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Frustration builds between homeowner, contractor

An additiJody Rich Ziegler's home Aurora's West Side is hold because problems with contractor.  Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Medi

An addition to Jody and Rich Ziegler's home on Aurora's West Side is on hold because of problems with the contractor. Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Good to know

If your contractor will be farming out any work on a project, ask to meet with those subcontractors and make sure they have current insurance coverage and licenses. Also ask if the contractor has paid them on time in the past.

Your down payment should be as little as you can negotiate. It’s a good idea to deposit the contract money with an independent escrow agent so payments can be made as the work progresses and only if you are satisfied.

Aurora has a nationally recognized tool to help manage construction projects that includes an e-mail blast that goes out to everyone involved to keep them updated on every step of the process. Owners and tenants are also supplied with a link to the city website that allows them to access all correspondences during a construction project.

Updated: December 8, 2012 5:23PM

The problem started with a raccoon on the roof.

The pesky rodent ate a hole through the attic of Jody and Rich Ziegler’s home on Aurora’s West Side. And so, with a little insurance money in their pocket, the couple decided to pull some cash out of Rich’s retirement account as a meatcutter for Jewel Food Stores and put on that new family room they had always dreamed of building.

That’s when the problem took a more human form.

The Zieglers thought they were doing everything correct in hiring a contractor for the 20- by 22-foot addition. They checked out the Better Business Bureau, as well as ServiceMagic and Angie’s List, two reputable consumer Web sites. The contractor they chose, a local firm in business since the ‘70s — licensed, insured and bonded — came with good reviews and a slightly lower bid. And a contract was signed.

That was on Dec. 11, 2011 — an entire year ago. But the family room is far from completed.

In fact, the job wasn’t even started until April, said Rich Ziegler, and by that time, “we didn’t just have one raccoon, we had a whole family.”

To date, the insulation and siding still need to be done, plumbing and electrical aren’t finished; and the Zieglers had to pay another contractor for the roof because they were tired of dealing with unwelcome rodents and rain.

The couple claim they are already out $17,000 and have struggled to get the contractors to even return calls. To make matters worse, much of the completed project involved subcontractors — an electrician, concrete man and framer — who have not been paid and are threatening to slap liens on the Zieglers’ home. As they unfortunately discovered, even if a contractor is licensed, insured and bonded, a homeowner can still be hit with mechanic’s liens if the contractor fails to pay subcontractors or suppliers; a law that applies even if the homeowner paid the contractor.

“It’s a mess,” said Jody Ziegler, who describes herself as a 57-year-old intelligent woman now feeling like “the stupidest person in the world” for being in this predicament. “But I can’t figure out what we did wrong.”

It turns out, not that much. According to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, there were 2,263 complaints filed against contractors in 2011, making it number three on the list — behind consumer debt and identity theft. In the Zieglers’ case, the problem is not so much a dead-beat contractor as a sluggish economy that’s played havoc with many long-standing and otherwise reputable companies.

I’m not using the name of this contractor because doing so would likely hurt the business more — which, in turn, won’t help the Zieglers get their room completed. The spokesman for this family-owned construction company seemed sincere when he talked about how they were once doing $7 million in business with 135 employees, but have scrambled to keep things going since the housing downturn.

They really found themselves in trouble this year, he said, after getting stiffed close to $300,000 by builders who also got caught in the line of falling dominos.

“If you can’t get the money from the people who owe you, then you are dead,” he said. “We don’t know what to do.”

Common sense would say, above all else, be up-front with clients. (On a personal note, one contractor quit on me in mid-job, and didn’t even bother coming back for some tools. After repeated attempts to get in touch with him — his voice mail quickly filled up — we hired someone else.) Avoidance and broken promises quickly erode trust between the two parties which, in turn, makes it harder to resolve problems.

“I have compassion for what they are going through,” said Jody Ziegler, “but you can’t not return calls or make promises you can’t keep.”

City spokesman Dan Ferrelli confirmed this contractor will not be issued any more permits by the city’s Inspections Division unless a positive resolution is reached for the Zieglers. This Oct. 5 action, he said, resulted from unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with the company. “We are unaware of any other problem properties with (the contractors),” Ferrelli added, “and they apparently have no other open permits on properties within the city.

The contractor insists they are committed to finishing the Ziegler job. And since I talked to the man in mid-week, workers have been on the job site twice. But the Zieglers, who recently hired an attorney, are running out of patience. Each day she wakes up and sees the unfinished addition is a constant reminder of the mess, said Jody, “and it is starting to make me physically sick.” Not only is the room open and vulnerable to bad weather, they can’t even get to the garage to get out Christmas decorations.

“Having this room addition has been our dream for such a long time,” she said. “Now it’s turned into a nightmare.”

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