Art of the Raw Deal

Neil Construction gets its money in advance. Its customers often get nothing.

Neil Construction
Don and Ann-Marie Powers paid $12,000 to Neil Wolfe; now they're rebuilding their kitchen themselves. - Walter  Novak
Don and Ann-Marie Powers paid $12,000 to Neil Wolfe; now they're rebuilding their kitchen themselves.
It's been three months since Don and Ann-Marie Powers have cooked a meal. Where their kitchen should be, there are exposed beams and bare plywood, the only evidence of the remodeling job that is barely started, but won't end anytime soon.

Last spring, when the Powerses wanted to overhaul the kitchen and bathroom of their Wickliffe home, they hired contractor Neil Wolfe. They'd read about his company, Neil Construction, in a local coupon flier. "The reason we got a contractor is because we didn't want to deal with months and months of not having a kitchen," says Don. Now the months are piling up anyway.

The Powerses paid Wolfe more than $12,000 in April; by June, the narrow kitchen in the back of their home should have had new counters and cabinets. Instead, nothing had been done. When they asked for their money back, Wolfe refused. Finally in August, a worker showed up to rip everything out of the kitchen. Then came Wolfe's excuses: delays blamed on subcontractors, weather, meetings, and vacations.

The kitchen that should have been finished five months ago remains a shambles today. Pots and silverware rest in boxes in the dining room; new cabinets clutter the garage. The only good news: Wolfe never started on the bathroom.

Don Powers still manages a laugh when he thinks about the business card Wolfe once handed him. It reads "I  referrals." The only referral Don made was to the Better Business Bureau.

The Powerses aren't alone. In the past year, seven of Wolfe's customers have filed complaints; in each case, they claim to have received little or no work, but lots of excuses in exchange for their up-front payments.

"This man has not played by the rules of the game," says Sandy Prebil of the Better Business Bureau's Greater Cleveland branch. "If a construction contractor does not obey the law, he is taking advantage of consumers."

The law had already caught up with Wolfe in 2004, when the State of Ohio filed suit for violations of its deceptive-practices statutes, including failure to obtain necessary licenses and permits. He was ordered to pay more than $20,000 to two families in Mentor-on-the-Lake and Solon; the ruling also called for a $25,000 fine for each future instance in which Wolfe operates without proper licensing.

So far, the experience seems not to have altered his business model. In a complaint filed in August by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, Wolfe is charged with felony theft for taking payment from an elderly South Euclid woman to build an addition on her home. The problem: Wolfe had already been barred from obtaining permits to work in South Euclid. None of the work has been done.

The Powerses say Wolfe lied about having Wickliffe permits too. They learned this only after deciding to haul away the remains of their shattered kitchen themselves. The dumpster Don Powers had delivered to his front yard caught the attention of a Wickliffe official, who ordered that because permits had not been secured, work could not continue. Wolfe's violations at the Powerses' home, in addition to past instances in which he failed to obtain permits, have led to another suit brought by the City of Wickliffe.

"We don't want him in Wickliffe," says Building Commissioner Ray Sack, who brought the case for the city.

Wolfe paints himself as a victim of the business. "What I'm guilty of is standard operating procedure," he says, referring to the long delays, up-front payments, and working without permits. "That's what goes on in this industry." The Better Business Bureau, he adds, is "on a campaign to crucify and destroy" him.

But Wolfe also admits he has a penchant for accepting all job offers and that problems result when he's unable to find workers. In January, he took a partial payment of $6,000 to build an addition on Delores Carter's Cleveland Heights home. When lumber was finally delivered to Carter's house in October, a subcontractor showed up and began working, but threatened to quit if Wolfe didn't pay him soon. It's a typical refrain among laborers in Wolfe's employ. "I don't even want my name in the same article with his," says one. Another, who also asked not to be named, now works for Wolfe only if he's paid in advance.

Not everyone shares Wolfe's view of his profession. Sack estimates that upwards of 600 contractors are registered to work in Wickliffe. How many rival Wolfe's track record? "None," he says. "He never follows the rules."

While contractors often require at least partial payment in advance, the Better Business Bureau advises consumers to demand references and check the contractor's record with local building departments before entering an agreement.

Paying in advance has left Wolfe's customers in a bind. As long as work at any home has begun -- lumber delivered or walls demolished -- Wolfe can legally claim that he intended to complete it. If the Powerses were to fire him, he could sue for breach of contract or put a lien on their home.

Don Powers no longer expects to see his kitchen rebuilt by Neil Construction, if for no other reason than that Sack refuses to grant Wolfe permits for work in Wickliffe. Powers is also not holding his breath for a refund: Both cases against Wolfe are only in the pretrial stage, and Wolfe has yet to pay off the fines he incurred last year. So Don and his wife have taken on the task of rebuilding the kitchen themselves. More than anything, their experience with Wolfe has remodeled their finances: They took out a loan for the initial payment, and now they're dipping into Christmas savings to fund their own labor.

"He's screwed us out of our livelihoods right now," says Ann-Marie.

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