THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Taking a bath: The price of finessing permits

"You don't need permits." 

Unless the building inspector is talking, those can be dangerous words. Just ask Charlottesville resident Ellen Pratt, who claims that's what Dominick Wells, owner of D & L Drywall, told her when she asked him for an estimate to refinish her basement. 

According to Pratt, Wells "assured" her that because she already had water and electric in the basement, permits were unnecessary– even though, according to the contract both sides signed last May 16, he would be framing and installing drywall for a bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room; installing all bathroom and kitchen fixtures; removing the stairs; wiring for and installing electrical outlets, recessed lighting, and switches; and installing heating vents and a dropped ceiling. 

Pratt claims Wells told her he'd done "a hundred basements and had never needed permits." 

Right then she should have called the City's Department of Neighborhood Services (or, if she lived in the County, the Department of Building Code Services). 

Instead, she paid Wells $6,000 of his $13,000 estimate. On June 8, when he had finished the rough-in plumbing, electric, and framing and was ready to install the drywall, she paid him another $4,300. 

One week later, Pratt says, she came home to find a stop-work order issued by the City for work begun without permits. 

"I couldn't get Wells to make an appointment to meet me at City Hall," she claims, so she applied for the permits herself on June 20 and was told it would probably be three weeks before the necessary electrical and plumbing permits could be issued. 

Pratt says she tried "numerous" times over the next three weeks to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Wells, but was unsuccessful. At one point she asked him to return her second payment "until things could get straightened out," but she claims Wells replied that "all the money had been spent on materials." 

When the permits were finally issued, Pratt arranged for an inspection of the work to date. A number of items failed, and it cost $1,800 to have the job redone by a licensed electrician and a licensed plumber– which, it turns out, Wells isn't. Licensed, that is: the state revoked his contractor's license two years ago. Even so, "Licensed and Insured" is stamped beneath his business name on the contract he signed with Pratt. 

The state's Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) has two disciplinary actions on file for Wells. In the first, Wells contracted to remodel a basement in the Shenandoah Valley town of Mount Crawford in February 2001. The job bore similarities to Pratt's except it included creating a living room and two bedrooms. In a summary of its September 2002 fact-finding conference, the DPOR's Board for Contractors stated, "Mr. Wells admitted that he did not intend to obtain a permit for this job even though he knew one was required." 

Wells claimed that the homeowner "instructed him not to," but the report states that the homeowner "denied such instruction and said that Mr. Wells informed him that no permits were necessary." Wells was found guilty of six counts in all– including using an unlicensed electrician as a subcontractor– and fined $4,450.

In 2004, Wells was found guilty of three counts, including failure to obtain a Class B contractor's license, which was required because of the scope (i.e., more than $7,500) of a 2001 bathroom-remodeling job in Bridgewater. He was fined $1,750 and ordered to successfully complete a DPOR basic contracting licensing class within six months or lose his license. Apparently he didn't comply with the order, because his license was revoked on October 18, 2004. 

Pratt and her lawyer are knee-deep in negotiations with Wells and may proceed to court. Contacted for this article, Wells said, "I'm trying to return money to her [Pratt]," and claims he has submitted five different proposals to her lawyer. When I asked to see the proposals, he first said he would give me copies but called back to say it was none of my business.

Meanwhile, Wells will meet another former client, Hometown Magazines, in County General District Court on October 26. I'll report on the outcome of that case, along with Pratt's, in a future column. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second St. NW, Charlottesville 22902.