LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Custom barn doors have become a recent home improvement trend as they provide a bit of rustic charm in a desert home.
Karen Smith wanted barn doors to close off her master bath from the bedroom. "Right now, I have curtains and so it doesn't block the noise when I'm getting ready early in the morning while my husband is sleeping."
Chris Chico wanted to convert a dining room into a home office.
Yeleny Palavicini works from home out of her master bedroom retreat. She told 13 Investigates, "My husband works late shift, swing shift, so I needed that space to have closed doors, so when I have meetings and when I'm working, he will not be distracted with the noise."
Yeleny got a referral from a friend who had doors installed by Jason — or Jay — Brown.
Others found his company, Spartan's Custom Barn Doors, online.
"He was very active on Facebook with his advertising," said Karen Smith.
"I Google searched custom barn doors. Jay's website came up; he had very good reviews," added Chris Chico.
They all hired Brown, who required half the money for their doors upfront, before any work was done.
Their deposits ranged from $500 to over $1,000.
"I'm out close to $1,200," Chris said.
'Excuse after excuse'
Karen Smith explains that Brown, "was very responsive in the beginning with the design, and very responsive when he came to the house, and very responsive when he took the deposit, and then after that it kind of faded away."
Yeleny, Karen and Chris are among a group of more than 20 homeowners who paid Brown for doors they never got.
"He scammed us!" Karen exclaimed. "In the end, he scammed us."
Brown's invoices lay out a timeline of up to 12 weeks for installation.
Many homeowners have been waiting more than a year with nothing to show for their money but a series of excuses.
"We found that we were all getting the same text messages," said Chris. "He was just copying and pasting."
Karen added, "Originally, he blamed it on the supply chain. Then it was that he fell ill. He didn't know whether it was COVID or something else, but they were very ill, his whole family. And it was just excuse after excuse."
In one text message to a customer, Brown said he's not delivering doors because people are following him. And he's not answering texts or calls from upset customers because "That's what got my health so screwed up in the first place."
"Do you believe anything he says at this point?" Darcy Spears asked Chris Chico.
"I do not. He had a very good game when he came to the house," he said.
After several customers filed formal complaints with the Nevada State Contractors' Board, they learned Jason Brown is not licensed.
Unlicensed contracting work is illegal and can leave victims high and dry.
Using a photo lineup provided by the state, customers identified Brown. The board sent him an administrative citation last October, along with a $1,500 fine.
Brown deleted his Google account and the Spartan's Custom Barn Doors Facebook page, but never paid the fine, which the state has sent to collections.
So, if he's stiffing the state, "I got scammed. Really bad," said Yeleny.
The Contractors' Board sent three cases to the Clark County District Attorney, where they've been approved for criminal prosecution on charges of doing business without a license and misdemeanor theft.
Yeleny said she and her husband "both work very hard for our money. Extremely hard. And it's very sad that people would do that to other people, especially during these times."
Jay Brown declined our request for an on-camera interview. He sent the following statement:
"I want to take this time to publicly apologize to all people involved. I know it has been really frustrating for you to be held up like this when you just wanted to get our barn door or refund. As I have stated my communication with everyone involved, I am working diligently to ensure that I can get your refunds issued. Due to unforeseen COVID-19 illness, amongst other sensitive issues, my business was severely impacted and was no longer operational. At no time did I have any ill intentions towards anyone involved and i will be doing everything I possibly can to rectify the situation. I hope for understanding as I make amends and as I take further steps to remedy the situation to those who are involved. I had no intention on deceiving anyone, and I sympathize with everyone that is involved. I extend my sincere apologies for the negative experience that you had with my business and myself."
For his customers, those words ring hollow.
"Nobody believes him anymore," said Yeleny. "I want him to do what is right! He needs to return the money to the people that trusted him."
How to protect yourself
Getting their money back won't be easy, says Peter Aldous of Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
"These victims can file Small Claims lawsuits, where they can seek return of their deposit. The biggest challenge they're going to face is actually collecting on the judgments that they could receive," Aldous said.
That's because if you win a Small Claims case, you have to find assets and chase down the money yourself.
"So, you have to figure out that there's a bank account that actually has money in it that you can collect from, or a paycheck that this person receives from an employer. And in a lot of cases, that's not available for someone who's been not returning deposits or not doing the work," Aldous explained.
Aldous says the customers' biggest blunder was hiring an unlicensed contractor.
And remember, the three homeowners we spoke to for this report are part of a much bigger group — 21 victims and counting — none of whom checked to see if Brown was licensed.
"Why do you think so many of you didn't take that step?" Spears asked Chris.
"I think that one of the realities of the online world that we live in is an over-reliance on ratings and reviews," Chris said.
"If it is a licensed contractor, whether they're advertising on social media, business cards, Yellow Pages, they have to include their license number in the advertisement," said Aldous. "So, if you're seeking bids for a job, you'd want to see that license number. You also don't want to trust reviews. Somebody will hire their friends or recruit their friends to post fake reviews."
“Before you sign a contract or agree to any construction or home improvement work, make sure the contractor provides you with a contractor’s license number — and check to make sure it’s valid and active,” said NSCB executive officer Margi Grein.
“A contractor’s license and other key information can be quickly verified on the Nevada State Contractors Board’s mobile application or website," Grein said.
NSCB cautions that the alleged contractors may demand and take a deposit and not return to complete the promised services or project, or they may take a deposit and demand more money after starting the job.
"If unlicensed contractors do undertake the project, homeowners could be left with shoddy or incomplete work that could lead to dangerous, potentially fatal, situations," Grein said.
NSCB says Nevadans should know the warning signs of potential contracting scams, which include contractors coming in with extremely low bids; requiring a large deposit, in cash, paid directly to the contractor; not offering a contract or insurance; or using high-pressure sales tactics.
Be sure to check for a license and be aware of red flag indicators such as unmarked vehicles loaded down with construction materials and refusal to provide a contractor’s license number.
Nevadans can protect themselves by taking the following steps:
- Get at least three bids for a project
- Verify the contractor’s license on nscb.nv.gov
- Ask for at least three references
- Get a written contract
- Obtain a list of all subcontractors on the job, and verify their licenses
"I did get three estimates," said Karen Smith. "His estimate was obviously too good to be true. And I know better!"
While they wait for justice that may never come, Karen, Chris and Yeleny hope their cautionary tale saves others from making the same mistake.