News 7 Investigation: Tornado victim's contractor troubles

News 7 Investigation: Tornado victim's contractor troubles
Published: Jul. 16, 2018 at 9:26 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 17, 2018 at 10:40 PM CDT
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PETAL, MS (WDAM) - "I often ask, 'why me,' you know? Why me?"

That's the question Lashonda Johnson often asks when she walks through the front door of her home. It's not exactly the home sweet home she was expecting.

"It tears me up. I've had nights where I just cry," said Johnson.

The tears first came back in January of 2017 when her Bennett Street home in Petal was destroyed by a tornado. The place she called home for 13 years was gone.

"It was devastating to have my home destroyed because I had been here. This is the first home I had purchased on my own, and that was a proud moment for me," said Johnson.

Knowing she wanted to rebuild, Johnson hired Pine Belt Home Builders, a contracting company based out of Purvis. It was a word of mouth reference, so she didn't know much about the man who would oversee rebuilding her home.

"He already had some great ideas about the home, so that's why I decided to go with him," said Johnson.

According to the contract and construction proposal, Johnson's new house was estimated to cost just over $103,000, with a $9,000 down payment. The completion date was set for Nov. 15, 2017.

Johnson said she wrote checks as invoices rolled in, handing over more than $75,000 before she stopped paying when the contractor stopped working.

The last check was in October of 2017 when she realized the work she was paying for wasn't' getting done and her home wasn't going to be completed by that November deadline.

Missing the deadline, the contractor sent an email Dec. 4, 2017, telling Johnson her home would now be complete by Jan. 31, 2018. That email even breaks down the work and when it would happen.

When that deadline was missed, a third one was put into a contract with a date of March 31, 2018. This time, the contractor would have to pay or credit Johnson $100 per day after the deadline if her home wasn't substantially complete.

Johnson said she had to hire another contractor to do the work she already paid Pine Belt Home Builders to complete. She said she paid a new contractor more than $30,000.

All totaled, that's more than $105,000 on a house that was supposed to cost her about $103,000. Now, she's out of money and living with her mother. Johnson says she feels ripped off.

"I never could have imagined in a million years that I would be going through this," said Johnson.

We looked up Pine Belt Home Builders on the state board of contractor's website. From all accounts, the company is in good standing, with no complaints and a license for residential work.

Johnson said she was supposed to get a refund back in March. That didn't happen. Then the refund was supposed to happen in June. That didn't happen either.

So, we gave the contractor a call. He said he took on too much work at once and would try and resolve the matter. A few days after making that call, Johnson started getting her money back.

Stephanie Lee is the Executive Director of the Mississippi Board of Contractors, the agency the regulates construction contractors throughout the state. Lee said sometimes contractors do bite off more than they can chew.

"Certainly, some contractors can get spread out and then get spread too thin, and then they leave issues with a particular homeowner maybe not getting taken care of," said Lee.

Lee says when it comes to hiring a contractor, do your homework. Don't rush into a contract or repairs, verify the license, check references, don't give cash up front, ask for a copy of an insurance policy and be leery of door-to-door solicitors.

This is especially true after a disaster.

You can even check for complaints and licenses on the board of contractor's website.

"If it doesn't show up on our website, they don't have a license with the state," said Lee.

So, what should you do if you hire a licensed contractor and workmanship issues arise?

"If they can file a complaint with our agency, it can be investigated, and if it merits a hearing, it'll be brought for a disciplinary hearing in front of the board," said Lee.

That could lead to a $5,000 penalty per violation for the contractor. Depending on the violation, a contractor's license could even be revoked.

While none of the warning signs were there for Johnson, she says she wants to close the door on an 18-month long nightmare.

"I just want my house completed. That's the most important thing," said Johnson.

The state board of contractors has a mobile app where you can check a contractor's license and even file a complaint.

In Mississippi, contractors are required to have a license if the work they're doing is more than $10,000 for residential remodeling or improvement. If it's a new home, a license is required for more than $50,000.

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