timesleader.com

Homeowners taken advantage of by contractors

By Edward Lewis

July 6, 2013

EXETER — First time homeowner Matt Stuka planned to turn a single-family house into a rental unit with two apartments.

Easy enough, the 29-year-old thought, until he hired a contractor to remodel the house built in the early 1930s on Harland Street.

Stuka hired George Poplawski as the contractor to completely renovate the house turning the first and second floors into separate apartments. A hand-written contract Poplawski drafted was signed Feb. 27, 2012.

Nearly 16 months after the agreement, the house at 231 Harland St. remains empty of tenants due to unfinished construction and broken promises.

Poplawski, 41, last known address as Carey Street in Plains Township, was charged by Exeter police with theft and deceptive business practices. After being arraigned May 18, Poplawski spent two days at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility before he was released after posting $25,000 bail.

Attempts to reach Poplawski for comment were unsuccessful last week.

Stuka is not alone.

Other homeowners in the area have been victimized by contractors, according to court records.

A Swoyersville woman hired Lemire Brown, owner of Brown and Brown Home Improvement, to replace the roof on her Noyes Avenue house that was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October. The woman paid a $4,000 deposit as Lemire ripped away shingles.

Swoyersville police Cpl. Adam Christian charged Brown in June with failing to finish the job. Christian said Lemire left a huge hole in the roof exposing interior rooms.

Tarps cover the woman's roof.

West Pittston police said Joseph Lombardo, of Luzerne Avenue, paid $1,800 to William Thomas Laird of Laird's Renovations and Remodeling to paint his house in April. Laird cashed the check, made out to a woman, and never started the job, police said.

Police charged Laird with theft, deceptive business practices and receiving payment for services he failed to perform.

Precautions necessary

While the spring and summer seasons are ripe for remodeling and building projects, homeowners who sustained damage from a natural disaster also need contractors' services.

The state Office of Attorney General had officials throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania in the weeks after the historic September 2011 flood verifying contractors were registered with thier office as required by state law and to make sure they weren't raising prices for materials and labor.

Janet Campis, officer manager at The Building Industry Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Kingston, warns homeowners to be extra cautious when hiring a contractor to avoid being victimized.

“The first thing homeowners should do is call their insurance company; they have a list of contractors they will recommend,” Campis said. “The next thing homeowners can do is get referrels and check for the contractor's registration number with the (Pennsylvania) Attorney General's Office.”

A law adopted in 2009 requires contractors to register their business with the attorney general's office.

Optimism faded

Stuka said he purchased the house in February 2012 when the previous homeowners had died. The house is next to his parents' home where he was raised.

Stuka said he hired Poplawski on a recommendation from the previous owners' family. Poplawski installed a fence on the Stuka property and demolished a garage behind his new home.

“I'm a first time home owner, I didn't know much better,” Stuka said. “It wasn't suppose to be this way; I trusted him.”

Stuka said Poplawski promised to obtain the necessary permits to remodel the house and to replace the roof. Permits also were required for containers to haul away debris.

Stuka said he first suspected problems when he noticed the lack of permit cards in the window. He did not know separate permits are required for electrical, plumbing and roof replacement.

“At the time, I didn't feel I was being cheated,” Stuka said. “When he kept asking me for more money, I started to question him and he stopped showing up, he only showed up when I wasn't around and he stopped returning calls.'

Stuka hoped the remodel would be finished in May 2012 allowing him to rent the two apartments and earn income. With the apartments still under construction in July 2012, Stuka gave Poplawski an ultimatum.

“I told him to get this finished by October. Every cent I had has gone into the house,” Stuka said.

Stuka said he finally had enough, ending his working relationship with Poplawski in October. By that time, Stuka said he was in the hole for more than $73,000.

Troubles not over

Stuka's troubles did not end there.

An inspection of the unfinished apartments led to serious problems costing Stuka more money:

• Stuka learned he was billed him for new materials when existing and used windows, pipes and electrical wires from other jobs were used.

• Fittings for the 4-inch waste pipe in the basement were incorrectly connected to the main sewer line.

• Drywall that was installed did not meet fire code standards.

• Walls were closed with drywall before the electrical system was inspected.

• The front porch was not replaced.

• Electrical panel boxes and the wrong ceiling fan junction boxes were installed.

Stuka said he learned of the shoddy construction by new contractors he was forced to hire to finish the apartments. Drywall had to be removed to install new electrical lines and junction boxes, waste pipes had to be moved and refitted, and new water lines had to be installed to service the kitchens and bathrooms.

Stuka predicts the house will be finished in late summer.

Judgement against contractor

Sheila Nicholson and her husband, Mark, of Harveys Lake, had Poplawski work for them.

The Nicholson's filed a civil lawsuit against Poplawski attempting to recoup $33,000 for work they paid him to remodel a rental unit on Rhodes Terrace in 2009.

“We hired him to do the work and we gave him $7,000 for cherry cabinets,” Nicholson explained. “He called three days later and said he needed another $8,000. He starts throwing up a deck on the back of the house.

“We soon found out he never ordered the cabinets and never got permits, not even a permit for the deck,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said the Harveys Lake Code Enforcement Office ordered Poplawski to cease working on the house. Nicholson said she learned Poplawski billed her for insulation that was not installed.

Poplawski was charged by Harveys Lake police with theft and deceptive business practices. Those charges were dismissed when Nicholson said she accepted $5,000 from Poplawski.

“We had to pay more money to redo all the work he did,” Nicholson said.

The civil lawsuit was filed in an attempt to recover their losses. A $38,732 judgment was filed in Luzerne County Court in October 2009 in the Nicholson's favor when Poplawski failed to respond to the lawsuit.

No money has been paid.