MAHOPAC, N.Y. - For a homeowner, there’s no bigger nightmare than hiring a contractor to do work around the house and seeing him deliver less than you bargained for, leaving you with an unfinished job and less money in your wallet.

Just ask Michael and Debbie Rizzo. The couple lives on Strawberry Field Lane in Mahopac where they built their home 19 years ago. A couple of years ago, the Rizzos noticed some problems around the house that needed to be addressed.

“We had a leak in the basement and the deck had become sunbaked and dry and a little warped. It was becoming a hazard,” Michael said. “We had several contractors look at it and they wanted to do everything from dig up the entire yard to putting in drainage to putting a sump pump in the basement. It was overwhelming.”

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But then fate stepped in. Michael is a chef who works in New York City and takes the train each day from the Croton Falls station. In 2016, with the Rizzos’ search for a contractor underway, he noticed a contractor’s van parked near the train station.

“I saw it parked there over the course of several months,” he recalled. The van was parked near Croton Creek restaurant, damaged by a fire that had started in the apartments above it. “There was a renovation going on. We had had other contractors offer bits of advice that didn’t make much sense to us. So, I saw this van and thought, let’s ask this guy because he is renovating an entire building—structural damage, major work.”

The contractor was Tom Giannopoulos, owner of Armstrong Improvements in Brewster.

The work begins

The Rizzos had several issues at play with their house. Their foundation wall was leaking directly under the deck. Would they have to take down the deck to get to the leak? Even if they didn’t, should they tear the deck down anyway and rebuild? Town officials told them that if all they did was replace boards, railings and steps, a building permit wouldn’t be necessary.

In April 2016, the Rizzos invited Giannopoulos to inspect the problems with their home and offer an estimate. The Rizzos said he told them he could do the work on the leaky wall without disturbing the deck.

“He said it’s an easy fix; we didn’t need to take the deck down. He could work around it,” Debbie said.

Giannopoulos gave the couple an estimate of $14,400, which would cover the refurbishing of the deck, the repair of the leaky wall and some painting. In June 2016, the Rizzos gave him a deposit of $4,400.

But as time went on, though the work was not completed as anticipated, Giannopoulos asked for more and more money.

“Normally, you pay a third, a third and a third [as each phase is completed],” Debbie said. “He started work in July [2016] and by August he already had $11,000. He had three-quarters of it.”

Suspicions/problems arise

The Rizzos were becoming increasingly uneasy with how the job was progressing and decided to double-check Giannopoulos’ qualifications.

“He showed us the work that was done at the restaurant,” Michael said. “He took us through and showed us the apartments—structural integrity—took us to the basement of the building and showed us the fire-suppression system that had been installed and a lot of plumbing work. He told us he did it all.”

Through a formal records request with the North Salem building department, the Rizzos discovered that Giannopoulos was not the contractor of record on the Croton Creek restaurant project. North Salem building inspector Paul Taft wrote, “Armstrong Improvements was at times seen on the site, and included in meetings that I attended, but this company is not listed as the contractor of record.”

Taft’s response also indicated that other subcontractors had handled all the work on the electricity, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, the installation of a fire-suppression system and removal of an oil tank.

The Rizzos began to think they might have hired the wrong contractor.

“The deck boards were installed haphazardly,” Debbie said. “They’re coming loose. The railings are not to code. The balustrade and spindles are not spaced correctly. And we were still leaking. He tarred exterior walls and after it rained, we had tar seeping in. Never once during this time did he say, ‘I need to call in someone else.’ He put a rubber barrier up, but we were still leaking. He patched some hydraulic cement, but we were still leaking. We had him put in the larger gutter, but he put the downspout in the opposite way, so we had leaking because of that.

“He put up lattice, but it’s poor quality and I had to use twist ties to hold in place,” she continued. “Nothing was really finished correctly, and we have a tripping hazard at the bottom of the [deck] steps. We didn’t have it before he took [the steps] down. We have a downspout that is not attached to the house. All that for $14,000.”

The Rizzos said they paid Giannopoulos in full because he promised to come back and make things right. He came back in September and put a wider patch on the wall, but that still didn’t work.

“I sent him numerous emails asking him to come back and finish up his promised work,” Debbie said. “He said he would coordinate it and get back to me, but he never did. This is what we lived through.”

In April 2017, the couple turned to the Better Business Bureau.

“They were not that helpful. We went back and forth with them for like four months,” Debbie said. “It did open a line of communication for him to come back and fix it, but we didn’t want him back. Why would we? He left us with a tripping hazard and a leak issue.”

Department of Consumer Affairs

Next, the Rizzos filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, which referred them to the Putnam County Department of Consumer Affairs. The department called a meeting between the two parties.

“They asked him why he didn’t reach out to a professional waterproofer,” Debbie said. “He said he asked around to his contractor friends. But they wanted to know why he didn’t use Dutchboy Waterproofing in Brewster. He said he’d never heard of them before, which they thought was odd.

“They asked him what he would be willing to do to resolve the issue,” she continued. “He said he would bring in a pro to look at the wall. But his plan was to apply a radon-seal product on the exterior and interior walls. I said no. Where is the professional that you talked about? Where is Dutchboy? We don’t have a radon issue.”

Dutchboy was eventually brought in to examine the wall and gave a $2,500 estimate to repair it. But the Rizzos say Giannopoulos said he would only pay $1,000 of that, leaving them responsible for the balance—on top of the $14,000-plus they’d already spent.

Lawsuit filed

The Rizzos decided they’d have to go to court but were told it would cost a lot of money and time if they sought to get their entire $14,000 back.

“So, we decided to go to small claims, which is [for claims] under $3,000,” Debbie said. “We figured we might get something back, which would be better than nothing.”

“They heard our case and the judge asked what we would settle for and we said $2,500—the cost of waterproofing that entire wall,” Michael said. “The judgment was in our favor for $2,500 in September 2018.”

In his finding, Southeast town Justice Greg Folchetti noted that Giannopoulos contended that no actual defects existed in his deck work, there was no violation of any building code post-construction and no deck-related work had been left unfinished. Giannopoulos also argued that the tripping hazard claimed by the Rizzos was minor and insignificant. He also contended that the work on the leaky wall was not covered by the contract’s warranty.

However, Folchetti wrote, “The court finds that the weight of the credible evidence supports [the Rizzos] in this matter... [in the breach of] the June 2016 contract. As for the waterproofing issue, it is undisputed that [the Rizzos] paid an additional $2,500 to Dutchboy Waterproofing to correct the foundation leaks which continued post-contract. [Giannopoulos’] claim that this work was not covered under warranty is immaterial, as the contract also called for performance of the contract terms in a workmanlike manner and [the Rizzos] were subjected to recurring water leaks immediately after the contract work was concluded.”

But now that the Rizzos were awarded $2,500 in restitution, collecting the money was another matter.

Getting paid

“After we won, we never heard from [Giannopoulos],” Debbie said. “The court can’t help you anymore. It is really up to you to collect your money. I thought maybe we should educate people out there, because it’s not so cut and dried. We won the settlement. Great. Now, where is our money?”

First, the Rizzos needed a transcript of the judgment, which costs $2, and then file it with the county clerk ($10). Then they had to file a property execution/bank levy with Giannopoulos’ bank ($5) and then file that with the sheriff’s department ($63).

“So, we spent an additional $80 to get the $2,500,” Debbie said. “I had no idea [how to do this]. The county clerk said if you know the bank that [Giannopoulos] banks with you can do a property execution. We were lucky we knew his bank because of the cancelled checks we got back. You have to be tenacious. You have to ask a lot of questions.”

Michael said the one bright spot they encountered along the way was the work of the Putnam County Department of Consumer Affairs.

“They are definitely on the side of consumer,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, we would have never found out about Dutchboy. They pushed [Giannopoulos] to get this done, saying he was up for review from their legal team on whether they were going to pull his license or not renew it. It is the only way we got traction on this. He was going to kick this can down the road.”

“And technically they can,” Debbie said of contractors. “They can get away with it. There is no law that stops them from not paying. You have to go after your own money. You don’t have a choice but to go through these steps.”

Michael said he feels for elderly folks and those who don’t have the time to pursue their remedies.

“We are lucky we got the $2,500,” he said. “If my wife was not tenacious [we wouldn’t have gotten it]. I feel sorry for elderly people who get taken. Who helps them?”

Lessons learned

The Rizzos offer this advice to those who are looking to hire a contractor for home repairs or renovations:

• Take a lot of pictures; take a lot of notes. Don’t believe everything you see.

• Do your homework. Ask for background references. Get at least six and follow up on them.

• Make sure the contractor has a valid state-issued license.

“We felt stuck; held hostage,” Debbie said. “We had a deck that was not fixed and a wall that was still leaking. Make sure the contract is exactly what it is supposed to be. Have a specific cost for line items. He made out OK; he got paid his fee.”

Armstrong Improvements has an “A” rating with the Better Business Bureau with just one complaint filed in the last three years. It has also received numerous positive reviews from various websites such as BuildZoom and Thumbtack.

“Tom is very efficient and honest. He and his crew did an excellent job on the renovation to my home,” wrote one reviewer on Thumbtack.com. “He worked within the time frame that we had and produced high-end results. I would definitely use him again and recommend him to any prospective customers.”

Giannopoulos did not respond to email requests for comment.

As for the Rizzos, they’re happy they won their court case but will be a lot more cautious the next time they need to hire a contractor.