Mark and Jane Ullrich grabbed their four cats, some clothes and supplies, and fled their TomsRiver home, where water was already ankle-to-calf deep.
That was at the start of Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012.
“Our home had about four to five feet of salt water in it” when they returned to the home two days later, Ullrich said. “We lost just about everything.”
Money had been an issue for the Ullrich’s even before the storm. Ullrich had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier, and his wife had been out of work for two years.
Ullrich, 56, started wrangling with his insurance company and spent much of November gutting the home with the help of his brothers.
All the contractors he called were booked solid.
So on Dec. 7, while Ullrich was still cleaning out the house, he was happily surprised to see a salesperson for Jemar Contracting driving through the neighborhood.
They arranged for an estimate, and the salesman presented a $115,540 reconstruction proposal a few weeks later.
The insurance company had offered $99,000 to rebuild the home and $40,000 for contents, so Ullrich thought the price was right.
The couple signed the proposal on Dec. 17.
Ullrich requested a check from the bank, which was holding the insurance money, and they met Jemar’s owner, Jeff Maiorana, on Jan. 4.
“I made him aware of the funds that I had available, our bankruptcy, and (that) I was not going to put myself in debt to accomplish the project,” Ullrich said.
The couple gave a deposit of $11,544.
Later that month, Ullrich said, he gave Maiorana two more checks: one for $4,800 for the architect and design, and a second for $1,700 to rent a machine needed to access the foundation.
But before any work was done on the site, Ullrich said they realized there wouldn’t be enough money to meet the requirements to raise to home.
It would cost an additional $50,000, he said, but he’d only receive $30,000 from a FEMA grant.
“We decided to stop the project as I did not want to start something that could possibly cost more than we could afford,” he said. “I was not going to put myself even deeper into debt to fix the home.”
Ullrich said he told his mortgage company that he wanted to sell, and he asked the bank to hold the insurance money, which they would eventually put toward paying off the mortgage.
Ullrich said he then emailed Maiorana to cancel the contract.
“Now, no actual work was done to the home. Nothing. Not a nail hammered,” Ullrich said. “Maiorana advised me he spent $11,544 on planning and a bonus to (the salesman) for getting the contract. He flat out refused to return any of this deposit.”
Maiorana did return $4,300 of the $4,800 architect and design fee.
“I understand he should have kept some money for his time, but not $11,544,” Ullrich said.
Ullrich said he kept trying to call Maiorana, but calls were not returned.
ASKING FOR HELP
Ullrich, who nearly two years after the storm is still living at a friend’s home in Forked River, filed complaints with the Division of Consumer Affairs and the Better Business Bureau.
Jamar’s Maiorana answered the complaints in detail, saying the deposit covered services he provided.
Ullrich wasn’t satisfied, but he said he couldn’t afford an attorney.
In January, Ullrich’s luck changed. He was accepted into the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation program, which would enable him to rebuild.
A RREM inspector said the home had to be demolished, but before they could proceed, there was a problem.
Back when the storm hit, Ullrich said he contacted all his utilities to stop service. That included United Water, which he said he cancelled online.
“My request to United Water fell through the cracks,” he said.
Ullrich had been paying a monthly bill of $8.50, which he thought was a service charge to keep the account open, but shortly after he was accepted into RREM, he received a water bill for $349.50.
It turned out a pipe had burst, and United had never shut the water.
Money was still tight, and Ullrich said no one at United Water would consider his hardship. He made two payments — $57 and $50 — and continued to try to get someone at the company to help. He felt that the bill was not his responsibility because the company didn’t honor his request to shut off the water.
“All I asked for is a little help or compassion, and all I got was a big ‘drop dead,’ ” he said, and United sent the bill to collections.
But the water bill is the key to Ullrich moving forward with demolition of his home. Work can’t start until he gets a letter of disconnect, but he said United won’t give one unless the bill is paid.
So it was all at a standstill, and Ullrich reached out to Bamboozled.
ASKING FOR CONSIDERATION
We first reached out to United Water, and it promised to review the case. We next examined the written documents from Jemar, and we took a closer look at the company.
Jemar, based in Huntingdon Valley, Penn., has only Ullrich’s complaint listed with the BBB, and the firm has an A+ rating.
The company’s web site says it’s a roofing contractor. The home page doesn’t say anything about general contracting. We also noticed there were no Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) registration numbers on the site, which is a violation of New Jersey and Pennsylvania state law, the states said.
Jemar no longer has a valid HIC registration in New Jersey, but it did at the time of the Ullrich proposals, the state said. The only complaint on file is Ullrich’s. Pennsylvania says the company does have a valid HIC there, and the state has a policy of not revealing how many complaints it may have against a company.
According to both states’ laws, the registration numbers are supposed to be on all contracts, invoices, estimates, proposals and other paperwork given to customers. And in New Jersey, all correspondence must also have information about how to contact Consumer Affairs.
None of those items appear on any of the paperwork Ullrich received.
We asked Jemar’s Jeff Maiorana about those items, and about the Ullrich case.
He said the missing registration number from the web site was an oversight, and within an hour of our conversation, the number was added to the home page.
As for the missing numbers from the paperwork, he said they should have been on cover sheets given with each invoice or proposal.
Ullrich said he never received any cover pages.
Maiorana said his firm did four or five reconstruction jobs in New Jersey after Sandy, but it was “a wash” because of how insurance companies paid for repairs.
He also said the company is primarily a commercial roofer, and he’s still doing that type of work in the state.
“Over the years I’ve done plenty of other jobs and I went after some storm damage from Sandy, but it didn’t pan out for me,” he said.
On the Ullrich case, Maiorana repeated much of what was written in his answers to the BBB and Consumer Affairs.
“Twenty-five percent went to the salesperson’s commission. The other dollars were for myself and estimators and others working on the job behind-the-scenes,” he said, noting he also did a lot of driving to meet subcontractors.
We asked if he’d reconsider refunding any of the funds.
“I refunded the $4,300 in good faith. They were lucky to get that,” Maiorana said.
Then we got some good news from United Water.
It said it would give Ullrich the disconnect letter he needs to demolish the home — something it previously said it wouldn’t give until the balance from the pipe break was paid.
The company initially said it had no record of Ullrich shutting off service, and said if he had an email as written proof of his request, the company would forgive the balance. If not, it promised to work with him on a payment plan.
We went back to Ullrich, who gave a detailed description of how he made the request via a form on the company web site. United checked and rechecked into its files and found the request, which was not initially associated with his account.
United decided it made an error. It said it will eliminate the balance, refund all the money Ullrich paid — including the monthly $8.50 charges, which United said wouldn’t have been due if it had shut off the service — totaling $324.76. It also called off the collection company, and said the account was never reported to the credit bureaus as delinquent.
Kudos to United for its willingness to dig deep to help this customer.
While the $11,000 loss is a big one to Ullrich, he’s glad he can finally move ahead with demolition and reconstruction of his home.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “That’s all I was asking for, for them to do the research and look at it.”
Have you been bamboozled? Contact Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com