Unlicensed to drill

Sandra Nelson has a message for remodeling homeowners -- check out your contractor, or you might find yourself out thousands of dollars

Sandra Nelson owns a one-story East Isles home and planned to build a 10-by-14-foot addition with hardwood floors and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, along with other home improvements.

Her remodeling project was to be done Oct. 31. With problems and delays mounting, she fired her contractor in December and now expects to pay $26,000 over budget to fix and finish it.

Problems led her to investigate her contractor's background -- something she wished she'd done before the hire, and something she advises homeowners spending thousands of dollars to do.

She found he was unlicensed by the state. That means Nelson had no guarantee her contractor was insured -- and must rely on his personal assets to pay any damages she may win in court.

The state has a fund to help homeowners recover court judgments arising from contracting disputes -- but only if the contractor is licensed.

Nelson's situation is not unique. In 2002, the state Department of Commerce brought 273 enforcement actions against building contractors; of those, 149 were for unlicensed activity, a spokesperson said.

Nelson and her architect, Peter Curtis, said contractor Dennis Buzanis repeatedly told them he was licensed; he just never remembered to bring the license. Buzanis said Nelson and Curtis knew he lacked a license. "I never said I was a licensed contractor. I said I was a contractor," he said.

Frustrated, Nelson searched the Department of Commerce Web site and learned Buzanis did not have a license.

What's more, the state had issued cease-and-desist orders in 1997 and 2002, telling him to stop working as an unlicensed residential builder and remodeler.

Nelson said she would like to get Buzanis to pay the $26,000 over the bid price that she estimates she needs to finish the project. "Under no circumstances should someone start a job with a contractor without having a copy of that person's license and insurance binder," Nelson said.

Curtis made a video to document problems Nelson said occurred. Among the disputed improvements were the quality of the roofing, hardwood floors and built-in bookshelves.

Nelson said it would cost $42,500 to fix and finish the job -- meaning she will spend more than $78,000 to fix a project bid at $52,315.

Buzanis' response

Buzanis, a 50-year-old St. Paul resident, said he has worked as a full-time contractor since 1980.

City staff said his city of Minneapolis contractor's license expired in 1994. The state took over licensing in 2000, and Buzanis never has had a state license. He could not get one because of state tax liens against him, Buzanis said. Later, he said it was "a worker's comp thing."

"Am I getting a license? Yes, I am working on that right now," he said, adding he cleared his lien in August.

The Southwest Journal was unable to verify those liens with the state or local counties. It was unable to verify worker's comp complaints with the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Buzanis said delays at Nelson's project resulted from summer rains that delayed his subcontractors. Further, his mother, two uncles, a close friend and his mother-in-law died between Oct. 19 and Dec. 21, he said, and Nelson wanted him to get things done in late 2002 during a very difficult time.

Buzanis acknowledges he made some mistakes, but Nelson did too, he said. Nelson has kept some of his tools -- their value is in dispute -- and she gave away the floor-to-ceiling bookcases he had made. He still owes the subcontractor and wanted them back.

He wants to arbitrate, Buzanis said. (Nelson asks, "How can you arbitrate the violation of a cease-and-desist order?")

There is no dispute that Nelson disliked the bookcases. Buzanis did not use Kleinschmidt -- the carpentry firm that the contract specified. He and Nelson disagree on whether he told her he was going to switch companies, but he never got the change approved in writing, as the contract required.

Buzanis said Kleinschmidt had a big project and couldn't finish on Nelson's timeline. His failure to get the change approved in writing was "an oversight on my part," he said.

Richard Kleinschmidt said he bid on the project, but could not recall if Buzanis had talked about scheduling problems. "I hadn't heard any more about it. As far as I am concerned, it is an active bid," he said.

Cease and desist

In 1997, Buzanis said he was doing landscaping work -- the kind of work that does not require a license. He never received the state's 1997 cease-and-desist order, he said, learning about it when responding to the 2002 charges.

The 1997 order got mailed to the wrong address, he said.

The Department of Commerce did not have the details of the 1997 complaint available.

In April 2002 the state listed seven charges against Buzanis, who was doing business as Tomorrow's Builders and Tomorrow's Idea Remodelers. The charges stemmed from doing unlicensed work building a two-story garage on West Minnehaha Parkway and remodeling a White Bear Lake home.

The April 11 hearing notice and charges said Buzanis had engaged in "a fraudulent, deceptive or dishonest practice," failed to pay a subcontractor, and did incomplete and poor-quality work that was either negligent or in breach of contract.

Buzanis signed a consent decree Aug. 23, agreeing to pay a $500 fine -- and pay $5,000 if he violated the order. The state complaint referenced the 1997 cease-and-desist order, and Buzanis did not dispute that.

"That would have been the time to challenge it," said Bruce Gordon, director of communications for the Commerce Department.

The 2002 charges accused Buzanis of fraud or dishonesty in getting a building permit.

The state documents alleged that Buzanis filed for the White Bear Lake building permit using a licensed contractor's name as the general contractor and listing himself as a subcontractor. The licensed contractor told investigators he had not given permission to use his name.

Nelson said someone used her name as the building contractor to get a city building permit. Nelson said she neither knew of nor approved of being listed as the contractor on her permit.

The law allows homeowners to get permits to do their own remodeling regardless of whether they have licenses. If contractors do the work, however, they have to have a state license to get a permit.

Tom Fields of St. Paul hired Buzanis last year to build a screened porch. He also learned that the building permit listed his name as the contractor. Like Nelson, he said he did not know about it.

Buzanis was supposed to finish Sept. 15, Fields said. Fields fired him in January, the job incomplete.

"The thing that ticked me off [is] he told me he was licensed. I found out he had never been licensed," Fields said.

Asked if he pulled the permit on the Nelson project, Buzanis said he did, "under the assumption that it was fine with her."

Asked about the Fields' permit, Buzanis said, "No comment."

Potential penalties and a policy change

Buzanis was working on two other projects along with Nelson's after he signed the 2002 cease-and-desist order, prompting Nelson to ask what good such an order is.

"It recognizes publicly that an individual or company is working without a license," the Commerce Department's Gordon said. "If there is evidence that an individual or company is working in violation of an order from the Commissioner, it can be grounds for prosecuting as a gross misdemeanor."

The maximum penalty for a gross misdemeanor is one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Gordon could not comment on whether the Department is investigating Buzanis, he said.

Loren Finseth, a City of Minneapolis plan examiner, said the way the city issues building permits has changed because of the Nelson/Buzanis case.

Before, examiners reviewed homeowner-requested permits but did not verify that the person picking it up was the homeowner. Now, if the person applying for a permit is not a licensed contractor, city officials will require a homeowner to show proof of identity.

"That way, no one can impersonate the homeowner," he said.

Other complaints, other suits

Hennepin County court records show Buzanis had more than 30 civil actions filed against him over the years.

Buzanis said he had not had any suits since 1999 and that roughly 90 percent were paid.

Three subcontractors on Nelson's job say Buzanis owes them money.

Buzanis said he still had disputes with some. He said his dispute with Nelson over her bookcases complicates his ability to pay the cabinetmaker.

Wade Nelson of McClish Electric (no relation to Sandra Nelson) said Buzanis did not pay him for work at Fields' home in St. Paul -- or for Sandra Nelson's job.

There were other problems. When Wade Nelson didn't get his $480 for work on the Fields' home, he was going to file a lien, an avenue available to tradespeople to recover unpaid bills. He said that to his surprise, Fields' told him he had the bill marked "paid in full" -- signed "Wade," and dated Nov. 19.

While Fields backs Wade Nelson's version of events, Buzanis said he only gave Fields an unsigned bill, and he paid Wade Nelson.

Wade Nelson said he remains unpaid, since two checks from Buzanis have bounced. "I am waiting to get all my 'i's' dotted and 't's' crossed. I already have my attorney looking into this matter."

A bitter dispute

Meanwhile, the Sandra Nelson-Buzanis dispute has become personal.

She said he has shouted at her on the phone. He accuses her being insensitive to his mother's death. She has written him what she calls a "demand letter" and what he calls "threatening."

The Jan. 21 letter said if he didn't pay the $26,000 to finish the project in three days, she would file complaints with the city and state and try to publicize the matter in the newspaper, as well as take other actions.

Suing him wouldn't do any good, she said. Buzanis ran his business finances through another person's account, she said. She does not believe he has the money to pay her if she took him to court.

With respect to the other person's account, Buzanis said, "We share a checkbook. What is the problem with that? Last I looked there wasn't a law against it."

Two subcontractors said Buzanis wrote them checks that bounced. Sandra Nelson said he had threatened to file for bankruptcy if she sued.

Buzanis said the amount Nelson says he owes her "keeps growing." Publicity of his dispute would hurt his business, he said.

According to Buzanis, "Most guys … would file for bankruptcy and screw all their clients and everybody and forget everything. Since I haven't done that, maybe it is an indication of my character."

Buzanis said Nelson has a right to sue. "We can settle this through the court system. That is the fairest way," he said.

Buzanis said he is just trying to get his life in order. "I have a funeral I am still paying for," he said.

He said he would take care of the issues with the Department of Commerce -- and the outstanding cease-and-desist order -- in the next few months.

Sandra Nelson said even savvy homeowners should not make assumptions and should do their research. "I am not a gullible person," she said.