This is a homeowner's horror story
Storms and a shady contractor did their worst, but there is a happy ending
So you think you've had contractor nightmares. I know I have. But I guarantee ours wither like flowers by the fire compared to what Linda Lipofsky has been through.
Lipofsky's home saga involves an act of God, a nefarious contractor, a bankrupt insurance company and lost hope, all followed by absolute good. It's a tale that will destroy your faith in humanity, then restore it, and teach everyone a lesson.
The story begins in August 2004 when Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanine blew through the Southeast, leaving behind billions of dollars in home havoc. The gales destroyed the Orlando home where Lipofsky, a 66-year-old retired textbook editor, had lived for 20 years, and had paid off years earlier.
Shortly after the hurricanes, Lipofsky, like millions of others, tried to find a contractor to repair her roof, which had partially blown off and was leaking badly.
Alas, all the roofing contractors were busy. She couldn't even get an insurance adjuster out to take a look. Meanwhile, the rain kept falling. The wind kept blowing. The house kept rotting. Soon the walls came tumbling down with the ceilings. Next, mold moved in like an unwelcome squatter.
It took a full year before Lipofsky got some money from her insurance company, which she used to hire a contractor. He did a shoddy roof job (using recalled shingles), slapped up some siding that didn't stick, hired incompetent workers, and ran off with the rest of the insurance money -- as much as $60,000 -- without finishing the job.
Lipofsky tried to pursue him. She called on the courts, Congress, Oprah and the Better Business Bureau. "But no one did anything," she said.
Just when she thought the situation could not get worse, her insurance company went under, and the publishing company she worked for made some drastic cutbacks, and she lost her job.
"I'd lost everything," she said. "I lost hope."
For years, Lipofsky lived in her shipwrecked shell. Using the home's only working electrical outlet, she heated water in a hot pot to fill her bathtub, and cooked on a hotplate.
She spent $7,600 of her savings trying to patch the place up, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Then in August, Lipofsky and her daughter -- whom she eventually moved in with -- were watching HGTV and saw a promotion for an organization that helps homeowners who have suffered setbacks fix their houses.
She dashed off an e-mail.
"Her timing was good," said Tim Parsons, associate director for Rebuilding Together, which is based in Washington, D.C., and has 200 affiliates nationwide.
"Grip Rite Tools had just called saying they were looking to help fund disaster recovery," he said. They had the money, the organization had the know-how, and she had the need. Grip Rite along with CBRE, a large commercial real estate firm, contributed $30,000 to fund the renovation.
"By using donated supplies and volunteers, we turned one dollar into three," said Parsons.
For starters they got a contractor who showed up every day for 32 days straight. That's a dream come true right there. (I once knew a woman going through a protracted remodel who used to stand in front of her home wearing a sweat shirt that said: "Has anybody seen my contractor?" )
Ed Green, executive director of Rebuilding Together Orlando, pulled together a team of people who did what all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't: They put Lipofsky's house, and her life, back together again. In just two months, they weatherproofed, re-sided, re-painted, re-stuccoed, and re-landscaped, and they installed new floors, new appliances, a new kitchen and new bathrooms.
This week -- eight years and a lifetime later -- Lipofsky is finally moving back into her three-bedroom, two-bath house.
"Look at my shower!" she says, showing me around. She's ecstatic, and who wouldn't be, especially after years of heating up water from an electric teapot to bathe.
"I feel like I'm dreaming and waking up in wonderland," she said. "I never thought this day would come."
"We see a fair amount of contractor fraud because we work with a lot of low-income folks, often seniors, who are the most vulnerable," said Parsons, who along with Lipofsky, offered this advice. Heed it, and avoid your own remodeling horror story:
If you're looking to renovate after a disaster has affected many homes in your area, be especially wary. That's when the best contractors get snapped up, and the shoddy ones come out of the woodwork.
When considering a contractor, talk to people who have hired the contractor.
Be highly suspicious of contractors who come in from long distances or other states.
Never sign a long-term contract. Approve work in stages, sign for it in steps, and pay for it in pieces. Never give the contractor all the money up front.
Ask to see receipts for all materials purchased.
Check ratings of companies using websites such as Home Advisor or Angie's List. Get references or referrals through professional trade organizations such as the American Society of Home Inspectors or the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
Find a homeowner who has been through the process. Ask for his or her advice and recommendations.
Take comfort. However, bad your remodel is, someone else's -- like Lipofsky's -- is worse.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.