Local homeowners who feel they’ve been duped by a New Carlisle contractor are questioning whether consumer resources like the Better Business Bureau are doing enough to vet companies.
An Enon couple who is suing their contractor for breach of contract say they are frustrated because they tried to avoid trouble by relying on what they thought was the single best source of consumer advice - the Better Business Bureau.
Instead, they hired a contractor with a work history that included a trail of litigation and claims of shoddy work, but whose company at the time had a clean BBB record.
BBB operators defend their ratings, and say consumers need to be aware that BBB rules call for them to all-but expunge complaints after 36 months and to balance a company’s complaints against the total amount of business they do.
Some consumers say that is not helpful.
“The general consensus seems to be, ‘Buyer beware. Tough luck if you get had.’ And that shouldn’t be,” said Jean Mader, whose son was left with an incomplete garage by the same Clark County contractor nearly 20 years ago.
Questioning a ‘flawed’ system
Mader is one of at least 11 local customers who have complained to the Ohio Attorney General’s office about incomplete work by the contractor, Paul Nott, or his companies over the past two decades. He or his companies have been sued nearly two dozen times, and he’s been convicted of felony theft from clients and been denied building permits because of outstanding complaints.
Nott says he has not had any disputes other than with customers who didn’t want to pay as agreed.
“You’re not going to make everybody happy no matter what you do,” he said. The BBB maintained his business’ A rating until recently, he said, because he was responsive to the small handful of complaints he received out of hundreds of jobs he did.
The BBB’s own policies ensure that any complaints older than three years are effectively expunged from a company’s record.
When Charles and Debbie McNeely wanted to upgrade their Enon home last year — remodeling their kitchen, replacing a front stoop and adding an addition — they thought they took the necessary steps to secure a trusted contractor.
“We found him at the home show in Dayton,” Debbie McNeely said of Nott, who was operating a company called 1 Call Remodeling of Ohio LLC last year. “We got three or four quotes and his was the lowest.”
And more importantly to the McNeelys, 1 Call had an A rating from the Dayton/Miami Valley BBB, which covers Clark County.
Nott has worked for or owned numerous companies in the past - P&N Construction of New Carlisle, Classic Builders, Creative Remodelers, C&R Remodeling LLC - and took over operations of 1 Call in February of 2014. The BBB says they thoroughly vetted Nott and his companies.
“We hold businesses and individuals accountable for a 36-month period,” said BBB President and CEO John North. “In the past 36 months, this particular individual and company did not have any activity that would make them ineligible for accreditation.”
Under the previous owner, Nott’s son-in-law, 1 Call had a positive rating and history with the BBB, North said.
“We went back even beyond that and we did find some civil cases in his history, but in this industry, and in the automotive industry, that’s something we find very often,” North said.
Nott’s previous company, C&R Remodeling, has a BBB profile that indicates the business is closed. It has been shuttered since 2008, when Nott and his wife declared bankruptcy and dissolved the corporation.
When a business closes, North said, it’s accreditation and rating go away while the basic profile listing remains.
But any complaints against the business, whether resolved or not, also drop off its profile after that 36-month period. North could not confirm if Nott’s previous businesses ever had any complaints against them.
So when Debbie McNeely said she checked the BBB website early last year, all she saw was an A-rating for 1 Call Remodeling.
She didn’t see a number of things she said would have prevented her from hiring the company:
• Nott has two felony convictions, having pleaded guilty in 2010 to a theft-from-elderly charge in Greene County and a grand theft charge in Montgomery County. He was given probation in both cases, and was released from probation control in less than a year.
• At the time Nott was hired by the McNeelys, Clark County Building Official Tom Hale had stopped issuing construction permits to him because of past problems with his jobs.
• Nott’s license to do contracting work in the city of Springfield had been revoked in 2003 for failure to respond to complaints. The city’s records show they suspended his ability to get permits once also in 1996, and suspended his license for 30 days in 2001.
• He or his companies have been sued for breach of contract by nearly two dozen clients in three counties. While some cases were dismissed by the plaintiffs, others resulted in findings in their favor. At least three cases in which the plaintiffs were awarded damages were later dismissed by a judge following Nott’s personal bankruptcy filing.
• From 2005 to 2013, six different clients sought help from the Ohio Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Unit after Nott’s companies allegedly failed to complete work as contracted. “We paid C&R a down payment for our work in February ($6,900). It is now June 27 and they have done very little work. They demolished our deck and poured a footer (five hours of work) in a week and a half and rendered the back of our house unusable. We have not been able to use our barn or garage for two and a half months due to concrete work not being done,” one complaint from Vicki Matsunami of New Carlisle said in 2005.
Mader’s complaint to former Attorney General Betty Montgomery in 1996 wasn’t included in those provided to the News-Sun because the current records don’t go back that far.
“He told my son he would take three (payments),” she said. “He took that first draw and never came back.”
The McNeelys say they had a similar experience after signing a contract with 1 Call last February. They were told the job would take about three months.
“He did not start any work until approximately April 16,” Debbie McNeely said. “He was still not done with the kitchen by June 5… When we signed the contract he told us he could have our kitchen done in a few days.”
When reached for comment last week, Nott said he’s been the victim of customers who don’t want to pay for work and have unrealistic expectations of how quickly jobs can be completed, especially when unanticipated issues come up.
His health has been failing he said, and his wife died in late 2013 after a lengthy illness that required trips to Columbus hospitals.
“Stuff like that comes up and what do you do?,” Nott said. He did more than 150 jobs annually, by his estimation, and said the BBB took into account that a handful of complaints was a small percentage of that total.
North confirmed that the number of complaints against a business is not as important as the ratio of complaints to volume of business. The BBB also takes into consideration how the company responds to customer issues.
“I didn’t try to hide anything from them,” Nott said of the McNeelys. “I’m not the one who refused to finish the job.”
When asked if he’s intentionally taken advantage of clients Nott said he would never do that and only pleaded guilty to theft at the advice of his lawyers.
“I’ve been cheated and I’ve been crooked by homeowners, so I would never do that,” he said.
The McNeelys have a civil suit for breach of contract pending against Nott and 1 Call Remodeling in Clark County Common Pleas Court.
But Debbie McNeely said she’s frustrated not just with the work she claims was botched or unfinished, but with the available consumer resources she feels let her down.
“It was frustrating with the BBB because it was all geared towards the business,” she said, calling their system flawed.
“As long as he says he’s committed to finishing, the BBB will not lower his rating.”
Little recourse available
Debbie McNeely also contacted the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section, but was initially referred back to the BBB.
“When consumer complaints are filed with our office, and the supplier is a member of the Better Business Bureau, we have an agreement with the BBB that it will work with the consumer and the supplier toward a satisfactory resolution,” Joseph Hudach, assistant director of consumer advocacy for Attorney General Mike DeWine wrote to Debbie McNeely in October.
Three months later, with no satisfactory response from Nott via the BBB, the Consumer Protection Section offered Debbie McNeely its free dispute resolution program.
Through that program, the state sends letters to the company detailing the consumer complaint and any violation of local or state law and asks them to respond and work with the consumer to find a solution.
“The dispute resolution process does rely on cooperation,” said Jonathan Blanton, head of the Consumer Protection division.
In the McNeelys’ case, Nott was not responsive to the complaint, according to the Attorney General’s office, and the state closed the file with no resolution.
While the Attorney General’s office has the authority to prosecute businesses that violate consumer laws, Blanton said it only has the resources to take on cases which affect a large number of consumers.
In 2014, the Consumer Protection Section received 28,000 consumer complaints and opened 350 investigations.
“We evaluate complaints for whether they violate (state statutes),” Blanton said. “How egregious is the conduct,” he continued, and is there a larger problem than just one or two customer complaints?
DeWine’s office would not confirm if they have opened any further investigation into Nott or 1 Call.
“I know they’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Debbie McNeely said. “I’m just beside myself that nothing can be done.”
After seven complaints in 2014, the BBB suspended 1 Call’s accreditation in November.
Nott says he’s been hospitalized and is no longer in business.
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