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All that Oak Parker Sarah Arnett wanted was a new back porch. She paid almost $11,000 for it, and obtained the proper permits from village hall.
But two years later, the wood deck in the backyard of Arnett's Dutch Colonial is in shabby shape. The railing wobbles, each individual stair isn't the same height as the next, and the porch isn't properly bolted to the home. As such, the village has fined the local contractor $2,000, and demanded he fix his work and bring the stoop up to code.
Arnett is frustrated with the contractor, and his alleged unwillingness to remedy the situation or pay the punishment. But she's just as frustrated with what she perceives as the village's inability to make him pay up and fix her porch.
"We pulled permit for our safety and we followed all the rules, but the village still can't get him to fix it," she said. "So, even though the village recovers the fines, the homeowner is still left with a piece of property that doesn't conform to code, and is still liable if anyone trips or falls off our deck."
It was during the summer of 2009 that Arnett, a 39-year-old homemaker who lives with her husband and kids, started thinking about installing a new deck. Her family was building a garage and having their backyard landscaped at the time, so adding a new porch seemed like a natural next step.
The contractor came highly recommended by Arnett's landscaper, and seemed legit when they met in person. But things went south from the beginning.
He allegedly told the family that he personally would do the work, but ended up hiring a high schooler and 21-year-old laborer. It took much longer than originally expected, and the deck seemed to be coming apart not long after it was finished.
So, Arnett phoned village hall about a year after the contractor finished, seeing if there was some way they could help her address some of the "aesthetic" issues.
Lo and behold, village hall said that the finished porch had never been inspected, as is required by village code. Inspector Lee Harris came out to give it a glance and found four code violations.
Harris said the original drawings met village specifications, but the porch wasn't built to those plans. The village did the initial inspection, but for some reason, the contractor never called for the final. The village doesn't police such small cases because "decks should not be too difficult" to build to code.
"I don't know whether that was the reason he didn't call," Harris said. "Maybe he thought the homeowner wasn't going to bother if he didn't call."
After several court dates, the village has fined the contractor $500 apiece for each violation. Harris first issued the citations in September 2010, but they have still yet to be paid, and Arnett said her porch still isn't up to code. She has considered taking the matter to small claims court, but worries that she'll go through a long ordeal in court only to have a judge who is unable to resolve the matter.
"It's a lot of time and hassle and paperwork, and even though you can get the judgment you want—we absolutely would be able to—we wouldn't be able to collect on it at the end of the day," she said.
The contractor declined to comment for this story. Arnett said he did come out to do some work, and replaced the railing, but the porch still isn't up to code. She said he has insisted that he's done everything possible, and that Arnett is being unreasonable.
Steve Witt, the director of building and property standards, said the village typically gets its law department involved when contractors don't pay fines. They file a lien on the offender's property, so they can collect payment when the house is sold.
But that method can take a long time to produce results, Witt said. Village hall is considering hiring a third-party law firm dedicated to collections so Oak Park can collect fines more quickly in cases like Arnett's.
Robert Anderson, the head of Oak Park's adjudication department, agrees that such an approach is needed. He formerly worked for a collection firm, and said it takes a lot of time and dedication to force people to pay fines. That's time that Oak Park's legal department, with two staff lawyers on hand, doesn't have.
"Unless you can stand in that court room every day, you're wasting your time," Anderson said.
Residents have occasionally asked village hall to provide some sort of database of contractors, Witt said, to help them figure out who has a good track record. But the village doesn't have the manpower to provide such a service, and has instead urged Oak Parkers to visit sites such as Angie's List, the Better Business Bureau and Craig's List.
Village hall also has a fact sheet available with tips on how to pick a good contractor. For example, making sure that the contractor has completed similar-sized jobs, obtaining several bids, and tying final payment to the completion of the final inspection.
Arnett wishes that the village had a means to stop her contractor from performing any work in the village. But Witt emphasized that, just because a contractor is licensed to do work in the village doesn't mean they'll perform admirably.
Other than fines, the village doesn't have any means to force a contractor to make repairs. And Harris said, more often than not, contractors return to fix a job if it's not up to code.
"When we take them to court, we usually get a better response," he said. "Usually it doesn't go this far with contractors."
Anderson said it appears there may have been a computer glitch, and Arnett's contractor didn't receive a 35-day notice yet. After he gets that, the village typically sends another notice after 60 days, and then starts getting the law department involved after about three months. Sometimes, the law department takes action sooner, depending on how urgently the repairs are needed.
Anderson couldn't name an exact percentage of citations that go unpaid for such an extended period, but said it is "substantial," which is why village hall is considering using a collection agency or law firm.
When and if it's paid, the money from the $2,000 fine would go back into village hall's coffers, and not toward helping to repair Arnett's porch, as she might like. Anderson still thinks Arnett's best bet is to take the case to the county court.
"Prosecute him on all levels, and maybe we can get this guy to come around," he said.
Still Arnett claims that some of her friends have been unsuccessful taking that route. She's unsure what to do next, other than remembering the experience next time around.
"Going forward, we'll be much more careful," she said.