving forward. Last month, she created a contractor fraud task force that spans across Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades and Hendry Counties.
Homeowner complaints go beyond Rhino Custom Homes. Nearly 600 complaints from Southwest Florida were filed with DBPR between the beginning of 2019 and October of this year against hundreds of contractors.
Even more were filed in individual counties. Locally, complaints span beyond contractors allegedly taking money and failing to complete work.
During that same time frame, 782 complaints were filed with the Collier County licensing board against multiple contractors for issues including unlicensed and unpermitted work and failing code inspections. 47 percent of those cases have either been settled or closed. a third of them were unfounded. The rest are still pending or awaiting citation.
In 2019, Charlotte County received 398 complaints against individual contractors and 485 so far in 2020.
McAtee says the complaints mean nothing if contractors continue to get away scot-free.
Fox says prosecuting these cases was difficult because the “Moneys Received by Contractor” statute had holes in it. Her office could prosecute contractors using that law. Under it, they'd have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the contractor had no intent to complete a home or use the customer's money properly. Something Fox admits was difficult to do.
But, since homeowners have shared their stories with Fox 4 over the last two years, Fox says that law has changed.
“There’s specifics now written in the statue. If you take the money, and you take a certain percentage from the victim, and then you don’t perform within a certain amount of time, there’s a presumption that you’ve committed a crime,” said Fox.
Unfortunately, the new law went into effect at the end of last year, after the McAtees signed their contract with Rhino. So, it won’t protect them.
The flip side, is the owners of Harden and Dukes Custom Homes Matthew Harden and Stephen Dukes have been charged with crimes.
Fox 4 cameras captured HD homes owner Stephen Dukes walking out of Sarasota County Jail in September after he and his partner Harden were charged with one count of scheme to defraud and 12 counts of misapplication of construction funds. Days later his partner was arrested, too.
Listed phone numbers for Dukes were disconnected, and one rang on end without ever going to a voicemail. Same thing for Harden, except someone answered the one number that wasn't disconnected, and said no one by the name of Matthew Harden lived there.
But, before it gets to an arrest, before you lose money, before signing on the dotted line, Bailey recommends doing your homework.
“We have a lot of information on our county website. If you want to go in to look at the progress that the contractor has on all their permits, you can simply go in there, do a search, it’ll pull up all their permits, inspection history, whether or not they’ve had any complaints,” said Bailey.
You can search any contractor before signing on with them and get a list of all the subcontractors working on a particular permit and call them. Ask if the contractor has made any late payments.
The McAtees say they wish they had known about this before trusting Southwick.
But, despite waiting for a home they say should've been finished last year they're looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Even though, we’re going to be out the money, at least we’re going to be able to get the house done. So, we’re focusing on the positive, rather than all the negative of the last year,” said Mrs. McAtee.
According to DBPR, Southwick has agreed to voluntarily relinquish his contractor license with the state by March 15, 2021 to avoid any further administrative action. Homeowners who've filed complaints would then be eligible to receive compensation from the state's contractor recovery fund.
The McAtees are expecting a completed home in January.