Hitting a Wall of Frustration : Homes: Customers unveil a stream of complaints, but builder says he is being victimized. Charges reveal gaps in state's regulatory system for contractors.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Interviews with 30 customers of Jeffrey Weiner's companies, Systems Construction and Gotech Builders, unveiled a consistent set of complaints against the Orange County custom home builder.

Weiner denies wrongdoing. He says he is being victimized by customers who are trying to take advantage of him and that he is always willing to resolve customers' problems.

The complaints, however, show how California's system for regulating contractors is riddled with gaps that can allow builders to escape the scrutiny of the agency that exists to police them.

Dennis and Debra Greene

The Greenes, Sherman Oaks residents and both independent TV producers, say that they had to repeatedly complain to the builder to get things done and that delays they maintain were caused by Weiner's first company, Systems Construction, added nearly $200,000 in interest and loan renewal fees to the $229,000 they originally agreed to pay for their custom home.

The Greenes filed a written complaint against Systems and Weiner with the Contractors State License Board's Los Angeles regional office in March, 1992. Debra Greene said recently that the office has not yet acknowledged receiving the complaint. The Greenes' contract called for arbitration of disputes, and the license board has a longstanding policy of not investigating complaints when arbitration is required.

Debra Greene said that before hiring Systems she called the license board to check on the status of the company's license. "We were told that they had been in business for 12 years," she said, "and that there were no black marks on their license. But if we're an example of how they treat complaints, it's no wonder."

She said Systems' low prices "sold us when we first contacted them in September, 1989." The company's bid was "50% less than what several other contractors had bid. That probably should have tipped us off that something was wrong," she said, "but they had this great facility and really nice salespeople, and we just were lulled into it."

Among the complaints, which Debra Greene said were spelled out in the couple's letter to the license board:

* The basement was left out of the plans.

* The concrete company was given an erroneous foundation plan and poured a foundation that shifted the house a foot into the side yard setback required by the city.

* Lumber for framing was delivered too early and left uncovered in the winter rains. The warped framing was used, resulting in crooked walls that had to be repaired.

* Gotech tried to pull cash from the construction fund that was earmarked for one subcontractor to pay a subcontractor on another job--something expressly prohibited by state law. The Greenes said the company stopped when they questioned the early withdrawal of the funds.

Why did the couple stick with their money pit?

"Once you get in so far, you just can't get out," Dennis Greene said. "I had $200,000 equity in the property, and if I stopped I would have lost that."

Diane and Bayard Veiller

Los Angeles residents Diane Veiller, an international bank loan officer, and Bayard Veiller, a free-lance writer, claim that Gotech never did a bit of work for them but still has $27,000 of their money. They paid that sum in 1991 as a deposit for a custom home to be built on their lot near Century City.

Before hiring Gotech, the Veillers checked with the Contractors State License Board and were told that there were three complaints on the Systems license and none on the Gotech license. The disputes against Systems subsequently were erased under a board policy that permits disclosure of legal or regulatory actions but not of unresolved consumer complaints.

Bernard Veiller said that he and his wife asked officials at Gotech about the complaints "but they persuaded us they were not anything to be concerned about, that it would be unusual for a company to be in business for 19 years like they had been and not have a few complaints."

The Veillers said they talked with several other Gotech clients after signing an agreement and, based on what they heard, decided to cancel their contract. That was more than a year ago and the couple still are trying to get their deposit returned. In the meantime, the Veillers wound up acting as their own general contractor, hiring subcontractors to build a home on the lot. They moved in at the end of July.

Bayard Veiller said Weiner still refuses to acknowledge that they have canceled. "When he responds to our calls or letters, which isn't very often," Veiller said, "Weiner just says he is ready to start work whenever we tell him to."

That won't happen, Veiller said. He said he is preparing to sue Gotech after filing a complaint with the Inglewood office of the Contractors State License Board last year and being told the board had no jurisdiction because of the arbitration clause in the contract.

Vijay and Susan Soni

The Sonis hired Gotech's predecessor, Systems Construction, in 1989 to build a home on their lot in Corona del Mar. The contract price was $550,000, but by the time the house was completed late in 1991, the couple had paid Systems nearly $700,000 and had seen the interest on their construction loan swell by $50,000 because of delays.

"A friend had heard about them and how inexpensively they built custom homes," Susan Soni said. The couple visited Systems' office in Anaheim and were impressed with what they saw, she said. "I guess our first big mistake was leaving it there and not checking references."

The monetary losses don't show up in the official file, but Newport Beach building department records do show there were several construction delays because of an improper design. The records also document a history of other troubles.

Early in the construction it was clear that parts of the second floor intruded almost two feet into the city-required setback from the property line.

The city issued a stop order as Systems was framing the house in January, 1990. Systems, however, "ignored the order and kept on. Then the (homeowner) association sued us and we were barred from building for four or five months," Susan Soni said. "That alone cost us $35,000 in extra interest on our loan." The city file shows that a second stop order was issued in early February when an inspector determined that work was continuing on the area that encroached into the setback.

Weiner says that many of the problems with the house were caused by the Sonis themselves. The couple constantly changed their minds about the design of the house while work was in progress, Weiner said: "We had more than 40 change orders on that project."

Although Susan Soni's claims are supported by the city records and by a suit filed by the Spyglass Hill Homeowners Assn. to force the Sonis to alter the design of the house, Weiner denied that the encroachment problem existed.

The dispute and resulting delay, he said, was over the height of the structure, which blocked a neighbor's view. And that problem, he said, was not his company's responsibility because the building height was approved by the city.

Neither the city records nor the homeowner association suit show any dispute over the building height.

"The file on this reflects that it was an absolute nightmare of a project for the inspector," said Rusty Price, chief building inspector for Newport Beach. "There was very little cooperation by the contractor. They even started work before any of the building permits were issued."

Even after the Sonis had paid Systems, Susan Soni said, the contractor failed to promptly pay some of its subcontractors on the job, "so eight or 10 of them filed liens against us."

Soni said in an interview that Systems also changed supervisors six or seven times "so no one ever knew what was going on or what was supposed to be done. I finally took over the job myself halfway through."

When she assumed the role of on-site supervisor, she said she discovered "plumbing installed wrong, doors that were out of square and thresholds put in backward. The roof leaked and split open the ceiling in the garage, and leaks in a skylight flooded the foyer. Windows didn't close properly, and the marble floor in the foyer was uneven."

The Sonis didn't take their complaints about Systems to the state license board--but neither did Newport Beach officials, who saw firsthand that the company was violating basic rules of the trade.

Price says that it would be unusual for a city inspector to go to the contractors license board "unless he saw outright evidence of fraud."

The Sonis finally moved into their house but sold it a year later at a loss.

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