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As the Screw Turns

What are homeowners supposed to do when their handymen run out on them?

Shirley Glover stands in the front porch area of her burned West Philadelphia house on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.  Glover won a court judgement for $1,328 against a contractor who never completed work on her house.  ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Shirley Glover stands in the front porch area of her burned West Philadelphia house on Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Glover won a court judgement for $1,328 against a contractor who never completed work on her house. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )Read more

WHEN Shirley Glover took a handyman to court for not doing repairs she'd paid him to do, she was thrilled to win a $1,378 judgment against him.

But he never paid up. She sought help from the Sheriff's Office, which is authorized to sell the personal property of those who owe money to satisfy court judgments. But the office was unable to locate the man, despite five visits to the home address he'd given Glover.

So Glover's court order is as toothless as a busted rake. And she still needs to fix her house. Except now she has even less cash to get the place up to code.

I hear lots of stories like Glover's. Sadly, they mostly involve victims whose low income or old age make them vulnerable to contractors who promise more than they can deliver or, worse, deliver nothing after being paid.

Four years ago, consumer advocates cheered when the state passed the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act. Among other things, it required contractors earning more than $5,000 to register with the state and authorized criminal penalties for home-improvement fraud.

But the Pa. Attorney General's Office can't investigate all 4,900 consumer complaints it receives each year, so it tends to go after big contractors with the most complaints, Deputy Attorney General Jim Donahue says. Smaller contractors are sent warning letters, which can sometimes help consumers resolve disputes. But the A.G.'s Office can't act as a lone consumer's personal lawyer to go after owed money.

"You know the phrase 'You can't get blood out of a turnip?' " Donahue says. "We call these contractors turnips because so many of them don't have money to refund to clients."

I can think of a better term to describe these guys. And it's not "mighty fine."

Glover inherited the house at 1440 N. Felton St. in Southwest Philly when her sister died. Glover was fixing it up when a fire hit the home next door, killing its occupant and heavily damaging Glover's house. The porch roof collapsed, all the windows she'd just replaced were destroyed and the roof was punctured.

"I am not wealthy," says Glover, 44, who is single, childless and unemployed (she was laid off from a teaching job). "I had to put off repairs until I could save enough."

It took a few years, during which she was cited a few times by Licenses and Inspections for the house's ramshackle condition. Finally, last August, she started calling licensed contractors, but their estimates were twice what she could afford. Then she was referred to handyman Christopher Withers, who offered to stabilize the porch, fix the roof and replace the windows for $2,500. Glover would pay half up front and the rest when Withers finished the job.

The contract Withers signed was on a form whose letterhead reads "Genesis Custom Electrical Service, Clean Outs-Referrals-Subcontractors."

"It seemed official," Glover says.

And so she did what desperate people in this dirt-poor city do when threatened with losing a house they can't afford to fix. She went with the lowest bidder.

Withers took Glover's $1,250, stabilized part of the porch and removed wood that covered some broken windows. And then, Glover says, he never returned.

"When I called him he said he needed more money. Then he said to stop calling. Then he stopped answering," she says.

Glover took Withers to court in November. He never showed, and she won a judgment for $1,200, plus court costs. When Withers didn't pay or appeal the judgment, Glover paid the Sheriff's Office $84 to track him down. He couldn't be found.

"What are people like Shirley supposed to do?" asks the city's consumer advocate, Lance Haver, who contacted me about her story. "We tell them, 'Take your case to court.' That's what she did. She won, but it doesn't matter. This man has still gotten away with taking her money."

Haver would like to see the Attorney General's Office go after unlicensed, small-time contractors like Withers because a) their low bids shut out legitimate, licensed contractors who can't afford to work as cheaply as the small-timers, and b) many small-timers find they can't afford to do the work cheaply either.

And they wind up abandoning the jobs they start, leaving customers worse off than if the work had never been started at all.

I called Withers twice to ask him if he had any intention of paying Glover the money he owes her. He basically said he doesn't owe her anything, since he disagrees with her version of events. And besides, he has no money.

"So why didn't you argue that in court?" I asked.

"I didn't even know I was being sued until I got the paperwork" about the judgment, he says (Glover and Haver dispute this, saying Withers was served).

"So why didn't you appeal?" I asked, since the paperwork informed him of his right to do so.

He said he still might. He also said he didn't have Glover's number and had no way to get in touch with her.

But a few days after my call, Glover says, he gave her a ring.

"He said he'd try to pay me something," she says. "But I don't know any more."

And there's nothing mighty fine about that.

Phone: 215-854-2217