You want a contractor but fear getting duped by a scam artist or hit with shoddy construction.
So you turn to a referral service, as Tampa resident William Toledo did in November 2007 when he called ServiceMagic.com, a Colorado-based Internet company.
He figured he would land a licensed and insured roofing contractor with a clean record.
The contractor was licensed and insured, but ServiceMagic didn't warn Toledo about Patriot Roofing Industries Inc.'s mounting troubles: dozens of consumer complaints throughout the Tampa Bay area; repeated suspensions of the company's contracting registration in Pinellas County; and a lawsuit in U.S. District Court by an employee on behalf of all of the company's workers who had gone unpaid.
Toledo has now added his own complaint against Patriot Roofing.
His new roof leaked, causing an estimated $40,000 in damage that includes collapsing ceilings and moldy, water-stained walls and floors.
"It's a disaster," said Toledo, a 48-year-old retired U.S. Marine. "I don't know what the heck they were thinking when they recommended Patriot to me."
Nowadays, you have to vet the referral service, too.
"You've got to be real careful about that stuff," Kevin Jackson, of the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency, said of referral services. "You've got to look at what the financial relationship is between the referral service and the contractor."
ServiceMagic, founded in December 1998, provides referrals free to consumers. Contractors pay fees ranging from $8 for maid referrals to $65 for remodeling projects.
Craig Smith, chief executive officer of ServiceMagic.com, said in a statement that as a result of Toledo's case, his company has removed Patriot Roofing from its "active list" and terminated its business relationship with the company.
"We expect and demand nothing less than excellent quality and customer service from the professionals in our network and as a result have taken immediate action to address this complaint," Smith said.
The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which has received eight complaints against Patriot Roofing's owner, Marco Alamina, recommended in January that the state take some action against his license, ranging from probation to revocation. A final determination is pending.
In addition, Pinellas and Hillsborough prosecutors are investigating whether Patriot Roofing took money but failed to perform work for some clients. And the federal government has filed an action against Alamina for failing to respond to summons about his 2005 income taxes.
Alamina, 30, says that his company "had a bad run" but that he believes in making things right for his customers. The company does about 450 to 500 jobs a year, he said. "If people understand the volume, it's nowhere near as bad as it seems. I know we've upset people, but we did not break any laws."
Regarding the federal lawsuit, Alamina says he does not owe any of his employees money.
Toledo contracted Alamina's company after receiving the recommendation from ServiceMagic. Last year in the Tampa Bay area, the company provided 27,000 contractor referrals, which include a 10-point screening for such checks as business filings, appropriate state licensing, criminal records searches, sex offender records and civil judgments.
Despite its procedures, ServiceMagic did not find the half-dozen complaints against Patriot Roofing's state license or the lawsuit against the company. Based on its screening process, the company never would have found the dozens of consumer complaints or the registration suspensions in Pinellas.
With ServiceMagic, Toledo thought he would escape the kinds of problems other consumers had suffered during home improvements.
On Nov. 29, 2007, Toledo contracted with Patriot Roofing Industries Inc., now based at 1550 S Missouri Ave. in Clearwater.
In January, workers installed the new roof for $8,650. Then the rain came.
"It was like raining, literally raining inside my den," Toledo said. "I had trash cans, garbage cans full of water. … It was a nightmare."
After 16 attempts to repair his mostly flat roof, the company still hasn't stopped the leaks. The stench of mold floats through much of the home. Water stains dot the walls, ceilings and floors. The ceiling is collapsing in some rooms under the weight of the water pooling on parts of his roof.
Alamina admits there were problems with the work, but he said the leaks began before the new roof was installed. "That particular house already was a nightmare," he said. He said he has promised Toledo a new roof.
Alamina has run businesses in Pinellas, from painting to window installation to roofing, for more than a decade. Mention him to Tampa Bay consumer agencies and regulatory authorities and you'll get an earful.
Hearing is today
Rod Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, said his agency suspended Alamina's license for the fourth time on March 18, after 17 complaints against his building license and 11 complaints against his roofing license.
Alamina is due for a reinstatement hearing today.
"He's not likely to get reinstated," Fischer said.
Suspension of his Pinellas registration does not prevent him from doing business in other counties.
Only the state licensing agency has authority to sanction a state license, an action requiring a complaint or discipline from another governmental body. Then, as with Alamina, the complaints must go through the department's hearing and review process, which can take months.
Governmental sanctions often require more than shoddy work. Generally, it must be proven that the contractor violated a code or law. In the criminal reviews against Alamina, investigators are reviewing whether he defrauded customers.
ServiceMagic said it is working with Toledo to find a resolution to his roofing troubles.
Toledo said ServiceMagic has offered him $500 to hold it harmless for the damages. But he just shakes his head.
"I do hold them responsible," Toledo said. "They're the ones who recommended these knuckleheads to me."
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-892-2332.