This story will appear in this week’s issue of the Washington City Paper.
Florida Avenue Grilling
A D.C. homeowner and his contractor agree on one thing: They hate each other.
When Christopher Turman wanted to take a shower, he didn’t stroll over to his bathroom like most people in the civilized world. He’d wait until his neighbors went to bed. Then he’d sneak out back, turn on the garden hose, and start scrubbing.
Turman wasn’t homeless. He owned a place with three showers. They just didn’t work right, and Turman blames his contractor.
In spring 2007, Turman bought a small row house in the 1300 block of Florida Avenue NW for $460,000. He then signed a $135,000 contract with Sheldon Roseman of Life Long Construction. It called for heightening his basement ceiling, remodeling his kitchen, fortifying his roof, and doing a variety of other upgrades to “his perfectly livable” house.
The work started in early April and was supposed to be done in October, at which point Turman would move in, stop paying rent at his old place, find a tenant for downstairs, refinance—and all would be dandy.
Turman had found Roseman through a recommendation from his real-estate agent—intelligence that he supplemented with some due diligence of his own.
“I searched on Google and didn’t find very much information,” he says about Life Long Construction. “I was led to believe that it was a company that had been in business for 20 years. It had an office on Capitol Hill, and a secretary.”
Less than two years later, Turman was forced to sell the house to avoid losing it to foreclosure. His contractor had walked
off the job, and he had had to hire workers to rip out poorly installed plumbing, fix the roof, and re-do everything that had been left in shambles.
Turman, 38, who works in nonprofit advocacy but is currently without a full-time job, ended up moving into the house five months behind schedule. But there was hardly a reward for the long wait: The place had no hookups for kitchen appliances, skylights had been installed in the wrong locations, and a variety of other things had gone wrong, says Turman. Basic items—like window ledges and faucet handles—looked like they could be ripped out with hardly a tug.
The toilets were useless—they did not flush things, they ejected them. Turman learned that cement had been poured down a sewage pipe, which caused flooding on the first floor whenever something went down. That problem had to be fixed fast; Turman claims he kept part of the pipe as a reminder, like an injured soldier holding onto the bullet that pierced him.
Turman later heard that some of the subcontractors hired by Roseman were third-party inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), who completed their plumbing and electrical jobs, inspected their own work, and signed off on it. DCRA investigated this claim but has not acknowledged any wrongdoing; one inspector involved, a DCRA employee, stopped working with the department more than a year ago, according to the department.
Despite Turman’s ever-expanding list of grievances, Roseman always acted genially, doing favors like picking up his client at his old apartment so the two could visit the job site, and offering constant assurances. “He kept on saying over and over again like a mantra, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get this done,’” recalls Turman.
Turman stopped believing that soon enough. And, by mid-summer, Roseman had halted work for good, according to his client.
Roseman has a different spin on his times on Florida Avenue. He says he had no choice but to leave: “He kept adding and adding and adding work. So we had to say, ‘Chris, we can’t do any more work for that price!’” says Roseman. According to the contractor, there were always new side projects: more lights, a cathedral ceiling, TV hookups.
“He asked us—which he never really paid for—to put in locations for televisions in 10 different locations in the house,” says Roseman. “I mean, who does things like that? He wanted to be able to watch television, and he doesn’t even own a television!” (Turman insists he does.)
There was also the issue of Roseman’s wife, Claudia Louis. When the going got tough, Turman started calling her at her office at a lobbying firm, sending her e-mails, and pressuring her to lend her husband some money so his renovation job might be completed, according to Roseman.
Turman admits to making several calls to Louis’s office—but only because he’d been given her number and Roseman had said she was intimately involved with the company. On the question of additional renovation demands, Turman acknowledges that many things did indeed change along the way, but he signed an amended contract bumping up the cost to $178,000 to reflect his new expectations.
Turman eventually decided he couldn’t sort out problems alone with Roseman, so he called DCRA for help.
In a statement to Washington City Paper, DCRA director Linda Argo said her department had “easily spent more than 100 hours in mediation, walkthroughs of the property, inspections of the property, and legal time reviewing this case.” The result: Sheldon Roseman still has his license and Turman has been urged to get a lawyer, if he’s still dissatisfied.
“It is extremely rare for any regulatory body to revoke a home improvement business license based on questions of workmanship raised on a single job site,” Argo wrote. “However, repeated instances of poor workmanship can provide the basis for a license revocation.”
But have there been “repeated instances of poor workmanship”?
A search of D.C. Superior Court records shows that Roseman has had nine lawsuits filed against him since 2001. Some were in small claims court—demanding $5,000 or less in damages—but three were civil court cases (one was not directly related to a construction complaint).
Wilda Dear filed her claim in 2003 after Roseman allegedly failed to fix leaks on her roof that she says led to widespread mold, dripping, and a carpenter ant infestation. Unlike Turman, Dear never actually hired Roseman—she purchased her home in 1996 with a two-year-old roof and a 10-year warranty that Roseman was supposed to honor. Dear says she eventually won a cash settlement that made her “whole again,” and allowed her to fix all the problems.
Her take on Roseman: “He’s a guy who decided to do home repair, and he finds skilled workers. I’m not even sure he has the insight, the technical skills, himself. Personality-wise, he’s great. He means well. He wants happy customers. But he doesn’t have the ability to self-critique himself.”
To get his house in livable shape, Turman had to do pretty much what Dear did: hire other contractors, including Stuart Davenport of Davenport Design and Construction.
“We had to do a lot of work to get the place finished,” says Davenport. He remembers taking out bad drywall, rewiring “a lot of stuff,” and fixing an inexplicably placed hot water pipe that led to Turman’s toilet—when was the last time anyone wanted to wash their face in the toilet bowl?
“There were some really significant things that were screwed up. It seemed like it wasn’t really planned out very thoroughly,” says Davenport, who is an ANC Commissioner in Bloomingdale and owner of the Big Bear Café there.
All told, Turman says he paid out $170,000 to Roseman—the two agree on that sum, if nothing else—and between $80,000 and $100,000 to subsequent contractors. Once Davenport’s work was completed—it took him three months compared to Roseman’s year-plus on the site—Turman put his house on the market. It now has new brick stairs, decorative wrought iron banisters and bars, and overflowing purple flowers and shrubbery by the sidewalk. Turman sold it for $690,000 in late 2008.
Turman says he tried to purchase a condo in Columbia Heights after the sale but was turned down because of his credit score.
He lives in a small apartment north of Dupont Circle. Just last week, Turman received a letter from DCRA’s Argo, providing a hint that Roseman is perhaps not quite free and clear yet. She wrote: “DCRA officials are evaluating the evidence collected from your complaint, together with the evidence collected from other consumer complaints against Life Long Construction, to determine if there is good cause to suspend or revoke the company’s license.”
Image by Darrow Montgomery