TEAM 10 INVESTIGATES: Contractor Nightmare Series
Summertime is when people dip into their hard-earned savings to remodel their home or make much-needed repairs. This week, Team 10 investigates home improvement horror stories about San Diegans ripped off by contractors — including one family that lost over a half million dollars.
SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A Poway man is under investigation after several of his customers claimed they gave him thousands of dollars for home renovations and got shoddy, incomplete work.
The homeowners are now banding together and working with law enforcement and the Contractors State License Board in the hope of recouping their losses and stopping the unlicensed contractor from taking advantage of other people.
One of his customers was a woman who asked us not to use her last name. Debbie said a neighbor recommended Norm Keating when she mentioned she was looking for someone to help her repair some leaky faucets in a bathroom and replace a window.
Little did she know that recommendation would lead to a major home remodeling project.
Debbie told Team 10 her mother had just died and left her some money. She wanted to use some of that money to upgrade her home. She said Keating was happy to oblige.
"He was a really nice guy," she recalled. "I thought he was a contractor at first. I had no idea he's not a contractor," Debbie said.
At Keating's urging, Debbie says she launched into a major remodeling project. Walls came down, and workers began putting up new walls to create a downstairs powder room. New flooring was installed, and the kitchen started to shape up. Debbie was excited about the wine refrigerator, the indoor grill and the other new appliances she said Keating promised.
Debbie's backyard also turned into a construction zone. A second-story deck began taking shape, along with a stairway and private entrance.
The work went slowly. Keating brought in several workers, and Debbie said she kept writing checks for labor and materials. As the months dragged on with her home under construction, Debbie began having doubts. She said Keating always had the right words to set her mind at ease.
Finally, Debbie decided she'd had enough.
She asked Keating why the front door she paid $2,000 for never showed up. Where were the three ceiling fans she paid for? Debbie demanded answers but said she got excuses. "It was always next week, next week," she recalled.
When the weather warmed up, Debbie found out her air conditioner no longer worked. That was when she learned the duct work wasn't installed correctly. A repairman told her it would cost $3,500 to fix it.
She also discovered 910 square feet of insulation in her attic had mysteriously disappeared. That's when Debbie started taking a closer look at the workmanship and materials used in her home.
The new stonework on her fireplace covered the hole where the gas key that turns it on is supposed to be, rendering the fireplace useless. The stainless steel hood vent in the kitchen had a burned out engine, and the wine refrigerator and new stove didn't work. Debbie now believes the appliances were second hand.
She wrote a demand letter to Keating giving him 90 days to deliver $40,000 of materials she claims she already paid for. Debbie is still waiting. In the meantime, she's had to hire new contractors to begin correcting the damage done to her home.
"I was at the most vulnerable state ever in my life, and he saw that and he really just took advantage," Debbie said as she fought back tears.
Jenny & Bill
Jenny Erdmann and her fiance', Bill Yoder bought a fixer-upper in Poway they hoped to turn into a home. Erdmann's realtor told her about Norm Keating.
Erdmann said Keating admitted he wasn't a contractor but said he could save the couple thousands of dollars by working as their project manager. They took the bait.
Most of the work they hoped to do was cosmetic, but Erdman said Keating had bigger ideas: "He wanted to rip down every wall and relocate some of the bedrooms, move the kitchen entirely, move the bathrooms...Quite honestly, we went home that night, and I was like, that's not the house we bought. But it sounded good," recalled Erdmann. "We thought he's the expert, and all these other people are happy with him."
In less than a week the house was stripped down to the studs. That's when Erdmann said the project slowed down. "It was like pulling teeth to get him to do anything," she said, adding, "but he always needed money."
Erdmann showed us $77,000 worth of checks she wrote to Keating. $58,000 of that amount was for materials and labor; the rest was for Keating's services. The problem, according to Erdmann was that many of the materials never showed up at the property. "These were expensive things like hot water heaters, HVAC systems, all the big-ticket items," said Erdmann.
Keating cashed the checks.
Erdmann told Keating she wanted him to deliver the materials she paid for and says she told him from that point on she would write checks directly to vendors.
Erdmann became suspicious of Keating. She Googled his name and discovered he was an ex-con who did time in a California prison for grand theft, fraud, and other charges. She also found several convictions in Florida for writing bad checks, forgery and more. "As soon as I saw the swindling and all the other stuff he's been doing in the past, I thought, yep, we just lost everything," Erdmann said, shrugging her shoulders.
She and her fiancé decided to cut their financial and emotional losses. They sold the now-gutted house for a loss. Erdmann figures the couple lost a total of $250,000.
Erdmann also decided to track down other people who'd had contact with Keating. She claims they were easy to find and not one of them was satisfied with his work.
Maya and her family were moving to Poway from Boston. The house she found in Poway was small and needed some updating. She hired Keating after learning he'd done some work for her realtor.
She told Team 10 his price was figured into her mortgage. As her family drove cross country, Keating's team got to work.
The pregnant mother of four showed Team 10 some of the problems with that work. Her new fence is 18 inches inside her property line, and there's a gap along the bottom so big that a small child or animal could easily scoot underneath it.
Inside her garage, where she said Keating suggested the washer and dryer be relocated, exposed drywall was peeling and a section of the firewall was missing. Maya told us the appliances were not installed properly, and the water heater did not have an earthquake strap.
Inside, Mayasaid two toilets had to be replaced, and there was a leak under the kitchen sink because of faulty installation. The fireplace over her mantel is missing, as are some closet doors.
Brian Kitlinger met Norm Keating in a prison chapel. The two became best friends and stayed that way after each was finished serving his term. Kitlinger worked for Keating's CityScapes business.
Their friendship began to unravel after Keating offered to help his friend remodel his childhood home in Chula Vista. Kitlinger and his wife, Cynthia, wanted to upgrade and enlarge the house, adding modern finishes. They hired Keating as their property manager. A notation on the contract written in block letters read NO LICENSE REQUIRED.
The Kitlingers shared pictures with Team 10 of Keating operating a bobcat, as workers demolished most of the house.
The house was never rebuilt.
The Kitlingers claim they paid tens of thousands of dollars to Keating but rarely saw anyone working on the property. As their frustrations grew, so did the price of the project, and Brian's friendship with Keating was tested.
Late last year, the Kitlingers say Keating stopped working at their house altogether. They later learned the $3,800 check they wrote to the City of Chula Vista for building permits never made it to the city.
Brian Kitlinger says he has proof it was deposited into Keating's account.
"I don't think that he knew what he was doing," said Kitlinger. " I think he may have gotten in over his head and ran instead of facing us and saying I don't know what's going on; I can't do this. before it got too big and too late that it can't be salvaged.
The couple claims a licensed contractor told them it would cost more than $600,000 to build their dream home. The Kitlingers are considering bankruptcy.
"We're pretty much heartbroken and reduced to ruin," said Cynthia Kitlinger.
When Team 10 contacted Keating by phone, he said he wanted to tell his side of the story. He said he had proof the homeowners aren't telling the truth and said he wanted to show it to us. We set up an appointment for an on-camera interview. He canceled it, saying his wife had a doctor's appointment.
Several times, by phone, email and text message we asked him to sit down with us.
He didn't respond.
Keating did tell us over the phone "I'm not a construction guy, I'm a glorified shopper and accountant." He said he never worked on any of the homes, just helped the homeowners by getting good deals on materials.
"They're not paying me to go in there and play contractor," he said.
Keating described himself as a "nice guy" who tried to help all the homeowners who now call themselves victims. He claims most of them didn't pay him the money he's due. Keating explained the homeowners were acting as contractors. He said he was employed by them and the workers were also employees of the homeowners.
Invoices from Jenny Erdmann's job seem to indicate otherwise. They list several workers by name, the hours worked, and the money owed. Erdman has canceled checks written to Norm Keating to cover both labor and materials. The other homeowners also said they paid the workers through Keating.
The Contractors State License Board
A spokesman for the Contractors State License Board confirmed there are several complaints about Keating. An investigation is underway.
Rick Lopes told us "project manager" and "general contractor are pretty much the same. "The law defines what a contractor is and one of the things it says is its someone who can oversee or supervise a project. A project manager oversees or supervises a project.," explained Lopes.
Under California law, all construction work over $500 in labor and materials required a licensed contractor.
There are 280,000 of them in California. Norm Keating is not one of them.
An earlier version of this story mentioned Kitlinger worked for Keating's Excellence Companies, which was incorrect. 10News regrets the error.