(Memphis) I'm sure you've heard about it, maybe even watched those reality shows based on the subject, but we saw real proof of what happens when a renovation for a dream kitchen becomes a nightmare.
"The entire kitchen was bare, he left tools in the floor, everything was still covered in plastic," says Cameron Nolan.
With no running water, Nolan says his mom, 73-year-old Harriet Nolan, was forced to wash dishes in her bathroom sink.
The makeshift kitchen included a folding table with a convection oven and hot plate.
"That's what it looked like for a year," Nolan said, after his contractor, who was supposed to replace cabinets, floors and appliances, took almost $15,000 and disappeared.
Nolan told us, "In my previous line of work, I've seen a lot of elderly being taken advantage of, turns out, it was my own mom that was scammed."
"We hear a lot where people have been ripped off," says Allen Medlock, who works for the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Construction and Code Enforcement.
Contractors doing any structural work must get a permit from his office. A permit is not the same as a license.
There are separate state requirements. "Anybody that contracts with a homeowner to do any work in excess of $3,000, is required to have a home improvement license," explains Medlock.
Here's where it gets tricky. That state license is only required in eight Tennessee counties, Shelby is one of them, but no surrounding counties are included.
Which is why Medlock says it's even more critical to do your homework, "Get bids on jobs before you get something done, at least three, and always try to make sure people are licensed and qualified to do the work."
I asked Nolan, "This was somebody you all knew?" He replied, "Yes. Someone we had known for 40 years."
Or, so they thought. We found details on Mrs. Nolan's contractor, Marcus Lenier Gibbs, at the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance website.
The Board for Licensing Contractors recently fined him for unlicensed activity and project abandonment.
Gibbs also has a trail of legal problems from multiple bankruptcies to lawsuits.
"I attempted to file suit against him and the processor has had trouble even finding him," added Nolan.
After some digging, the On Your Side Investigators discovered, one of the addresses for Gibbs is no good because he lost it in a foreclosure a while back.
Another wasn't even a real street address, it's a mailbox at a UPS store. We called recent phone numbers listed for Gibbs, but got no answer.
Gibbs began renovations on Mrs. Nolan's kitchen in the spring of 2011. She suffered a stroke this past August. It was then, her son, Cameron decided to surprise her.
"I said I gotta do something," explained Nolan.
Mrs. Nolan, the independent, retired educator who once painted the design on her walls, even installed her own baseboards, finally got her dream kitchen.
"Do you like your new kitchen," I ask. "Yes," Mrs. Nolan exclaims!
Since her stroke the roles are reversed. Cameron and his wife handle most of the cooking.
"As a coming home welcoming, we had the family over and we cooked Christmas dinner," he said. "So did you do her cooking justice," I asked Cameron? "No, oh no," laughed Mrs. Nolan!
The Nolans' new contractor actually did the job in a week, and charged less money.
Find a licensed contractor in your state:
Filing a complaint:
According to the statistics from Commerce and Insurance, there have been more than 160 complaints against contractors from Shelby County over the past three years. If you'd like to submit a complaint by phone, call (615) 532-2868. Consumers can also fill out a Board Complaint Form or Report Unlicensed Activity Form
Medlock says homeowners should ask contractors to see a copy of their license. They all have wallet cards that contain the information.
Better Business Bureau- (901)759-1300
- Be wary of door-to-door workers who show up unsolicited offering to do work, often at cut-rate prices. Does the company’s vehicle have out-of-area tags? That may be a sign that they don’t have a permanent location in our area.
- Take time to shop around for contractors, get competitive bids, and check them out with the BBB.
- If you don’t have a particular company in mind, we can provide a list of BBB Accredited Businesses in that industry – businesses that have pledged to treat you fairly.
- Don’t rely on a fancy Yellow Pages ad or a paid ad on Google. And a professional-looking website doesn’t necessarily mean the company is reputable.
- Verify that the contractor has the proper license and insurance – ask for proof, then verify the information with state, county, or city housing authorities to be sure that a contractor meets all area licensing/bonding requirements.
- Make sure the contract contains the contractor’s name, address, phone number and license numbers.