Over the next few months, many metro Atlanta homeowners are expected to spend their upcoming income tax checks on home renovations. HomeAdvisor.com is banking they use its website to find contractors to do the work.
The website says consumers can trust its contractors because they put them through “one of the industry's most comprehensive screening processes.” Contractors pay HomeAdvisor to list their services on the website.
An 11Alive investigation uncovered HomeAdvisor's background checks, however, cannot always be trusted to go far enough.
This past spring, Suwanee homeowner Shanna Connell logged onto HomeAdvisor in search of a contractor to redesign her fireplace and lay concrete for a future outdoor patio. She says she saw R & M Design, owned and operated by Ricky McGaha, listed on the website. She paid him $17,000.
Connell says McGaha told her it would take 30 to 45 days to complete the work. It took him more than five months.
When he was finished, Connell says it was shoddy. The concrete slab is cracking and peeling. The fireplace has gaps between the stone and the cabinets surrounding it are difficult to open.
“Everything that was being done was a disaster, the floors would get scratched or paint would get splattered on everything,” Connell said .
According to court records, McGaha has been sued more than a half dozen times since 2005 – ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars back to customers for not completing work or paying rent. A few months ago, the BBB gave his company a “F” after it “detected a pattern of complaints.”
Last year, a Cherokee County Grand Jury indicted him for four counts of identity fraud. (Read the indictment)
In a brief interview with McGaha in December, he denied the indictment and said the issue was a dispute with an ex-girlfriend. According to an email from Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace, McGaha's case “will be on the trial calendar for Jan. 29th.”
McGaha confirmed he does not have a Georgia residential contractor's license, but can still do work without one. “It's very simple. You have a permit expediter that pulls the permits for you,” McGaha said. The contractor said he could not respond to Connell's concerns because his attorney advised him not to.
HomeAdvisor declined to be interviewed. By email, company spokesperson Tracy Williams wrote 11Alive to say McGaha “passed our screening criteria.”
►►Read: HomeAdvisor's response
The company initially said the contractor didn't need a license because McGaha claimed he installed fencing, which doesn't require a license in Georgia. After it received a consumer complaint, HomeAdvisor removed McGaha's company from its website this past October.
“It's important to note that [McGaha] and this homeowner were never matched by our site. We can't regulate how a pro promotes their business outside of our site,” Williams said.
A short time later, the 11Alive Investigators found McGaha back on the website under a different company name – Magnolia Design Group. HomeAdvisor declined to tell us why or how it happened.
Home Advisor didn't know about the contractor's past, because it wasn't really looking for it. According to its website, unless it receives a complaint, it only screens contractors they day they sign up. Its criminal background checks go back three years. Civil lawsuit checks go back 12 months.
►MORE | HomeAdvisor's screening process
The 11Alive Investigators uncovered consumers have complained about HomeAdvisor's screening process for years. In 2014, Lori Carr and Jan Barnett hired the same home builder from HomeAdvisor. Both Texas homeowners claim the contractor took their money, but didn't finish the job.
“He just took advantage of me, bullied me because I'm old,” Barnett said.
The 11Alive Investigators uncovered the contractor was sued 17 times since 2002, the majority for not completing work. The website also didn't catch that the contractor was cited in 2006 for reckless damage after starting a massive wildfire.
“If I had seen that before I hired him, there's no way in hell I would have hired him,” Carr said.
When the 11Alive Investigators asked HomeAdvisor if it plans to make any changes to its screening, its spokesperson wrote:– “We are constantly seeking ways to improve our screening process.”
How to do background checks yourself:
- Check on a contractor's GA license: http://sos.ga.gov/index.php/licensing/plb/46/professional_contractor_associations
- Paid Background Checks: https://www.top10bestbackgroundcheck.com/
- How to do a free background check: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/komando/2013/04/19/online-background-check/2084917/
- Search BBB: https://www.bbb.org/en/us
- Search the contractor's name on local county court records. Not all online records are available, so you may have to visit the courthouse to use its computers to review cases.
- Ask for three referrals of jobs performed within the past three months.
- Ask where the contractor plans to get his building materials. Then check with those building supply companies to see if the contractor has not paid his or her invoices.