HARTFORD – Debra Milazzo-Shannon and her husband, Rick Shannon, started building a log home here in September.

Eight months, three contractors and $172,000 later, it has no outlets, no permanent windows and no roof. Every time it stormed this winter, they snowblowed the second story, clearing off a honey-colored tongue-and-groove floor that’s partly covered by blue tarp. They shot the snow over the side; one wall is also missing.

The last builders quit after seven days on the job, she says, driving through the locked gate early one morning to grab equipment. (They had a key: “They had evidently forgot it,” she quipped.)

The men left in such a hurry their flannel shirts are still thrown over piles of wood.

“I wish I knew voodoo because I’d burn (the shirts) in some ceremony,” Milazzo-Shannon said.

She’s bitter, and convinced that if Maine licensed builders and contractors, she wouldn’t be shoveling out her living room this winter.

“Anybody with a hammer and a truck is saying they’re a builder. It has to stop. I’m not going to let it happen to another person. It broke our hearts,” she said.

After an icy initial reception, the push to license Maine builders is back on.

In 2003 the Attorney General’s Office offered up legislation to license contractors and builders; that never gained support at the State House. This session, not one but four legislators asked for a repeat. Their bills have been rolled into one, LD 1306.

It’s scheduled for a public hearing Thursday at 1 p.m. Milazzo-Shannon can’t wait to testify.

“If there’s any justice, I’ve got to make it happen,” she said.

From October to December to whenever

Contractors and builders are not licensed and there’s currently little recourse for Maine homeowners like Milazzo-Shannon. Chuck Dow, spokesman at the Attorney General’s Office, conservatively estimates they hear from 175 homeowners like her a year.

When there’s a groundswell of complaints against one particular builder, the AG’s Office will pursue a case.

“We have dismal experience in the suits we have brought on behalf of consumers,” Dow said. The office often wins but there’s no money to collect.

Milazzo-Shannon has consulted several lawyers about her own problems, but said she has little money left to sue anyone.

“I can’t afford to fix this home, have a buffer and afford an attorney,” she said. “At least (if) we can yank their license – they can’t do this to 15 people. They can maybe do it to two.”

The ordeal started when she and her husband bought 26 acres along Route 140 last May. They spent the summer clearing a lot atop a hill and had hoped, someday, their two sons, 20 and 16, would build on either side of them.

She says they put lots of research into finding the right home, eventually purchasing a kit from Katahdin Log Homes in Oakfield for $90,000. It included everything from the floor up, but no labor. They chose a contractor who was a Katahdin builder/dealer, though not a direct employee, after touring his own log home.

Planned: a 35-by-28-foot cape, with a salt box roof and an open loft on the second story for their teenage son.

Construction was slow to start, and when she parted ways with the initial contractor, Milazzo-Shannon was already upset about progress and workmanship.

By the time he left in October some logs had visible gaps between them and the laminated subfloor had been installed upside down. The stamp “This side down” can be seen facing up on flooring on the home’s first floor.

In hindsight, the biggest thing Milazzo-Shannon said she would have done differently is check references on that first contractor.

David Gordon, president of Katahdin Forest Products Inc., the log home maker’s parent company, said he visited the site once in October and didn’t agree with what Milazzo-Shannon considered problems.

Twisting logs happen during construction, “that’s not a defect,” he said. As for the flooring, “there are many situations it doesn’t make any difference which side is up.”

“I wish I had that kind of workmanship in my own home,” Gordon added.

A relationship with a second contractor proved fleeting. Debra and Rick got his name from another log home dealer and paid him out of her husband’s 401(k) when the bank balked at releasing more money until the home had a roof.

After two days of work, that building team walked off, claiming they hadn’t been paid by their boss for their last job with him on another project. (The couple eventually got their money back, Debra said.)

A third experience – in December they hired the second contractor’s men to work for them directly – also didn’t work.

Those last contractors installed the second-story pine tongue-and-groove floor as well as a dozen windows, but then abruptly quit after seven days. Her husband showed up at the home that particular morning just after 7 only to see the pair drive off. He waited. A crane showed up, as scheduled, to help raise the roof. Rick and the crane operator waited together.

The men never came back.

Milazzo-Shannon said her husband called her at work around 9:30.

“He said, ‘Deb, they booked it.'”

She broke down in tears. “Somebody else just looked me in the eyes and lied to me.”

Their move-in date slowly slipped from October, to November, to Christmas. Now she’s not sure when they’ll be in.

New license or voluntary compliance?

A fourth contractor has agreed to take on the job in June at an hourly rate. It took more than 15 on-site visits with other builders to line him up. She’s nervous they may not have enough money left to fix everything.

Milazzo-Shannon said the stress has taken a toll on both she and her husband’s health. They live in Minot now, in her grandparents’ home. She’s an office manager in Auburn and he’s in plumbing and heating in South Portland.

She has started a Web site to document her frustrations and encourage others to trade the names of reliable professionals.

“I don’t trust anybody anymore,” she said. “I feel like we’ve built on (cursed) ground.”

Claude Beaucage, a vice president at Androscoggin Bank, where the Shannons have a construction loan, said it’s hard not to have problems on any building project, and it doesn’t help that contractors have become so busy.

His bank used to write construction loans for a six-month period of work; last year, that changed to nine months because it was taking longer to finish projects.

“I always say, coming in to get a mortgage is a traumatic affair,” Beaucage said. “A construction (loan) is even more traumatic, so many things can go wrong.”

Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Hallowell, is hoping more people with first-hand experience come forward to testify for the licensing bill.

He’s a co-sponsor of the new legislation. The license would apply to anyone building livable space, garages or decks: framers, roofers, chimney masons and general handymen doing more than $3,000 in business for one homeowner in a year.

A new board would oversee the industry, paid for by licensing fees capped at $350 a year. The board would also be charged with adopting a Maine residential building code by July 2006. Licensing regulations wouldn’t take effect until a certain number of municipalities also adopted that same code.

Cowger had his own bad building experience while remodeling his bed and breakfast in 2000. His contractor left without paying the people under him. When Cowger pursued him in court, the man declared bankruptcy.

“He had spent all the money I’d given him on things other than my project,” he said. “Many have said it’s buyer beware, check references, but I did that. It isn’t fail-safe.”

Groups like the Associated Constructors of Maine are already lining up to oppose the licensing bill at its State House public hearing.

“Licensing won’t necessarily address consumer concerns,” said Executive Director John Butts. “Because you have lifted the license of someone that done you wrong, you may feel good, but you may still have problems with your house.”

Kathleen Newman, president of Associated Builders & Contractors Inc., a trade group for commercial builders, also questioned whether a layer of bureaucracy would solve homeowners’ issues.

The Homebuilders Association of Maine’s board of directors has endorsed the concept of builder licensing but, “we’re not sure of every line in the bill,” Executive Officer Sandy Mathieu said.

If it fails again, there is another avenue: The AG’s Office is talking with the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation and the Community College System about voluntary certification.

Licensees would need to pass a test on building codes.

“It’s early in the discussion phases. We think it’s something anyone can agree on,” Dow said. “In our experience, really good contractors want to be licensed. They see the problems from shoddy workmanship.”

Milazzo-Shannon has filed a complaint with the AG’s Office seeking mediation with Katahdin and the first contractor. Neither party has to agree to sit down with her.

She isn’t sure what will come from the process.

“I’m not optimistic at all,” she said. In the end, “hopefully (the house is) going to get built. Hopefully we’re going to have enough money to get the roof on.”

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