Jen Lawrence felt lucky to find a house to buy in South Burlington during the pandemic, and she was prepared to spend some money updating the bathrooms and patching drywall.
Her real estate agent recommended a handyman she knew, and Lawrence, who moved to Vermont with her family from Houston in summer 2021, showed him what she needed done and paid a deposit for some materials last summer.
But the handyman never did the work, Lawrence said, and now she’s out the $2,700 she gave him for supplies. She’s since hired someone else to do the work on her house.
Lawrence lodged a complaint with the South Burlington police and is working with the city’s Community Justice Center to help others avoid being defrauded. She also plans to file a suit in small claims court. She wants the contractor to repay her family and several other people who hired him last year and reported that they also lost money.
“There is a moral obligation to stop this guy from doing this to other people,” said Lawrence, a geologist who worked for more than 20 years at ExxonMobil. “I want to see him prosecuted, tried and make restitution, and I’d like to see a strengthening of the consumer protection laws for people in Vermont, because it’s a problem.”
Indeed, home improvement fraud is one of the most common complaints filed with the state Attorney General’s Office. Last year, Vermonters made 144 such complaints, representing total alleged losses of $903,000.
But the system for addressing contractor fraud claims can be frustrating to navigate and is largely toothless, leaving customers an uncertain path once someone has taken their money without doing the work. While there are plenty of ways to lodge a complaint, there’s no sure way for property owners to get their money back if they have been defrauded.
Sometimes, police arrest people on home improvement fraud charges. Other times, they advise property owners to file a report with the attorney general’s consumer protection unit, which then asks the contractor to complete the work or return the money. Though several towns have community justice centers, their budgets for restitution are small. South Burlington, for example, has just $2,500, less than the amount of Lawrence’s single claim.
Police also refer homeowners to small claims court, which hears cases of up to $5,000, but a judgment in favor of the homeowner — though binding — doesn’t always mean a contractor will pay up, since judges’ authority is limited to ordering payments.
“You have to show intent for a criminal charge,” Capt. Matt Daley of the Vermont State Police said. “There are a ton of different variables.”
Officials who deal with these cases hope that a recently enacted law, which created a contractor registry and a new position in the AG’s Office, can provide some solutions to what’s proved to be an intractable problem.
Josef Lavanway, director of the South Burlington Community Justice Center, said his office receives 20 to 30 home improvement fraud complaints annually, a number that has been stable for several years.
Offenders are referred to the South Burlington center by the police, the state’s attorney’s office, or the local Probation and Parole Office. A panel of community members works with them and those they scammed with the goal of making things right, Lavanway said.
“When folks go through a traditional court process, oftentimes the harmed party is not a part of the process,” Lavanway said. “[In creating restorative justice panels], folks in Vermont wanted what was broken to be fixed and what was stolen to be repaid.”
Last year, the Vermont legislature passed a bill requiring contractors to register with the state if they are undertaking a job worth at least $10,000. Registrations are due by April 1 — though there is a grace period of a year — and contractors must show proof of liability insurance in order to register. The Secretary of State’s Office said 99 individual contractors and 190 contracting companies had registered as of March 6.
It’s unclear whether registration will deter fraud. The Vermont Builders & Remodelers Association has said the requirement will provide a measure of consumer protection and offer a way for the state to send advisories to builders about new regulations and educational opportunities.
“It’s another stop for people to check to see if the contractor is legitimate,” said Andrew Brewer, a lobbyist for the group. “Even though there are no teeth in it … hopefully, if you’re not a good actor, you’re not going to be listed on this thing.”
Lawrence first showed Pete Henning her job in November 2021. She spoke to the Burlington handyman several times and even had tea in February 2022 with Henning and his mother, Kathleen Peden, who was working as his business manager. Lawrence eventually hired Henning in July.
Lawrence said she relied on her real estate agent’s recommendation, even though a neighbor who had used Henning’s services offered only lukewarm praise for his work.
“There’s a contractor shortage, so you give him the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I was thinking, He’s a local guy. He’s trying to get his business growing. This’ll be great.”
Lawrence wishes she’d been more careful. Earlier this year, she helped Lavanway create a list of tips for people who are planning renovations, such as calling references and searching ratings sites online. The Attorney General’s Office also keeps a list of all contractors who have been criminally convicted or have resolved civil claims for committing home improvement fraud.
Henning, 41, acknowledged in an email to Seven Days that he had taken money from several customers but failed to do the work after his life fell into crisis.
Prudence Baird said she is one of the customers left in the lurch. Seeking someone to work on her Burlington duplex, Baird posted on Front Porch Forum last year and heard back from Peden, Henning’s mother. Baird said she gave $12,000 — mostly for materials — and that Henning started the work and then disappeared.
“It’s not like I just hired him out of the blue,” Baird said. “I called three people, including one Realtor who gave him stellar reviews.”
Like Lawrence, Baird said she would like to see a better system for property owners to recoup their losses.
“I used that ridiculous service through the Attorney General’s Office,” Baird said. “They send a physical letter to the person, and then they reach out to you by mail and say, ‘Has this been resolved?’ You say no, and they send another letter. I had them send four letters.”
When the legislature passed the contractor registration bill last year, it included the creation of a new position in the Attorney General’s Office. On March 9, that office started advertising for a specialist who will serve as a sort of mediator, focusing on home improvement complaints.
“We hope if we have a designated person who specializes entirely in this area, we will be able to bring more resources to bear,” said Chris Curtis, chief of the public protection division at the AG’s Office. He added that the division recently helped someone get $20,000 back after she filed a home improvement complaint with his office.
Several of Henning’s disgruntled customers, including Lawrence and Baird, became acquainted last year after Baird complained on Yelp about him. She was the first to write a review; others who later wrote reviews got in touch with her. Baird, a writer and advocate for people with disabilities, had bought the duplex for her son, who has autism. (Baird’s son, Casey Metcalfe, was featured in a Seven Days story last week about a movie in which he acted.)
“We felt really stupid. The money we saved and saved and saved — gone,” she said. “There was no room for this kind of error.”
None of the others who lost money was willing to comment for this story. One, Lawrence said, has forgiven Henning and doesn’t plan to pursue restitution. That’s not unusual, Lavanway said.
“There are a lot of folks who experience some sort of contractor fraud who just kind of suck it up, who don’t file a police report,” Lavanway said.
For his part, Henning vows to repay every penny. In a February 28 email to Seven Days, he said he always performed his work well until last year, when his life took a downturn, prompting him to enter rehabilitation for substance abuse.
“Now, I am not saying all this to gain pity because as far as I’m concerned I don’t deserve any,” he wrote. “Nothing I say or do from here on out will ever make up for the heartache, pain and anger I caused so many people.”
Baird agrees. She heard from Peden in December that Henning was headed to rehab, but that didn’t soften her feelings. She and her husband took out a loan to complete the work he left undone.
“Suddenly we’re supposed to forgive everything,” Baird said. “What did he do with all that money?”