Watchdog: Texas homeowners ‘sitting ducks’ for flim-flam contractors

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by Jeremy Rogalski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on April 29, 2014 at 10:19 PM

DEER PARK, Texas – Who can you turn to when a contractor takes your money but never finishes the job?

For now, the answer is “no one” and some say that’s because Texas lawmakers never finished their jobs. Take the case of Sandra and Bob Heyen of Deer Park.

“You lied to me, you lied to me about everything,” Sandra Heyen said.

She is talking about the man who she says not only took her money and ran, but left her life in a shambles. Promising a new bathroom, the Heyens said he left it down to the studs. Or a new kitchen, they said that he left with no way to cook.

And then they said there was the new flooring that he never bought.

I-Team: “How much are you out?”

Sandra Heyen: “Almost $18,000.”

Bob Heyen: “We both felt like somebody put a knife to our heart, because we really were all excited about the house getting fixed up.”

Ninfa Vasquez said she took the bait, too — having no idea that the same contractor, Adrian Santiago, was a four-time convicted thief.

“‘Your kitchen is going to be beautiful,’” said Vasquez. “That’s what he told me.

And told her it would all be done in time for Thanksgiving dinner last year. But $9,000 later, she cannot cook. Why? She said Santiago took everything, including the kitchen sink.

Vasquez is now forced to do the dishes in a bin. She calls it humiliating.

“I guess he got the last laugh,” Vasquez said, wiping away tears.

But the I-Team discovered those Texas consumers would be better protected if they lived in one of 28 other states, where contractors must be licensed, often are required to pass a trade exam, and pass a criminal background check.

But in Texas, none of that applies.

“All you need is a pick-up truck, a dog and a shingle to hang out and you can become a contractor,” said Marcia Kushner, a consumer advocate with the watchdog group Homeowners for Better Building.

“It’s a free-for-all, it’s a free-for-all,” Kushner said.

That’s because there used to be a regulatory agency over contractors — The Texas Residential Construction Commission. But state lawmakers abolished it in 2009, saying it was “fundamentally flawed and does more harm than good.”

So what did they replace it with? Nothing, said Kushner.

“We have gone from bad to worse,” she said. “We need laws, we need licensing, we need regulation, we need oversight.”

So what’s the hold up?

“Everybody wants a resolution, but no one could agree on what that should be,” said Texas state Sen. Glenn Hegar.

Hegar was vice-chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission that got rid of the regulation nearly five years ago. So why not come up with a better agency?

“Nobody has a desire to create another one because it was so bad,” he said.

So consumers like the Heyens are left with little recourse.

As for their contractor Adrian Santiago, when the I-Team went to the company address of Santiago’s Remodeling Services, we thought we had caught up with him.

Instead, we got a surprise.

I-Team: “Hi, Mr. Santiago, Adrian Santiago right?”

Man: “No sir.”

I-Team: “You’re not?”

Man: “No sir.”

I-Team: “You do look a lot like him you know.”

Man: “Oh really?”

I-Team: “Yeah.”

Man: “No, you’d better go recheck some more.”

The I-Team did, and the man looked identical to the jail booking photo of Adrian Santiago.

And when we showed our video to his victims?

“That’s him!” said Vasquez.

“That’s Adrian, there’s no doubt,” added Bob Heyen.

“I can’t believe it! This is unreal!” said Sandra Heyen.

“He’s just downright lying. Downright lying,” she said.

Finally, the I-Team has discovered that Vasquez and the Heyens are not Santiago’s first unhappy customers.

After Santiago walked off on a previous consumer’s job, they took him to court and won $2,725.

Unfortunately, records show Santiago never paid that judgment. When a constable tried to enforce it, the contractor was nowhere to be found.

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