MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Checking a contractor's history online is almost effortless. Licenses, disciplinary histories, complaint records -- they're instantly accessible online or easily obtained from state contractors boards or consumer protection agencies. In most cases, the records are free. If you don't read another word of this story, let this paragraph just sit with you.
Because the damage Jamaal Hinton has left behind has cost some homeowners a small fortune -- money they could have saved if they spent just ten minutes on the internet.
Those ten minutes would have revealed Hinton of West Memphis, Arkansas, carries a history replete with criminal mugshots, civil judgments -- everything but a genuine general contractor's license to account for a pattern of home improvement work he has botched. We jumped on his trail after Mark Miller contacted us about the work Hinton abandoned one year ago at Miller's home in the Roseleigh neighborhood of East Memphis.
"Nothing's done right," Miller said. "Nothing's completed."
We toured Miller's home and what Hinton had left behind: gaping holes in the dry wall, wires and partial fixtures hanging from chasms in the ceiling, broken windows. The kitchen cabinets and damaged appliances made a mini-mountain in the middle of the kitchen. What's supposed to be a $44,000 home renovation is instead a wreck that left Miller and his family paying both a mortgage and rent plus storage fees for their belongings. Miller said Hinton has left their home in unlivable conditions.
"He's basically depleted my whole life savings," said Miller. "I let my guard down on this guy and hired him because I knew his brother. I didn't do my homework like I normally would."
If Miller had done his homework, he would have discovered Jamaal Hinton has never held a contractor's license or home improvement license in Tennessee. He does carry a criminal history that includes an indictment for theft of property in Tennessee and an arrest for passing bad checks in Arkansas. Prosecutors eventually dropped both cases. "Everything was dismissed," Hinton insisted when we confronted him outside his mother's home in West Memphis.
Shelby County Circuit Court and General Sessions Civil Court records revealed Hinton's faced a half-dozen lawsuits, mostly for the breach of customers' contracts or for his failure to pay his subcontractors. One subcontractor sued him and won a $8,500 judgment when Hinton failed to pay him. His company, Hinton Homes LLC, dissolved its charter in 2014, according to court records -- two years before Miller hired him. Also at the time Miller hired Hinton, Hinton Homes LLC carried a F-rating with the Better Business Bureau for unanswered complaints about Hinton's quality of work and service.
"This company had a poor rating with us when (Miller) entered into the transaction," said Mid-South Better Business Bureau President & CEO Randy Hutchinson. "It is disheartening to us to get a complaint from the consumer who had a horrible experience with a company that already had a bad record with us."
Deeper research into public court records showed in 2015 Hinton abandoned another five-figure home renovation in Clinton, Arkansas. According to the records, David and Sue Jeffries hired Hinton as the general contractor on a nearly $27,000 renovation of what was supposed to be their retirement home in the foothills of the Ozark National Forest. The couple didn't know that at the time they hired him, Hinton's Arkansas general contractor credentials had expired due to non-payment. The only credential he carried is an Arkansas privilege license, essentially a subcontractor's license, that allowed him to only work on floors for projects less than $20,000, according to Cindy Greenwood, senior deputy city clerk for the West Memphis City Clerk's Office.
Pictures from the couple's court case file graphically illustrated how Hinton and his subs abandoned the renovation in shambles, rendering the Jeffries' house "uninhabitable," according to the couple's lawsuit. The suit also revealed some of the couple's belongings were stolen during the renovation, including "...tools, ladders, TV and a DVD player."
"He never responded when we'd try to get him to come back and finish the job or ask him about the missing items," said David Jeffries. Jeffries had no choice but to hire another contractor to transform the damage Hinton left behind into something he and his wife could make a home. He said it delayed his retirement and dipped into most of his retirement savings. "I wasn't able to retire because of what was going on here because we did not have somewhere to move to," he said. "When all was said and done, we basically paid for the house twice." Jeffries sued Hinton and won a $61,000 judgment for negligent and defective construction.
"I'm guilty of that," Hinton said about the Jeffries job when we confronted him. "I got caught up in my criminal court dealings, and they were so far away, I just couldn't finish the job."
A job for which he wasn't licensed or qualified to do, we reminded him. "I never said I was. I just do sub work." After pointing out that he signed the Jeffries contract as the job's general contractor, he replied, "Because I said I could help them. I'm very guilty. I wasn't qualified to do the job."
As for Mark Miller's project, Hinton said there are discrepancies between what Miller claims he's paid Hinton and what Hinton claims he has received in order to continue the work. Hinton claims Miller still owes him $14,000, although he could not produce documents to prove it. When we reminded him that he never had the proper credentials to do that job either, he admitted again that he is "guilty." He said he would arrange to have licensed Tennessee subcontractors finish Miller's home at no additional cost. He has yet to fulfill that promise or to pay David Jeffries a single cent of his court judgment.
Miller's wrestling with the fact that he would never have hired Hinton if he'd simply spent ten minutes online, pulling Hinton's contractor license history (none, except the Arkansas privilege license) and Better Business Bureau record (F-rating). "You're absolutely right," Miller acknowledged. "I wish life had a rewind button where you could go back and say, 'I wish I woulda, coulda, shoulda.'"
For Chief Consumer Investigator Andy Wise's one-stop checklist for shopping a contractor, please click here.