May 30, 2005 12:00 PM

DON AND JODY COSTELLO

WORK BEGAN: JULY 1999

WORK FINISHED: JUNE 2000

TOTAL COST: $221,250

After Jody Costello’s father died and her ailing mother, Beatrice, entered a nursing home, she decided to add a third-floor suite to her house. In July 1999 she and her husband, Don, signed a six-month contract with San Diego builder Rick Ladd Turek. “The whole idea was to bring my mother home,” says Jody, 50, “to create a space where we could all live together before she goes.”

Instead, the family found itself “in a horror movie,” says Don. “We never knew what we would find next.” Jody claims it started just a few weeks in, when one of Turek’s men accidentally tore off the hot-water heater exhaust on her roof, leaking deadly carbon monoxide into the house. For 10 days, Jody says, she suffered mysterious headaches, until one afternoon she passed out at her computer. Her life was saved by a frantic plumber who saw the broken pipe. “It was so terrifying to know I could have died,” she says.

That New Year’s Eve, heavy rain poured into the house, drowning the Costellos’ wedding videos, family photos and wardrobe: Turned out Turek’s crew had allegedly left a 7-by-5-ft. hole in the ceiling on the second floor that couldn’t be seen from the first. Later the contractor waterproofed the house with tar paper—but installed it backward so it captured water instead of repelling it. Accumulated moisture spawned toxic mold, and the allergic Jody spent months on medication. “I felt like, ‘How dare this man come into my house and butcher it,’ ” she says. “The whole time, my mother kept asking, ‘When can I come home?'”

So why didn’t they just fire Turek? The contract. “We were in a legal head-lock,” says Don, a city environmental inspector. Finally, in June 2000, Turek abandoned the project. The Costellos sued, won a settlement, and Turek’s license was eventually revoked. Jody started ContractorsFromHell.com to educate consumers and testified before a California Senate committee on contractor issues. It all came too late for her mother: In June 2002 Beatrice at last came home but died a week later from pulmonary disease at 78. “For the rest of my life I’ll have a deep sadness that I couldn’t fulfill her wishes,” Jody says. “That’s what drives me to make sure people like Turek don’t harm anyone else.”

JOHN AND WILMA BRODERICK

WORK BEGAN: 1996

WORK FINISHED: 1996

TOTAL COST: $103,000

All John and Wilma Broderick wanted was a nice place to settle down when they retired. But months after they moved into their custom-built $103,000 house outside Las Vegas in 1996, cracks formed in the walls and floors. Eventually a 2.5-in. jagged fissure in the kitchen floor split the house in two: Tiles fractured, countertops buckled. “It was awful,” says Wilma, 73. “On one side of the crack the floor dropped an inch and a half. Every time I walked between the stove and sink, I thought about tripping and falling.”

It turned out the house rested on “expansive soil,” which contracts or expands in reaction to ground water and rain. For four years Wilma and John, 79, a former civilian administrator for the Navy, complained repeatedly to get the builder, Deserae Homes, and its owner Peter Brown to repair the damage and fix the problem by pumping pressure grouting under the house and building a special trench around it to keep out water. “He refused,” says John, blaming “too much lawn watering.”

Finally, in 2001, the Brodericks filed a complaint with the Nevada Contractors Licensing Board and sued Deserae Homes. Last year Brown settled out of court for $215,000. “This was one of the worst cases of poor workmanship we’ve ever seen,” says George Lyford, investigations director for the board, which revoked Brown’s license. (Despite numerous calls, Brown could not be reached for comment.) Having used their settlement for repairs, the Brodericks try to keep a level head about their misfortune. Says John: “We’re still better off than 90 percent of the planet.”

MARY AND BRANNOCK BERRY

WORK BEGAN: APRIL 2003

WORK FINISHED: AUGUST 2003

TOTAL COST: $49,000

Mary and Brannock Berry used to fantasize about making improvements to their San Antonio home. Out back, they’d build a pool house and an enclosed patio for entertaining. Inside, they’d redo the kitchen and add a new bathroom. So in 2003 they used their savings to make those dreams come true—hiring contractor Robert Kunz, whose company King Custom Remodelers had a splashy ad in a brochure called “How to Choose a Remodeler.”

“King’s designers told us he’d just come from California and done work for Vanna White,” recalls Mary, 45, a court reporter. When Kunz’s references checked out, the Berrys agreed to pay him $76,000, more than a third of it up front. Says Brannock, 53, an aircraft mechanic: “We thought we had done everything right.”

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the next 14 weeks the couple fumed as a construction supervisor kept disappearing for days on end. A plumber did knock a few holes in the concrete, dig a big trench—and never returned. Meanwhile the Berrys had forked over $49,000. Finally, in August 2003, Kunz declared bankruptcy. The company had barely any assets, leaving 33 clients in the lurch. Now when the Berrys look out their back window, they see not a patio but a gaping ditch and a flimsy frame where the cabana was meant to be. Victims of “a classic Ponzi scheme,” according to San Antonio judge Leif M. Clark, they sued and won a $94,000 judgment. But the Berrys, who can’t afford to repair their “renovations,” haven’t been able to collect. Under investigation for possible fraud, Kunz left his marks wondering how they got taken in. “I did get suspicious,” says Brannock. “But by then they had so much of our money, we just hoped and hoped.”

TIJUANA THOMAS-JACKSON

WORK BEGAN: OCTOBER 1999

WORK FINISHED: DECEMBER ’99

TOTAL COST: $29,000

After separating from her husband 10 years ago, Tijuana Thomas-Jackson hoped to start over by moving into her childhood home in Washington, D.C. The 75-year-old house had fallen into disrepair, so in 1999 the 53-year-old federal employee took out a $50,000 second mortgage and hired contractor Norman Jones to waterproof the basement, replace rotting porch wood and repair the roof. “Nothing elaborate,” she recalls. “Just fix it up a little.”

Very little indeed. After Thomas-Jackson handed Jones her cash, she says, an incompetent crew tore up her home. With no money to finish it, she now lives with a water-swamped basement and a crumbling roof. She watched in horror as a drip from a bedroom ceiling morphed into a five-foot hole. “I can’t describe the stress,” says Thomas-Jackson. “You feel like you’re a failure. You’ve made such a mistake.”

Eventually Jones was indicted after a government auditor discovered the contractor took $188,695 from 12 other victims in similar scams. “What he did was reprehensible,” says assistant U.S. attorney Sherri L. Schornstein. In 2002 Jones pleaded guilty and served two years in prison. At his sentencing, says his lawyer Billy Ponds, “he asked for forgiveness.” He won’t get it from Thomas-Jackson. Forced to declare bankruptcy, she’ll have to raise tens of thousands of dollars for repairs. “I have no choice,” she says. “I have to get the money somehow.”

Richard Jerome. Darla Atlas in Fort Worth, Cary Cardwell in San Antonio, Wendy Grossman in Houston, 94 Kate Klise in Chicago, Ken Lee in San Diego, Susan Mandel in Washington, D.C, and Kerri Smith in Phoenix

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