Nightmare on Saguaro Street

About The Only Thing More Stressful Than Having Triplets Is Hiring An Incompetent Contractor To Remodel Your Home. So Far, Mike And Shelly Pavon Are Batting 1,000.

WHAT DO YOU call it when everybody's having a very bad day? Answer: Just another home-remodeling in progress.

Ask Mike and Shelly Pavon. The young couple had been living in a two-bedroom midtown house, blissfully noodling along in that young-married sort of way, when they suddenly found themselves blessed with--t-t-triplets.

The amount of work involved in caring for triplets is, at best, alarming -- diaper duties alone are enough to make sane women run off screaming and strong men long for a bullet to the brain.

On top of that, the Pavons' need for more living space was, to put it mildly, overwhelming.

Nothing can save them from the coming decade of Teletubbie and Barney blubberings, naked Barbie torsos, and Power Rangers/Pokemon overload. But they thought they'd at least found the answer to their space problems -- in a large, though seemingly reasonably priced, foothills home.

"This was our dream home," Mike Pavon says. "It was like a huge step for us. I mean this house is so much bigger than anything we thought we could afford, but we got a smokin' deal."

Boy, were they wrong.

THEY BOUGHT WHAT'S euphemistically known as a fix-up special.

"The house was a shell, really," Pavon admits. "It belonged to somebody who didn't maintain it. But we could see the potential. We think it's a cool house. But, you know, it's a lot of house."

A lot of house it may be, but the five Pavons have been forced into living in one bedroom for about two months now, tons of dirty diapers and all.

By the looks of it, they've got at least another month of cramped, enforced family togetherness to go before the rest of their dream home is even remotely habitable.

And that's not the half of it.

Mike Pavon alleges a crooked contractor ripped him off. He claims to be out $65,000.

Also, a lot of the remodeling work done before the Pavons and their contractor split the sheets looks -- to put it charitably -- like utter crap.

Newly painted doors are already peeling due to non-existent prep work; drywall interior arches appear to have been cobbled together by a blind-drunk pirate; newly resurfaced ceilings are thick with gobs of congealed glop hurriedly painted over. The new tile floor they were installing had to be torn up and is currently being redone by a competent workman.

"We can't afford to fix all the mistakes now," says Shelley Pavon. "We have no money left, and we need to get on with our lives."

So their dream house on the hillside has degenerated into a money-sucking monster lurching down the steep slope of homeowner hell.

How did this happen?

FOR MORE THAN a century and a half, Arizona has been crawling with contractors.

Anyone with barely enough brains to swing a hammer is free to call himself one.

Sure, there are licensing requirements. But that doesn't stop thousands of guys from cruising around in pickup trucks and claiming to be contractors for no good reason. Thousands of guys who've neither taken the official state test, nor paid their dues as journeymen under a master craftsman. Thousands of guys without a clue as to what constitutes good work and a job well done.

The Pavons' initial contractor, Dave Wagner, is apparently one such unhappy fool.

It's debatable whether Wagner is the cold-hearted crook the enraged and desperate Pavons make him out to be. But Wagner certainly isn't a craftsman; and he's definitely not a licensed contractor, although he held himself out to be, both to Pavon and others.

In an ideal world, about the closest Wagner would ever have gotten to the construction trades, judging by his work, is maybe selling screws to guys who know what they're doing down at the corner Ace Hardware.

Instead, Wagner, along with his wife and two kids, was last month hunkered down in the middle of the desert south of Tucson, at a relative's doublewide, apparently wondering how the hell he's going to get out of the mess he's stumbled into.

An investigator from the Registrar of Contractors is looking for him; his former boss' lawyer is looking for him; and the Pavons are looking for him.

Wagner, who's maybe in his early 30s and doesn't appear to have a mean bone in his big, strapping body, says he's too broke even to file bankruptcy. He appears to be at wit's end -- and it probably didn't take a globe-spanning expedition to get there, if you get the drift.

"We're unlicensed; we're flat broke," Wagner moans. "We're selling off stuff left and right just to keep food in the house. We've got three vehicles financed, and they're all going back to the finance company. All we've got left is our little $1,500 truck here to get two kids around, my wife and me--I don't know what to do."

It's easy to feel sorry for the big galoot. On the other hand--.

OH, THERE'S NO denying he's a likable guy," says Mike Pavon. "But he's also a cold, calculating crook. He's a con man."

The Pavons say Wagner told them it would take five weeks to remodel their new home, but first he needed a $3,000 draw to buy materials. Then he needed $17,500 to buy more materials and to pay the tile guy, whom the Pavons eventually had to run off because of his shoddy work. Professionals who subsequently examined the job say it was truly atrocious.

There were more draws -- a total of $65,000 worth, the Pavons claim -- as the weeks dragged by.

(And drag by they did -- the five Pavons were camped out in the master bedroom at the home of Shelly Pavon's parents.

"They're gracious people," Mike Pavon says. "But you can't imagine how stressful that was to have a family of five in your bedroom for that long.")

"He told us he was buying materials," Pavon alleges of Wagner, "but he really wasn't buying much at all. We think most of the money went to pay off his previous jobs."

Before Wagner's wife demanded that a reporter leave their property, apparently on the advice of an attorney she had contacted by phone, Wagner did not deny that some of the Pavons' money went to pay off his previous jobs.

But he claimed the actual amount he went through on the Pavons' home was more like $25,000, and some of that included money for another job on some rental units the Pavons own.

"At least that was the last I heard," he added, somewhat cryptically.

Mike Pavon angrily denies giving Wagner money for another job. And as far as the badly run home-remodeling project goes, Pavon says:

"He kept telling us, 'Oh the demolition is what always takes the longest on these jobs.' He said it would all come together real quick after that, and he needed to pay for the materials up front."

Pavon admits he had "a very bad feeling" when he wrote the last check to Wagner -- for $12,000 -- but by then they were desperate to get into their house and couldn't afford to rent an apartment until the job was completed.

They're still waiting for that day, but because they've run though all the mortgage money allocated for the remodeling, the Pavons say they've been forced to dip into their rapidly depleting savings, or do without.

"This was going to be our dream home," says Mike Pavon. "Now, everywhere we look, there's shoddy work, and I doubt if we'll ever have the money to fix things up the way they should be."

If Pavon had more than 30 seconds to feel sorry for himself -- between the kids, the remodeling and his nightclub business -- he'd probably start crying.

THESE NIGHTMARES DON'T happen in a vacuum; somewhere, someone is always asleep.

The first two rules of remodeling, of course, are:

· Always get at least three bids, and;

· Always hire a licensed, bonded contractor.

The Pavons say they got other bids, but they seemed a bit high. Then a branch of their mortgage company, Charter Finance, recommended Wagner.

The recommendation came from Charter Home Services, which, says manager Jeff Artzi, is in the business of connecting reputable contractors with the homeowners who need them.

A company brochure promises "high-quality, reliable services to maintain and improve your home -- with one simple phone call." And, it adds, "Now you can enjoy convenience and peace of mind knowing Charter Home Services is there to help you--Only The Best Will Do."

So how did the supposed professionals at Charter Home curse the Pavons with a no-talent stinker like Wagner?

Artzi claims Charter Home personnel performed the necessary check with the Registrar of Contractor's Office before calling Wagner in to sign up with their service. (Charter Home does not charge homeowners, instead it takes a fee from contractors who get jobs as a result of its recommendations.)

But there's a problem with Artzi's explanation.

Wagner was doing business under the name The Home Team. When questioned, Artzi -- or rather one of his lawyers -- pointed to a 1996 certificate from the Registrar's Office listing The Home Team as holding a valid general remodeling and repair license.

But that same certificate also lists the owner of The Home Team as Bettron Inc. And, in fact, Bettron Inc. is listed as the actual license holder by the Registrar's Office.

Local Registrar official Alex Jacomé Jr. says his office is still sorting out the mess, but in his personal opinion at least, it seems likely that Charter Home Services may have to shoulder some blame here, in a moral sense, if not under the letter of the law. It's obvious from state records, Jacomé says, that Wagner did not hold the license for The Home Team.

BETTRON INC. IS -- or was -- owned by local remodeling contractor Ron Meikle, who, at age 67, is now fairly happily retired. Meikle says he could have used the full $35,000 Dave Wagner, his former employee, promised to pay him last year, when Meikle sold him The Home Team name and all his tools, but instead he got less than $5,000.

Meikle apparently isn't one to sweat the small stuff though. He says he bears Wagner no ill will for reneging on their deal. "You don't live to be in your 90s, like my father has, by holding a grudge and getting all upset," he says cheerfully.

Easy for Meikle to say, and he probably doesn't even think twice about turning a klutz like Wagner loose on the public.

Meanwhile the Pavons are tearing their hair out, and Artzi is claiming his firm exercised reasonable care in checking out Wagner, including asking former customers what they thought of his work.

"We talked to one person who was just ecstatic," Artzi says.

They obviously weren't talking to Anna Midkiff, a CPA and single mom, who tells The Weekly that Wagner almost totally botched her home remodeling project.

"I took out a second mortgage to do these things," she says, sounding eerily like the Pavons, "and now I can't afford to make them right."

Mike Pavon says he's talked to at least three other victims of what he sees as the smooth-talking Wagner's con artistry.

"The reason he tries to get most of his money up front," Pavon says, "is because he knows he's not going to be able to do the job right. He may be a nice guy, but he's also a dangerous criminal."

Artzi says that in any case, Charter Home merely recommended Wagner for several small jobs, not a full-blown remodeling extravaganza.

But Pavon points to a rather muddled contract of Wagner's he says indicates the parties agreed that additional work was a distinct possibility, a contract Pavon claims Charter Home saw.

Pavon thinks Meikle and Charter Home Services should pay for the mess.

Meikle says Wagner isn't a crook, it's just that he got in over his head. Nevertheless, Meikle says he understands why Pavon is upset, and points out that he even tried to help by contributing roughly $1,200 in corrective work to the project because he felt sorry for the family's predicament.

But Meikle maintains he has no real liability in the matter. To enforce that argument, Meikle has surrendered his license and filed for bankruptcy, naming Pavon and others Wagner has allegedly damaged as potential creditors, thus putting a hold on their ability to sue.

Pavon blames the Registrar's Office for what he says is a slow response in investigating his complaints against Meikle and Wagner. The delay allowed Meikle time to seek bankruptcy protection, and bankruptcy had the effect of freezing Meikle's contracting bond.

But Jacomé says the Registrar must observe due process, which takes time, although he claims his office attempted to accelerate procedures as much as possible for the Pavons.

Artzi maintains his company is not at fault, and that Charter Home, too, is a victim of Wagner's con. Last October, in an application form Wagner filed to receive Charter Home's referrals, he listed Bettron's license as his own.

However, in the same packet of information Charter Home faxed to a reporter, a copy of a liability insurance policy for The Home Team lists Wagner Services Inc. as the company owner.

Artzi says many contractors work through different corporate entities, and it's not unreasonable to assume Wagner was too, with the license issued to his company.

But that doesn't explain why Charter Home recommended Wagner to the Pavons when Wagner had noted on his application form that his contractor's license -- or rather, what he was claiming to be his license -- expired in November '99.

Artzi himself, while arguing that Bettron's license might be considered to have gone with The Home Team upon the company's sale, for a reasonable time at least, admits the Pavons' project did not get underway until January.

But the final word on the matter is Meikle's:

"I told Dave [in March] the law said he had 60 days to get a license."

AS A REPORTER was being ushered off the doublewide property where the Wagners were squatting last month, he asked Wagner how long he thought he could legally work under Meikle's license.

"Uh, about a year?"

Sorry, Dave. You may actually be a big, dumb sonofabitch, but nobody -- not even in Arizona's wild and wooly, free-wheelin', poorly regulated small-time contracting game -- is that frickin' stupid.

If your less-than-ecstatic customers and former business associates don't catch up to you and break every bone in your body soon, at the very least you ought to be horsewhipped for crappy acting.

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