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Santa Ana : Homeowner Finds Solar Heating Deal Is Binding

At $1,500, Filomeno del Real thought he couldn’t pass up a new solar heating unit. The articulate, Spanish-speaking salesman told him the government would pick up the rest of the $6,000 tab and that homeowners are required to install such units.

The price would go back up to $10,000 in two days, the salesman added, and a federal law allowing solar buyers to take a tax write-off would expire this year.

So Del Real signed a contract--written in English--and installers from the Mission Viejo Solar Co. completed work by May 3. A few days later, Del Real received a notice from the finance company informing him that they were now ready to receive the first of 84 monthly installments of $128, for a total of more than $11,000.

When the 66-year-old Santa Ana resident got his son to translate the contract, he found that he had been duped. “What he was promised and what he got were two very different things,” said Becky Esparza, a member of the county Human Relations Commission, adding that 10 other Spanish-speaking Santa Ana residents filed similar complaints with her office about the firm. Attempts to reach the owners of the firm have been unsuccessful, she said.

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Those 11 people also went to the Orange County district attorney’s office, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Diane Kadletz, and the case was referred to the Contractor’s State License Board, which is conducting an investigation. She said the district attorney’s office would only become involved if the board decides there were serious enough violations to warrant criminal prosecution.

CSLB regional Deputy David Phillips said the agency can cite contractors and order them to make restitution or repairs. In serious cases, the board may suspend or revoke a contractor’s license and impose a bond requirement of $15,000-$50,000 for reinstatement. “What’s effective is when you hit them in the wallet,” he said, adding that he couldn’t comment specifically on the Mission Viejo firm.

The company has since gone out of business and Del Real has found a lawyer, Sister Annette Debs of the Community Legal Assn., who is trying to have the contract rescinded. Unemployed and surviving on $530 a month from a pension and Social Security, Del Real and his family manage to scrape together the monthly payments for deposit in a trust fund pending a court decision.

“I feel like this contract is hanging over me and that I may eventually lose my house,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

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Phillips said minorities, the elderly, widows and first-time home buyers are the most frequent filers among the 22,000 complaints the board receives yearly. He stressed that anyone considering hiring a contractor follow some basic guidelines--get at least three bids, call the local board office to check that the contractor is licensed and whether he has any infractions, get the entire agreement in writing and pay by check.


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