An incomplete home

Elkridge contractor's license suspended after complaints of unfinished work, abandoned remodeling projects

November 18, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN REPORTER

Catherine Mitchem and her husband expected their home addition to be done by the time they got back to Columbia from an overseas assignment in Africa.

Instead, unpacked boxes tower in their basement, mounds of dirt and chunks of hardened concrete dot the side yard, and a black, plastic silt shield encloses the backyard. They paid a $73,000 down payment for a new family room, a breakfast nook and an expanded master bedroom that are still just a dream, she said.

"We can't believe we're in the situation we're in," said Mitchem, a technical writer and consultant. "They have interrupted our lives coming up for two years now. They have to be held accountable."

The Mitchems are among dozens of people in the Baltimore area - including a doctor, at least two lawyers and a professor - believed to have fallen victim to an Elkridge-based home improvement company called Maryland Habitat Inc. Many are still trying to put their lives together. Some have taken legal action.

The state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation suspended the company's license to do business in April, saying it was taking that emergency measure to protect the residents of the state.

Charles Mensah is president of Maryland Habitat, and state records show that his wife, attorney Fiona Mensah, is resident agent. Charles Mensah has filed bankruptcy individually and on behalf of the corporation. The company's Web site went dark in recent weeks, Mitchem said.

Papers filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court list the value of the Elkridge home where the Mensahs live at about $800,000. Household goods and furnishings include seven TVs, three stereos and three entertainment centers, according to court papers. The Mensahs own a 2006 Mercedes and a 2004 Volkswagen Touareg SUV.

Reached at her office, Fiona Mensah said that she could not comment on behalf of the company.

"This is a business gone wrong, and we're having to deal with the aftermath of that," she said.

An attorney representing Charles Mensah did not return calls to his office.

Charles "Chuck" Hawley, a former employee of Mensah's who worked as the company's construction manager, said estimates for the jobs were made by salespeople who earned a commission when they landed a sale.

At one point, Hawley said, he estimated that a dozen jobs he reviewed had been underbid for a total of about $350,000.

"The jobs were ambiguous," he said. "The estimates were way under. I told them, `You can't do it for this.'"

Hawley warned some customers not to make additional payments until further notice, but then he became ill and had to be hospitalized, he said. He said he was laid off from the company while he was sick.

Research done by Harvard University shows that home improvement and home remodeling business increases when the economy is strong and decreases when it is weak, said Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies.

"When the market is softer, you get a little more aggressive on the pricing, so that could be part of the problem," he said.

Part of Mensah's success at landing new business was an amazing ability to sell himself and his company, many of his clients agreed.

"This guy shows up, and he talks a good game," said Thomas Lectka, a chemistry professor at the Johns Hopkins University who paid the company $36,000 to renovate the basement in his Hampden rowhouse. "He starts off like gangbusters, and then he's gone."

Lectka's basement is done. He paid another contractor an additional $25,000 to finish the job.

"I got taken pretty good by these people," he said. "I feel embarrassed about it. But what really worries me is the potential that he's cheated people who don't have the means to complete the work."

In a letter to Mensah in April, the State of Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation wrote that it had taken emergency action "to protect the citizens of Maryland, based upon your pattern and practice of abandonment and failure to complete contracts."

Eight complaints received by that agency in 2006 alleged that Mensah abandoned or failed to perform contracts, according to the letter.

Mensah never requested a hearing in response, said Rhonda Wardlaw, a DLLR spokeswoman.

Through the guarantee fund of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, the state makes available $100,000 annually for homeowners to recoup losses of up to $15,000 each. But, depending on the number of claims, those awards may be smaller, so that more people can obtain relief, DLLR officials said.

Angela Wright signed a contract with Maryland Habitat for a total rehab of a Baltimore investment property that she owned.

"I feel like I was let down by lots of people," said Wright, who thinks the system victimized her nearly as much as the contractor. "I'm losing money. It just gets to be really a heartbreak situation."

Wright paid $82,000 of the $102,000 total cost, she said. Although some work was completed, much of it had to be redone by other contractors, she said.

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