Frustrated with the quality of a new deck on her Oak Park home, owner looks for answers

Brooding on the back porch

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

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.

Reader Comments

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Ellie from Oak Park  

Posted: June 20th, 2011 3:50 PM

I believe that all a contractor has to do is start a new company with a different name and apply for a license to work in Oak Park under that new company name, regardless of company ownership. Is it possible to verify the process with the VOP?

O P Rez  

Posted: June 20th, 2011 10:52 AM

If the owner of any company is taken down, they wouldnt be able to to start a new company. It would be tracked by a name of a principle.

Claude Saunders from Oak Park  

Posted: June 20th, 2011 10:14 AM

Sal is exactly correct. The ease of acquiring permits combined with a toothless inspection process means any contractor willing to work the system can get away with virtually anything. Next time I will write architects approval into the contract rather than village inspection.

Ellie from Oak Park  

Posted: June 19th, 2011 3:35 PM

A contractor has to have some sort of insurance in order to receive a license to work in Oak Park. Can a homeowner who has been shafted by a contractor go after that insurance money, and if yes, how?

Sal from Oak Park  

Posted: June 19th, 2011 3:33 PM

If a contractor has code violation fines levied by the VOP against him/her, all he/she has to do is use a different company name and show certain level of insurance in order to apply for and receive a license to work in Oak Park. Oak Park doesn't seem able or interested in collecting the fines it levies for code violations. VOP can put a lien on a contractor's home for unpaid fines, but those liens expire - so contractor waits until liens expire, then sells his house.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 10:02 PM

I agree that a contractor should not be issued a permit if outstanding fines for code violations have not been paid. That would seem to be acceptable under the law. It comes down to buyer beware. Do your research and confirm references. Verify insurance coverage and report complaints to the BBB and consumer protection groups.

O P Rez  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 9:31 PM

I wish there was a "like" option. I like the previous comment.

OP Resident  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 8:34 PM

Oak Park needs a logical solution to all of this. If a contractor violates village codes and is hit with fines, they should NOT be allowed to apply for another permit for additional work, and their license to operate here in Oak Park should be suspended or revoked until those fines are paid in full. Home owners should provide the name of a contractor doing the work if the contractor has them get the permit (instead of the contractor doing it). Wise up village hall!

Claude Saunders from Oak Park  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 2:52 PM

We are David Gruber's latest victims. He also ripped off someone up in Evanston right after us. The really sad thing is that the Village of Oak Park just keeps issuing permits to him, so he can keep re-offending at will. In our case, the Village took him to court and applied $9000 in fines. Guess what, they will probably now turn around and issue him more permits for new work. Huh? We need to be going after the Village inspection process as well as Dave.

Lonnie from Oak Park  

Posted: June 14th, 2011 1:11 PM

Stephanie - you should contact Sarah. There are more homeowners in this situation that just you two. Band together for strength in numbers.

Stephanie from Oak Park  

Posted: June 13th, 2011 12:46 PM

I can sympathize with Ms Arnett. We had a similar situation several years ago with a sagging back porch roof. We used the same contractor that re-roofed our house 20 years prior, but instead of fixing the structural problems, they only put on a new layer! And on top of it, they tried to take US to collections to pay the remainder of what was due, in spite of them not fixing the problem. The Village did nothing to go after them or help us fix the problem, and we had to get a lawyer involved.

Natalie Huss from Oak Park  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 10:20 PM

Long story short, after paying a lot of taxes each year, the only thing the village can do for you , is collect money from the contractor for themselves! Did I get that right?

OP Resident  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 6:30 PM

A word of advice. Ignore the postings by Violet Aura. She thrives on the attention generated in response to her mean-spirited comments. There plenty of folks who post on this forum who are interested in a reasoned and thoughtful discussion of the issues. Violet is not one of them. Don't feed her frenzy.

just getting the spoof aspects  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 4:41 PM

Violet, I'm just glad they named the heroin buyer from RF, so we would know it wasn't you, or was it? And do you have any facts for all that you post, or are you just making it up? Undocumented landscapers? give me a break...or better yet, give them a break.


Posted: June 10th, 2011 4:19 PM

Violet, do you really believe that a clover leaf belongs to only one ethnicity? Does the fact that you can't spell or close your parenthetical statements make you from outerspace?

Violet Aura  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 1:48 PM

One clue is if they cannot speak English. Many crews of workers cannot commuicate in English. And they could be Poles or Russians, too, although it seems that some Eastern Europeans have working knowledge of English before they even get here. If you think the vast majority of the people doing this sort of work have proper papers, you're very naive. It's difficult to obtain papers, not to mention that some are from C. America anyway! They may sneak into Mexico first (see what Mexico does to them!

Violet Aura  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 1:45 PM

Undocumented workers are probably 90% of ALL foreign workers you see out there doing the landscaping, etc. I love the company with the SHAMROCK on the truck and all Hispanics doing the actual work! The contractors deliberately choose undocumented people so they can pay the least but it's more than you think.

Phil of Good ideas  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 1:40 PM

Violet, what do undocumented workers look like? Do undocumented workers that are Hispanic look different from Hispanics that are US citizens?

Nick Heitzman from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 12:38 PM

I agree - That is a winning court case waiting to be heard. I hope the contractor has to return every dime for that subpar, overpriced POS deck!


Posted: June 10th, 2011 11:53 AM

It seems if the homeowner did her homework of finding a "reputable" contractor that was licensed and insured , she could just sue them in court. Liens are placed every day

Donna2 from Oak Park  

Posted: June 10th, 2011 10:59 AM

The idea that this contractor is running around Oak Park is criminal. He left a structure that could seriously hurt someone. Why do contractors have to register with Oak Park? Why do they have to show their licenses? Why is the homeowner paying for all that paperwork if Oak Park doesn't have the "manpower" to provide us with a list of contractors who have outstanding permit issues? Our permitting office needs serious attention from the trustees.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 5:19 PM

The contractor should be issued additional citations for failing to address the code violations.


Posted: June 8th, 2011 5:04 PM

Okay, everyone, the homeowner is the victim here. She didn't do anything wrong. Her contractor turned out to be lousy, a crook and an all around bad guy, and the village can't help her. That's the point of the story. Inspections tell the homeowner if the job is up to code, but village hall has no real power to make contractors fix work that fails inspection and the homeowners are left with the bills and the headaches. It happens all the time in this town. Good story, well done Marty.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 5:00 PM

Suggestion? I've lived here for 51 years and did not know that I need to call VOP to have them inspect work after I believe that job has been completed. Have this displayed prominently on permit/window sign?

Donna from OP from Oak Park  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 4:50 PM

The village needs to be called either the homeowner or the contractor to get the final inspection. They have no way of knowing when the work was completed. Homeowner apparently was unaware that inspections aren't automatic & if the work was of poor quality as inferred by this article, you can see why the contractor didn't call or remind the homeowner to call. Just had an electrical project completed in my house & my contractor reminded me to call Village Hall for an inspection apt.

Renee from Oak Park  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 2:06 PM

Why wasn't the finished porch ever inspected by the village inspector? What's the purpose of a building permit? I thought the purpose of paying for a permit is to make sure things are done according to code.

Nick Heitzman from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 12:15 PM

no second quote from another job bidder? shame! that deck should have cost her half that much!

Brad Spencer, real estate editor of Wednesday Journal  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 12:11 PM

rdglnd, The point of the story is to make people aware of the issues that can arise when hiring a contractor and what happens when village building codes are violated. Do some research on a potential contractor, ask for multiple references, etc., and you won't run into this type of problem.


Posted: June 8th, 2011 10:58 AM

this story is completely pointless and worthless without the name of the contractor.

Violet Aura  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 10:20 AM

Her LANDSCAPER "highly recommended" the contractor? LOL! I would like to know who this company is and who they actually get to do the work. I see lots of people who look like undocumented citizens doing the actual work. It's fly-by-night, especially if the contractor is also undocumented because they can easily slip thru the cracks. And 11K for a deck? Sounds pretty high!

BPJ from Forest Park  

Posted: June 8th, 2011 9:10 AM

Angie's List. It's $50 a year, and most contractors give you a discount if you're a member so you make that money back after one job.

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