By now, most New Jersey homeowners have their backyard pools open and ready for summer.
But not Sharon Fell.
She said because of a contractor’s broken promise to refund money for an order he couldn’t fulfill, Fell has been unable to open her pool — a pool that her 75-year-old uncle absolutely loves.
Fell, a single mom, is the sole caretaker of her uncle, who is disabled and lives with her in her Bound Brook home.
“He asks me every day, ‘Is the pool ready?'” Fell said of her uncle. “He can’t wait. It’s the first thing he wants to do on the weekend. He’s like a little kid, and the physical part is so good for him.”
Back in September 2014, Fell started planning for the 2015 pool season.
She’s had an ongoing problem with her pool cover, which has never fit properly, and always leaves her with a filthy pool after the winter season.
So at the end of last summer, Fell’s friend recommended Steve’s Pools, a company that had opened and closed the friend’s pool in the past. The owner, Stephen Porada, uses the line “Pool Service you can count on” for his business card.
Before we go on, we want to make a very important distinction. The company with which Fell has a beef has a name that’s similar to two other Jersey businesses: Steve’s Pool & Spa Service in Hazlet, and Steve’s Pool Service in National Park. These two businesses are owned by different people and have no relation at all to Porada’s company, Steve’s Pools.
Fell texted with Porada before his visit.
“I want to make sure we get you exactly what you want,” Porada said in a text message before the meeting.
Porada came to the home and measured the cover, giving Fell an estimate of $2,000.
The two signed a contract dated Oct. 2, 2014 . It was a one-page long and handwritten on loose leaf paper, calling for a $1,000 down payment and $1,000 upon completion of the job.
But Fell said the job was never completed, and the pool cover never saw her property.
A complete picture of what happened was captured in a series of text messages Fell shared with Bamboozled.
On Oct. 15, Porada texted Fell to say the cover was “in production and should be done soon.”
Five days later, Porada said he’d check in with the company to see the status of the order.
It was ready on Oct. 29, Porada said by text, and he said he’d pick up the cover the next day.
There was no word until Nov. 15, when Porada texted to set up an install date.
But on Nov. 23, he texted to change the date because of a “prior commitment.”
That’s when Fell started to be concerned about the delays, and she shared her concern with Porada.
“I am an honest person I am not going anywhere with your money you will have your cover or you will have your thousand dollars I am not a thief I would never do that,” Porada said in a punctuation-lacking text message.
After that, more excuses began, Fell said. First it was traffic court. Then a death in the family. Then a new baby in the family. Then a hospital emergency.
And then Porada stopped answering Fell’s texts and phone messages, Fell said.
They finally spoke on Dec. 18, Fell said.
“He admitted by phone call he measured the cover too small and does not have my cover to install but will return my money,” Fell said. “Then, he’s like, ‘Do you know someone with a smaller pool?'”
Fell said she was willing to take her refund on a payment plan.
She received a $100 payment on Dec. 29.
She received another $100 on Jan. 23.
On Feb. 26, she received a payment for $50, along with a handwritten note from Porada.
“This is every dollar I have to my name,” the note said. “The winter is a very tough time for me without the income from pools. Please except [CQ] this offer& I promise I will not default. I will give you $200 per week for the next three weeks. If I fail even 1 time take me to court. I will not miss a payment b/c I don’t want my son born w/me in jail. This is the first time in 10 yrs of pool this has ever happened.”
The second page of the note read: “If this was summer time I would’ve paid you back 10x over by now. I truly am trying. After we are square I will even take care of your pool for free for a season. I ask you to please try and forgive me and let me give you 3 more payments.”
Fell, not an unreasonable woman, agreed.
The next payment, though, came on March 12, for $60.
It also came with another note.
“This is every dime I have left from last week after rent,” the note said.
The paragraphs that followed again made promises of future payments, but Fell said she never received another penny.
Porada did text in April, saying he had a pool job and should have more money for Fell, but no money was ever delivered.
After the April exchange, Fell, said, she tried to call and text several times, but there was no answer or Porada’s voice mail box was full. Fell’s adult son tried from his phone, but also, no answer.
Soon after, Fell reached out to Bamboozled.
LOOKING FOR LIFE PRESERVER
We reviewed text messages between Fell and Porada, the written notes Porada gave with his refund payments and the one-page contract signed by the parties.
That contract is one huge red flag and a violation of state law.
According to Consumer Affairs, any contract worth more than $500 must have specific, detailed information including the project’s price, the starting and ending dates, the scope of work, the contractor’s business name, address, and registration number, and more.
The contract Fell was given lacks much of that information.
We took a look further.
According to Consumer Affairs, there are no complaints against Steve’s Pools or Stephen Porada, and there are no lawsuits against the company. It’s not listed with the Better Business Bureau, either.
Nor does Steve’s Pools show up in any corporate filings or trade names with the state, public records show. That’s something companies must do if they want to do business in the state.
We reached out to Porada to ask about the status of Fell’s refund.
His voice mailbox was full, several times, so we emailed some questions to him at the email address on his business card, which is the same email that was hand printed on the contract.
We wanted to hear his side, and to ask, now that it’s summer and he presumably has more income from pool jobs, if he had a plan to refund the rest of Fell’s money.
Porada didn’t respond.
So now, Fell is still waiting, and she said she will file a complaint with Consumer Affairs.
She has a family member helping her get the pool ready, much to her uncle’s delight, and she’s gotten three more estimates for a new pool cover, hoping it will make next year’s pool opening a lot easier.
Still, Fell wants her money back.
“You have to do the right thing. If he said $50 a week or a month, I would hang in there,” she said. “It’s not like I didn’t give this guy a chance. Just do the right thing, buddy.”
We’ll let you know what happens.
Staff researcher Vinessa Erminio contributed to this report.