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Beyond Repair 

Customers say Neil Construction Company will take your money and make you cry

Debbie Piunno can't stop crying. She can't eat or sleep. Her hair is falling out in clumps in her hands. And her formerly quaint Euclid backyard resembles the gutted tableaux of some war-ravaged city.

All she wanted was a dining nook.

Debbie and her husband saved up for 15 years for an addition with a full basement, a long-awaited expansion for their compact mid-century bungalow just off the E. 222nd exit of Route 2. Her house now in shambles, Piunno's facing foreclosure at the hands of Neil Wolfe of Neil Construction Company, a silver-tongued contractor who seemed competent and reliable when she accepted his bid and paid him $11,625 up front last summer.

Seven months later, she's sunk $26,415 into the project, her dreams of a dining nook now an all-consuming nightmare.

"It's killing my wife," says Joe Piunno in the couple's cozy living room, clotted with furniture formerly destined for the dining nook. "She's aged ten years in seven months." Debbie, who once worked in property management, likens herself to "the shoemaker whose own kids have the worst shoes."

"Neil's a really good talker," muses the trim 59-year-old as she shakily stubs out her fourth Marlboro Light. "He convinces you he's going to do a fantastic job."

What a "fantastic job" entails, Neil Construction-style: the Piunnos' basement footer was poured four inches shallow, requiring a sump pump not originally in the contract. Tiptoeing gingerly through wettened gravel, Debbie indicates where she had to reinstall the pump herself after one of Wolfe's workers erected it sideways in the wrong part of the basement. Wolfe didn't mount downspouts on the addition's exterior, so rainwater floods the gravel bed. The contractor never got around to pouring the cement floor.

The problems continued to multiply. Wolfe's roofers didn't extend the sewer stack far enough through the roof, causing methane gas to empty internally. The three windows and patio door weren't installed level, but Piunno's not planning to use the door anyway: Wolfe never built a stairway, and her "backyard" is now a massive dirt mound abandoned by Wolfe's excavators. Half of Piunno's driveway is missing. The new roof leaks, breeding mold under the fresh drywall. The cathedral ceiling's roof beams threaten load failure.

"He does enough work to say that he's doing his job, that he's 'trying,' that you're 'interfering,' and then gets mad at you so you fire him. So he looks like the good guy and it's all everyone else's fault. My whole house is upside down," frets Debbie.

Not trusting Wolfe to finish the project, she sent Neil Construction a Cease and Desist letter on December 4th. She figured he had already gotten so much money from her, he'd move on. She was wrong. Wolfe wasn't done making their abode a living hell.

A month later, Wolfe filed a mechanic's lien against the Piunno property for $5,325 and on January 25th threatened to begin foreclosure proceedings if he didn't receive the balance for the contract within 10 days. "That's exactly what we would owe him if he had done the work, but he hasn't completed anything," says Piunno.

A structural engineer who inspected the addition noted "deficiencies of grave concern" and said he wouldn't feel comfortable standing in the room for more than ten minutes, though the Piunno clan ate their Thanksgiving dinner-without heat or electricity-on the bare plywood floor anyway. Debbie says she hasn't recovered from the engineer's grim prognosis: "an entire rebuild may be necessary," his report concludes.

The Piunnos aren't alone: Scene spoke with four other couples upon whom Wolfe imposed mechanic's liens last year. Rob Davis, a Canton homeowner who paid Wolfe up front for shoddy roof and siding work, was similarly dismayed when he found the lien notice. "I'm flabbergasted," says Davis. "He collects the money and walks away. He kept putting me off and telling stories. That's not a contractor; that's a con man."

Wolfe's excuses for the delays are myriad and colorful, the stuff of a low-rent picaresque: whether it's vacations, deer hitting his car, his girlfriend's daughter getting in a car accident, his son's friend stealing and pawning Wolfe's father's ring, his crew driver's brother-in-law dying of cancer, or workers betraying him, he appears constantly besieged by persuasive-seeming setbacks, several of which he cited to multiple clients on different dates.

"These people are on a smear campaign," claims Wolfe when reached by Scene. "They're crucifying me." Wolfe concedes that he made two mistakes on the Piunno property: not pulling a permit for HVAC duct work and pouring the basement footer four inches shallow. He says everything else is a contractual misunderstanding.

Failure to obtain permits is one of Wolfe's favored motifs: he was barred from registering in Wickliffe, South Euclid, and Mentor for permit violations. He's been taken to court twice by the State of Ohio for violations of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, most recently in 2004.

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