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Contractor fails to pay restitution for shoddy work

| Sunday, April 22, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Avoiding home-repair scams
Over the past several years home repair problems have been among the top five complaints received by the Office of Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The Better Business Bureau reports that complaints about home improvements have gone up 60 percent since 1991. Problems range from poor workmanship and use of substandard materials to hidden charges and outright scams.

How to choose a reputable contractor:

  • Check out the contractor's references. Confirm a local, fixed address and always get a written contract that explains the terms of your agreement.

  • If someone promises a guaranteed loan or other credit and asks for a fee in advance, don't do it. It's against the law to charge an up-front fee (except for a credit report and appraisal for a mortgage).

  • Incorporate any warranties, guarantees or other promises in your written contract. Always insist on a written contract and get change orders in writing.

  • Be specific about start and completion dates.

  • Beware of an unusually low bid or low advertised price. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    Source: Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General

  • Edward B. Smith doesn't expect to see a dime of the $20,000 Fredmont Builders Inc. owes him from five years ago.

    More than three months after a judge ordered company owner Stanley Rabner to pay nearly $500,000 in restitution to 70 Pennsylvania homeowners, he has not paid a dime, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

    Many, like Smith, are still liable for the loans that Rabner obtained for them by falsifying the applications.

    Rabner was supposed to remodel Smith's home but all he got was a leaky roof and $270 monthly payment that he said feels like a chain around his neck.

    'They were fast-talking. They swindled me into signing,' Smith said. 'What they did wasn't worth no $20,000. Everything was cheap. When I wipe the walls, the paint comes off.'

    In January, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Cercone gave the company until April 5 to pay more than $480,000 in restitution. No money has been paid, Barbara Petito, deputy press secretary for the state attorney general's office, said Friday.

    The attorney general is trying to determine Fredmont's assets so it can attempt to collect on the judgment. The office is considering taking the company back to court and increasing the penalty, Petito said.

    Fredmont's unresponsiveness in the past is not a good indication that he will pay willingly, Petito said.

    'It's uncommon for defendants to not pay,' she said. 'But keep in mind, with Fredmont, we obtained a default judgment. Clearly, his intention was not to respond to the commonwealth.'

    Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher charged Fredmont in 1997 with defrauding consumers. Fredmont was charged with failing to complete home repairs or improvements, shoddy workmanship and falsely affiliating itself with a government loan program.

    Fredmont defaulted when it did not contest the charges, Petito said.

    In a separate proceeding, Rabner pleaded guilty this month in federal court to wire fraud and income tax evasion. He faces up to 11 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

    Rabner was convicted of falsifying homeowners' loan applications for the federal Housing and Urban Development Title I loan program.

    Calling him the classic 'tin man,' U.S. Attorney Robert S. Cessar said Rabner promised homeowners improvements that could be financed through the Title I program.

    Under the program, HUD insures loans by commercial lenders for home improvements and pays off the loans if homeowners default. To secure the loans, Rabner falsified homeowners' applications, credit histories, tax returns and other financial documents, prosecutors said.

    Fredmont originated more than 1,200 Title I loans in 10 counties statewide, said William Foley, special agent for HUD's Office of Inspector General.

    Foley said Rabner and his employees went door-to-door and posted fliers in neighborhoods promising inexpensive improvements. Often the final costs were much higher than Rabner originally stated, Foley said.

    'He was good. He preyed on the elderly and the low-income. We might never know how many people he bilked,' Foley said.

    Meanwhile, Smith is still paying on a loan Rabner secured for him. Smith said he never saw the paperwork until Rabner asked him to sign.

    Petito said the state's case against Fredmont did not address the issue of repaying lenders.

    'The homeowners have to determine if they want to dispute the loans,' she said.

    Smith said Rabner was supposed to remodel and paint his house, install a new roof and put in new wiring and carpet. But he said his roof leaked and he had to pay another contractor to fix it.

    'He said everything would be OK. It's terrible. What, you think I should be smiling• The Lord will take care of him, though. What I can't figure out is how he got away with it for so long.'

    Clifford Reed, 43, of Hazelwood, wonders the same thing.

    Rabner showed up on Reed's front porch in 1986, making promises and helping him secure a $10,000 loan to remodel his kitchen.

    Reed, a University of Pittsburgh groundskeeper, is still making payments on the loan. He said Rabner installed sinks that were cracked and leaked and a picture window that lets in a brisk breeze.

    Reed said by the time he pays off the loan, with interest, he will have paid about $25,000.

    'We got ripped off big-time,' Reed said. 'We basically took out a second mortgage. Had I known better ... I don't see how they can look at themselves in the mirror.'

    Tom Connolly, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Better Business Bureau, said he is very familiar with Rabner. He said most contractors keep their promises but that it is difficult to win judgments against the unscrupulous ones.

    'Rabner's never responded. It'd be nice to see him come through and do what the court has ordered. But history is not on the homeowners' side.'

    Joseph D. Wilcox can be reached at or (412) 391-8793.

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