Unscrupulous or unresponsive contractors have been an obstacle for property owners rebuilding after the Memorial Day tornadoes, including one who faces criminal charges, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
Complaints to the Better Business Bureau about roofers and other home improvement contractors spiked this year. The Ohio Attorney General's Office has received 55 reports from Montgomery, Miami and Greene counties about home improvement contractors since May 27.
The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office arrested roofing contractor Brandon Valandingham, owner of West Carrollton-based Buckeye Storm Solutions, on Friday on a theft warrant out of Miami County. A Piqua customer accused Valandingham of taking money then disappearing without doing the work, according to a police report.
Similar allegations have been filed with the state and prosecutors in Montgomery County.
The arrest came after the Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV contacted local law enforcement about complaints against Valandingham, who had an open warrant since October, and two days after reporters attempted to contact him at his home.
Seven local homeowners allegedly lost more than $40,000 in total to Buckeye, according to complaints to the attorney general.
Kathy and Larry Borgerding said they paid the first half of an insurance settlement -- $7,700 -- to repair tornado damage to their Dayton home. Buckeye never showed up, the Borgerdings said, so they paid another contractor out of pocket to do the work.
"I couldn't sleep, and it really bothered me," Kathy Borgerding said. "This was our retirement money."
In addition to costing money, unresponsive contractors left people waiting for months to repair their homes.
Julie Hatton's home on Mildred Drive in Harrison Twp. resembles little the one she lived in for 30 years. And it might be a long time before it does.
Hatton said she paid a contractor she declined to name who promised to finish repairs by November but has done little work.
"He got $30,000 and I got a badly tarped house and a half-full dumpster," she said.
Home improvement complaints
Fifty-five complaints from Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties have been filed with the Ohio Attorney General's consumer protection division about home improvement contractors since the May 27 storm, according to data obtained by the Dayton Daily News.
The attorney general's office couldn't say how many of those complaints are related to tornado damage. At least three complaints specifically mention the storm and at least two others identified by the newspaper are tied to the tornado.
Common complaints include a contractor taking payment, then not showing up to do the work or even returning phone calls. The total amount in dispute is $238,844.
Overall, complaints about home improvement and roofing contractors to the Dayton and Miami Valley Better Business Bureau spiked this year compared to last year. The organization received 61 complaints about roofers this year, a 17 percent increase from last year. Complaints about home improvement contractors increased 13 percent from 46 to 52.
The increase in complaints likely is because the tornadoes led to a heightened vigilance, said John North, BBB president.
There are "hundreds and hundreds" of home remodeling and home improvement companies in the Miami Valley, North said.
"What we do know is that businesses in this industry end up on our top 10 list quite frequently," he said.
Buckeye Storm Solutions has had seven complaints this year filed with the Ohio Attorney General. Four of these complaints also were forwarded by the state to the Better Business Bureau. The BBB also received two complaints separately and in September revoked the company's accreditation for not responding to complaints.
The Dayton Daily News attempted to reach Valandingham. The listed phone numbers for his business were not working. A reporter visited his listed business address, an apartment in West Carrollton, and left a note. A Buckeye Storm Solutions truck was found at an apartment in Miamisburg and a note was left on the windshield. The messages weren't returned.
Several people also contacted local law enforcement about the roofing business, including those who didn't have tornado damage. This includes Zachary Debrosse, who in August reported to Piqua police that he hired Buckeye in May and paid $1,500 to work on his roof. Nothing was done, the police report says, and Valandingham stopped responding to messages.
"The first time I said I wanted my money back, that was it," Debrosse told the Dayton Daily News.
Valandingham was charged in Miami County Common Pleas Court with theft on Oct. 2 and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was arrested on that warrant Friday morning.
Debrosse and other victims said Valandingham's business appeared legitimate and had finished jobs before the tornado.
Lindsay Ryan said Valandingham's company did good work on her home in Huber Heights about two years ago. Then she was in the process of buying a Dayton house that she was living in when it was hit by the Memorial Day tornadoes.
She recommended Buckeye to the homeowners -- close family friends of hers. At that time the business had a good rating from the BBB.
"I honestly don't think he's a bad person and that was his goal to steal people's money and take off," Ryan said. "I think he was a small company, he only had a couple crews and he took on more ... than he could handle, and for whatever reason, he decided to stop communicating with people."
The owner of Ryan's house, Kathy Moore, paid Buckeye nearly $5,000 but the company allegedly did no work, according to her complaint to the AG's office.
Valandingham then stopped responding to calls or emails, Moore told the Dayton Daily News.
At that point, all the other contractors had waiting lists for repair work from the tornado.
"We went on the bottom of every contractor's list," Moore said.
Another contractor has finished the roof, but the house still needs siding replaced.
"It just put everybody in a bad spot," Ryan said. "It's costing everybody money out of pocket."
'I want my money back'
Tracey Oder, a single mother of three, said Valandingham never returned calls after she handed over $5,500 in cash to begin repairs on her Riverside home damaged in the May 27 storms.
"That money was supposed to go toward fixing the damage that was done by a tornado," she said. "It was pretty selfish of him to do that, mostly to my kids. This is their home."
Valandingham has been sued in a Butler County court by a West Chester customer who claims he took nearly $5,600 from her and didn't finish the job.
Valandingham has a criminal record. He was charged with felony theft in 2008 in Miami County and found guilty of an amended misdemeanor charge of criminal damaging. Troy police couldn't provide a report because the department doesn't keep records that far back.
The Borgerdings of Dayton still have the sign Valandingham put in their yard and his business card -- and they say the contractor still has what's theirs.
"I want my money back," Larry Borgerding said. "And after I get my money back, I want him to go to jail. He needs to be punished for what he's done."
Contractor responds to complaint
The attorney general's office provides tips for consumers to avoid getting ripped off. Key suggestions include being cautious about how much you pay up front and making sure you get detailed receipts.
Conrad Champion said he learned these two the hard way. Champion responded to a Dayton Daily News online survey asking tornado survivors what obstacles they have faced while rebuilding.
"We hired a general contractor and they have not completed the work," he wrote. "Nor do they return phone calls after multiple times of contacting them."
The Champions' Trotwood home was damaged by the storm, he said in an interview. Champion had a contractor by June 1 who said repairs would be done by mid-July. Then he disappeared for months.
The company finally came out and did some work, he said. But six months after the storm, it's not completed. And he said the agreement he signed with the company was not very specific.
"What we learned (is) not to give them so much money at one time and to get a contract signed, sealed and delivered," he said.
The company the Champions hired is CDC Contracting. Company owner James Curran said he sympathizes with Champion for being frustrated with how long post-tornado repairs have taken. He said the problem is insurance companies are overwhelmed and slow at processing payments.
"The net result is a long process and it's painful for the client," he said. "We did as much as we possibly could trying to expedite their claims."
Champion has not filed any complaints against the company.
Another property owner from Springfield filed an unrelated complaint in October against CDC with the attorney general, claiming the work was taking longer than it should. The state forwarded the complaint to the Better Business Bureau. Curran said that issue was resolved with the customer.
CDC Contracting currently has an "A" rating with the BBB.
Curran said he never asks for more money than he needs up front, but contractors need some cash to get projects going because they can't afford to finance everything on their own credit lines. As for Champion: "We're going to cross the finish line for him," Curran said.
'Verify, then trust'
The AG's office tries to settle complaints informally.
"Our office attempts to contact the business that is the subject of the complaint. We then work with the consumer and the business to hopefully reach a resolution between both parties," wrote AG's office spokesman Dominic Binkley in an email response to questions from the Dayton Daily News.
"Complaints are then evaluated as a whole to see if further action is suitable (such as an investigation)," he wrote. "There are a number of factors involved in that decision, including the number of complaints against the business, whether the business is willing to resolve the complaints, the egregiousness of the complaints, etc."
People can search these complaints on the attorney general's website. And starting this past July, consumers can search whether businesses have been sued by the state of Ohio in recent years for violating consumer protection laws.
"President Reagan was fond of saying, 'Trust, but verify,'" Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said when launching the service. "This tool will allow Ohio consumers to verify, then trust."
The BBB recommends people protect themselves by getting multiple written estimates before hiring a contractor; get everything in writing; making sure contractors are licensed, bonded and insured; asking your insurance company for a list of recommended contractors; and being aware of high-pressure sales tactics.
"Remember if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is," North said.
North recommends people check out businesses with the Better Business Bureau as well. And BBB inquiries are way up for some kinds of work. Roofers and tree services saw a 27 percent increase in BBB inquiries this year: 59,495 and 48,785, respectively.
Eric Farrell, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Dayton, said the organization has not received any complaints about member contractors.
The organization's membership roll is one place to find reputable companies, he said. That's because an existing member has to sponsor a company who wants to join, all are vetted by the organization's membership committee and approved by its board of directors, Farrell said.
"Our biggest seal of approval is when a member recruits another member," he said. "We stand by our membership."
If there is a problem between an HBA member and consumer, the organization has a program to mediate disputes before they end up at the attorney general's office or in court.
Winds of change
Due to poor tarping, torrential rains following the tornado further damaged Julie Hatton's Harrison Twp. home.
"Where at first it wasn't going to have to be all that much, now it's looking like a total second floor gut and a new kitchen," she said.
Hatton, 73, teaches part time at Sinclair Community College where, during a long career, she worked in the facilities department, ran the service control center and co-wrote four textbooks.
Hatton said she unfortunately didn't apply what she learned over her long career to vetting contractors.
"Under normal circumstances -- I have a degree in construction management -- I would have gotten three bids. But I didn't because my home of 30 years was blown up in front of my eyes," she said. "Friends of mine said, 'This is a good company,' so I just went with that."
Hatton wouldn't name the "very unresponsive" contractor because she believes that he, like many others, likely didn't intend to defraud tornado survivors.
"All of them were totally overwhelmed by this -- just completely and totally overwhelmed -- so all their timelines just went out the window," she said. "I don't feel like I got snookered ... He's probably overwhelmed and making promises he can't keep."
Hatton now lives in a downtown apartment. She won't return to the Mildred Drive home she and her husband bought as they started their lives together, even when the repairs are finally completed.
"We got married in the front yard, lived our entire marriage there and my husband died there three years ago," she said. "There's part of me that says it's time to let go of it all and go have what's left of my life. Because the Julie and James part of my life is over with. Maybe this is winds of change ... Sometimes you get an angel whisper in your ear and sometimes you get hit by a cosmic two-by-four."
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