Real Kitchen Nightmares
"New England Homeowners Beware!"
What's in a "Kitchen"? Well, it's only the most integral part of one's home, that's what. It's the room we cook in - food sustains us. It's a room that is usually located toward the front of a house - therefore the kitchen gets a lot of traffic. The family gathers here to eat, meet, watch Mom cook, and where you look for snacks. School and work lunches are prepared here, tea for guests is boiled here, beer and nachos for game day are stored here, and the main trash can is also here. A kitchen is essential to a home.
We reside in a house that is over 100 years old, and as of April 2009, our kitchen had certainly reflected some changes through time. It contained a microwave oven, a garbage disposal, a refrigerator with an ice/water dispenser, a center island, new plywood cabinet doors and a new ceramic tile floor. With the inception of the DIY Network, and home improvement stores such as Lowes and Home Depot, and real estate magazines boasting kitchens with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, built in plate racks, wine racks and spice racks; "the kitchen" (still the focal point of the home) now became a showplace!
After living in the cold of New England for half a century, and with our life clocks ticking, my husband and I thought that it might be time for a big change - a move! In order to move, we knew something had to be done about this kitchen in order to lure prospective buyers into the home. Now that the kids had grown and all college bills paid, we had managed to save a little money and we were going to invest it back into the home. We started small, with windows. My husband Mark, a Craigslist groupie, had found an advertisement from a local window installer online who just so happened to be having a sale on the purchase and installation of windows. We met with this "salesman" who was just that: a "salesman". Extremely charismatic, a quick talker, an "I'll promise you anything and give you more" hypnotic henchman of evil. And we fell hook, line and sinker. We contracted this guy to install 5 new windows to start. He asked for half the money down to custom measure and purchase the windows, and the other half of the payment on the day he installed them. 5 Windows are not cheap, and I can be a bit sceptical of people I don't know, especially when they are independent contractors with no actual building or established business name that they work under. My husband on the other hand will always look for a deal and Craigslist is his addiction. Through much heated discussion, I finally relented and agreed to have this so-called contractor come to the house, and he was as smoothe as cake batter. I agreed that he could put in the 5 windows, but told him explicitly that if he walked with our deposit check, that in no uncertain terms, I would track him down! That I expected to pay an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. And it was done. Due to the "Special" on windows running out soon (she now scoffs), 6 more windows were ordered and a little bit larger deposit was paid, and again when handing over the check, I still worried. As we stood in the "kitchen" dicussing the new windows with the happy "salesman", he noted and mentioned the plywood cabinets, and the cracking tile on the center island, etc... He also mentioned that he was a "Master Carpenter" by trade and that he would LOVE to redo our kitchen! (Imagine that! We would LOVE to redo our kitchen also!) So he asked us if he could take a few measurements and "play around" with some plans when he got home, vowing this would be fun for him! The second set of windows came in, work was completed on time, and from his back pocket he pulled out the plans for a brand spanking shiny new kitchen, complete with Maple Cabinets, Wilsonart Countertop, Plate Rack, Wine Rack, added electrical outlets, etc.... You could almost hear a choir singing, "....Ahhhhhhh...." in the back ground and a bright light slowly rose and encompassed that kitchen and all of us in it's mystifying beauty and loving warmth. He stood over six-feet tall, had a long slightly graying ponytail, and wore dirty work jeans with a bit of fraying and paint splatter on them, but as he held his arms out encompassing us and our kitchen, my husband and I were on the same hallucinating trip! We saw this tall figure, long hair flowing that had escaped it's ponytail, and his jeans were miraculously replaced with white comforting robes...an angel/"salesman" was present.
Now it did not seem unreasonable to us to pay half down on custom windows and the remainder with services rendered. After all, I don't think that you can expect a contractor to order and pay for custom sized windows on his own, because if a homeowner backed out of a deal, whose home would these exact sized windows fit? We thought we had done our homework in the writing up and signing of agreements/contracts for the two separate window jobs prior. Likewise, we thought we had done our homework in testing this contractor on two smaller jobs (the windows) before entering into a contract for the massive kitchen job. (Duh....You have to bait with smaller fish in order to catch the big fish. The windows were our minnows, the kitchen was his marlin!) A $7,500 deposit was paid, with a kitchen start date of Feb. 25, 2009. The End.
Okay, it's not "The End", but for all intents and purposes, the story could end right there. We had a contract with a start date of Feb. 25, 2009 and a job end date of Apr. 1, 2009. Our so-called contractor never showed up again until April 13 ,2009 when we called to inform him that we would see him in court. On that date he explained that he was NOW ready to work. That the death of his sister and his cousin, both occuring during the time period he was supposed to have been on our job, had really knocked him for a loop and taken a toll on him, which is why he had never shown up to work. He was extremely busy dealing with these deaths that had hit him so hard, along with days absent that he needed to observe Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, etc...For those reasons and also for the fact that he spent our deposit and now needed $5,000 more to "finally" order our countertop and cabinets, he'd been legitimately late. "Are you shitting me?!?!" REWIND here...... Did he just say, he'd spent our money which was specified to purchase materials, and instead he just now flipped the deal around??!! He paid himself first, prior to doing any work, and now wanted and NEEDED the materials money! (He now sounds like a Bank getting the interest up front before anything comes off your principal!) "Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me!" He practically cried not knowing what he could do if we didn't give him the rest of the money for materials, but claimed he still wanted the job. We emphatically let him know that no more money would be forthcoming without seeing all of the materials onsite! We also let him BEGIN work that day, 12 days after the job was to have been completed, because he had $7,500 of ours and we needed to get "some" work out of him at that cost.
For the next three days at approximately four hours each day, he proceeded to demolish our existing kitchen. With sledge hammer in hand, he tore out all of the plywood cabinets. He demolished a built-in cabinet and wall which connected to the adjoining dining room. He disconnected all major appliances, made matchsticks of the existing kitchen island, destroyed an almost-new garbage disposal, shut off the only water valve that supplied the entire 100 year old home, and managed to hack up the ceramic tile floor which was supposed to have stayed. And on day 3 he rested. It was April 15th and he said he had to leave early to "do his taxes". He packed up his tools, left a mountain of debris of what were our cabinets on our front lawn and took off in his old pickup truck in a cloud of dust. Five minutes later, his wife, an co-hort, called to tell us that our cabinets were in and that they need $5,000 NOW, or else the shipment would go back! These two were slicker than the tube of Brylcreem my daddy used to put in his hair! Here we "thought" that we were at least getting "some" work out of this joker by letting him come back to the home, when what he knowingly and intentionally was doing, was now rendering what was an "ugly" and "outdated" kitchen, completely useless! Non-existent really. HE STOLE OUR KITCHEN!!! He was holding our kitchen hostage for $12,500!! (Now we have been told time and time again, that you do not pay hostage or kidnap money, because you have no guarantee once paid, that the pirates will ever release the hostage. This deal was not going to go down!)
At this point, we called the NH Bar Assoc. for the recommendation of a lawyer. Never needing a lawyer in life, we wanted and needed our $7,500 and we "thought" this is what you were supposed to do: hire an attorney. As you can imagine, the attorney must have taken the same Public Speaking and Eloqution Classes as our supposed contractor had, because she assured us we were wronged, but...this was going to cost us. Now add over $4,000 in attorney's fees to the already stolen $7,500, not to mention a "missing kitchen", and life is getting darker by the minute. Our thoughts were that we would rather PAY an attorney to get this guy, than let someone outright STEAL our money. But this was not "Slick's first time at the rodeo"! It took a long time to get a court date. There were delays because Mr. and Mrs. Scam-a-lot asked the court for time to find an attorney, delays because their newly acquired attorney lost paperwork, delays because their attorney asked to back out for reasons of non-payment to him by his clients, etc... In watching an episode of one of my favorite new TV shows, "The Good Wife", we got a lesson about and how it was illegal to "Litigate for the Margins": purposefully delaying litigation for the sole purpose as to wear down the opposing side, either by running them out of money, patience, or time. This is exactly what the Scam-a-Lots were doing and they said as much to our lawyer. They told our lawyer that they would, delay, delay, delay. In court our attorney told us that the Judge "may" give the Scam-a-Lots more leeway since they were without an attorney. (What??? How is that to our detriment, that we did what we thought was right in hiring an attorney? And wasn't the judge once an attorney himself, so wouldn't he "want" people to use attorneys???) In the meantime, prior to court, my husband and I got all of our facts, photos and the timeline in order. My husband unearthed a posting (where else? on Craigslist) of a fellow who had been "Ripped Off by a Local Contractor" - our contractor, for approximately $3,500 on a Siding Job that was never started and again, no materials were even ordered or purchased. This fellow had taken our Contractor to small claims court - and won. We unearthed a case that the NH Atty. General filed and won, against the Scam-a-Lots, wherein three separate parties were ripped-off for a total of $8,525.02. We unearthed another case where the Scam-a-Lots grown sonhad bilked a homeowner out of approx. $10,000 for the purchase and installation of windows. The son was facing four Felony Charges which included: issuing a bad check, identity fraud, and 2-counts of misapplication of property, which he later plead guilty to. (Wow! Those old adages, "Children Learn What They Live" and "The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree" certainly apply here!) Needless to say, on April 13, 2010, the District Court awarded us our $7,500 in which the Defendents were unjustly enriched, in so much as spending our money for personal gain rather than for the building materials the money had been earmarked/contracted for. We were also award $2,500 in "reasonable" attorney's fees (which makes me question our then-attorney and the NH Bar Assoc. for turning us onto an attorney who charged us over $4,000, which was almost twice as much as the Judge deemed "reasonable".) And we were also awarded "Costs and Interest", whatever that unspecified amount means or comes to? THE END.
Just Kidding!! "Litigating For The Margins"....remember that term? The Scam-Lots appealed the District Court's decision. Now zillon page Briefs had to be written up and submitted to The NH Supreme Court. Our attorney informed us that Briefs take a long time to write up and she would need another retainer of $5,000. Are you kidding me???!!! Retainers for Building Materials! Retainers for Attorneys! And here we sit with: No Kitchen, $7,500 Stolen By a shady Contractor and his wife, and $4,000+ paid to an over-priced attorney (according to the Judge) who was recoomended by the NH Bar Assoc.! I guess you know, we decided with the depletion of funds, with the depletion of faith in the judicial system, and with the depletion of spirit, that we were on our own. The parties were given a deadline to turn in their Briefs to the NH Supreme Court, but even that time was extended by the Court, when the Scam-a-Lots did not prepare their Brief in an court accepted manner. (Again- "Litigating For The Margins", delay, delay, delay). With Briefs finally turned in, now we wait some more as our Briefs now go to the bottom of the the Brief pile, waiting it's turn to be read and decided upon. On March 11, 2011, the NH Supreme Court rules in our favor and again, we are winners....or so we thought. Via phone call as to how do we get our money and the court decision upheld, the Clerk of Courts tells us that now the Scam-a-Lots have 10 days to "File a Reconsideration". After 10 days, if the Scam-a-Lots don't "File for Reconsideration". I can't say, "THE END" any more, because I don't know if this will ever end. I know that our final step will be going back to court to set up a payment plan, which if history repeats itself, the Scam-a-Lots will not pay or will get in arrears, and this will be a lifelong battle of going back to court with them to get them to pay. It's what has been happening in the first case with the fellow they ripped-off on the non-existant Siding Job (we keep in touch). And yes, it is and has worn us down.
We've got a choice to put our home on the market and move South as we'd planned, but we know that if we do that, we would have to come back to the NH Courts repeatedly, as history shows these people will either get behind in payments or just plain fail to pay. When someone steals from you, it is so personal. It's been over two years since they stole our money, we won the decision in two courts, and still they've paid nothing. Contrary to what some of you may think, I do not feel like the fool for all that transpired. How many homeowners besides us did we unearth, who fell for this snake charmer? How many more homeowners were scammed by him and his family that we don't know about? How many more court cases have they lost that we don't know about? How many homeowners gave up because either they could afford the loss, or because the Scam-a-Lots knowledge of delaying litigation beat them down? With family residences in NH and previously in Massachusetts, my bet would be that the Massachusetts courts have seen this family also. Although this creep claimed to be a Master Carpenter, how many of you really read the diplomas on your Doctor's or Accountant's or Attorney's wall? Do you know if those diplomas are real or if they are just mere papers created on a home computer and framed? Again, we thought that we had covered our bases. What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger- or so they say. One thing that we have learned from this, is to make sure your contractor owns something: a home, a vehicle, a bank account. Inthe ownership of "something", at least you get the feeling that he could make payments to you should you have to go to court and you win.
And I don't believe in all the B.S. a lot of people like to toss out there, such as: "They'll get their's in the end", or "To Forgive is Freeing Yourself", or "Trust in the Judicial System". All I can say, is that it's lucky for them, we don't live in the Wild Wild West when two men stood back to back, walked 20 paces, turned and pulled their guns. I have kids to feed, oil bills to pay, and vacations I deserve also; so no one else has a right to steal my money so that they can pay for those things for themselves. If I had stolen that man's aged, beat-up old Ford truck, I could have been put in jail for Grand Theft Auto. Instead, they admittedly steal more than twice the amount of what that old truck is worth and we, the victims of that theft, must follow the law and every little addendum to the law, waiting patiently to get paid. He's a proven repeat offender whose illicit gains have far surpassed the cost of most new vehicles, yet instead of jail time, he's given a payment schedule. As Plaintiffs we must PROVE our case, and then we have to play games and more-than-likely have to accept a $50 or $100 payment per month. At $100 per month, that's almost 9 years of payments added to the 2 years that have already passed since the date of the theft. Justice? Absolutely not.
And since I have little to no faith that we will ever see our victory come to fruition, I want to warn everyone in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and all of New England, if you come across a "salesman" posing as a Master Carpenter/Contractor named Donald Talbot, his son Shawn Talbot, or his wife and bookeeper/casher of the checks, Diane Talbot...RUN!!!!! RUN as fast and as far away as you can!! This is my gift to you!
Post Script: Yes, we have a kitchen. We withdrew from a retirement fund, IRS and early withdrawel penalties included. A retirement fund worked for and earned by a father of 4, grandad of 2, ex-U.S. Air Force Sgt. We needed a kitchen, as our entire kitchen was stolen. With a legitimate company and the time it took for them to put our job on the schedule, order and wait for materials and the work time itself; we went 4 full months washing dishes in a bathroom sink and an upstairs bathtub. We cooked on a griddle and in a microwave oven that sat in the dining room. We had the added expense of a new kitchen floor, which had never been in the original renovation plans. We downgraded from the original plan of Maple Cabinets, to Oak Cabinets. As for now, there's "No End" to this story. I hope that some day there will be. If we, the Plaintiffs, and Donald and Diane Talbot, the Defendants, live another 9 years or so, then this story may have an ending after all. It's not over til it's over. Something tells me that even though we won this case in court twice, as John Paul Jones said, "I Have Only Begun To Fight".