ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – With more people home during the pandemic, home construction projects were up and good contractors were hard to come by. That left a lot of homeowners hiring questionable contractors. Now state investigators are tackling the mess unlicensed contractors are leaving behind.

David Dotson was knocking out some home improvement projects in his Socorro home, when fixing up a bathroom became the start of a cascade of problems. “I was gonna do some upgrades to this house in order to sell it,” Dotson told KRQE News 13.

He said his home’s hot water heater started leaking during the bathroom construction. “A friend of mine got me into contact with Greg Maese of Maese Plumbing and Heating, and Greg says, ‘What you need is a tankless hot water heater, it’s the new thing.'”

KRQE Investigates

Dotson said the contractor told him what to buy, and did the installation. “They never worked,” Dotson said. “That evolved into your gas line isn’t big enough, so I paid another $1,500 for them to upgrade the gas line.”

He said he followed the advice of his contractor and paid for a new meter. Dotson’s story may sound familiar to some homeowners; paying for a job that ends up causing even more problems in his home and costing more and more money to try and fix.

More money, more problems

“At that point, I was into this project for about $6,500,” said Dotson. “It still didn’t work.”

Eventually, he called a major plumbing company, only to find out the tankless water heater wasn’t installed properly and the job wasn’t up to code. The new contractors installed a new unit from scratch.

Dotson said the second job cost him about, “$8,000 plus tax. So it was about $8,700 or so total.” He said he was initially promised at least a partial refund from the original contractor, Elmo ‘Greg’ Maese, but it never happened.

“{He} Kept saying he was gonna come down, was gonna give me a partial refund which I would’ve been fine with, but he didn’t,” Dotson explained. “So I ended up suing him and then I found out that he wasn’t licensed to do gas appliance installs.”

Contracting without a license

Contracting without a license is against the law, but it happens a lot. So, what do New Mexicans do if an unlicensed contractor does shoddy work and disappears? That’s where Construction Industries come in.

“I believe there’s an uptick in construction without a doubt,” said Clay Bailey, Division Director for Construction Industries, the regulatory authority under the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department. The industry regulates state licenses for contractors across New Mexico.

“We oversee the rules and regulation – that is the code requirements, the safety aspect of all construction, which includes building, electrical, mechanical, gas,” Bailey explained. If something goes wrong, people can file complaints with the agency.

What can the state do to hold people accountable?

“The investigators do the investigations, and they follow it all the way through into the court system,” said Bailey. “Penalties can range anything from monetary fines to jail time on the criminal side.”

But just like other state agencies, Bailey’s department could use more staff. There are only six investigators for the whole state and hundreds of open cases.

As for Dotson’s contractor, Elmo ‘Greg’ Maese, investigators with Construction Industries are familiar with him. Court records show misdemeanor charges filed against Maese last July for working as a contractor and journeyman without a required license.

“I had him come in and service my air conditioner,” said Rina Sandoval. She said she hired Maese in 2018, and said his business used to be reputable.

“I think basically his grandfather worked really hard with the company and built his clientele with it, that’s how everybody trusts it you know, by the name,” Sandoval told KRQE News 13.

Sandoval said she paid thousands of dollars for a job that wasn’t done properly and ended up taking court action to try and recoup some of the cost. “He just blows you off completely,” Sandoval recalled. “I got tired of being blown off so I just went and did what I had to do.”

Customers are losing

It’s an all too familiar story for Bailey. When asked how much money are people losing, Bailey replied, “It depends on the individual. I mean, sometimes it may be $1,500, but many times it’s $10-$15-$20,000 or more. I mean, we’ve seen cases come in here for $60-$70,000, even more,” he added.

Aside from the money, Bailey said there are real dangers in bringing an unlicensed contractor into work on your home. “We lost an individual and both his children through carbon monoxide poisoning from a water heater – and a homeowner can do it wrong, too – that was installed improperly.”

Bailey said people like Maese may quote low, but if he’s taking money, doing third-rate work without a license, and refusing to respond to customer concerns, Bailey said he shouldn’t be in business. But, he’s not alone.

“He’s just one of the problems,” Bailey said of Maese. KRQE News 13 reached out to Maese to ask about the cases against him but never heard back by air time.

In one case, court records show Maese is required to actively obtain licenses in exchange for a dismissal of his charges. “If there’s no consequences, there’s never gonna be an end to it,” said Dotson.

In another case, a judge issued a bench warrant in October after Maese failed to appear in court. It’s another reason Bailey urges homeowners to do homework on who they’re hiring before handing over cash.

“I mean, some of these folks – ‘Well, I was worried that you know, he didn’t want to sign a contract,” said Bailey, “Well, then don’t do it. Protect yourself. You have to protect yourself.”

Bailey reminds homeowners to make sure a contractor is licensed and always insists on a signed contract before hiring them. Homeowners can verify a contractor’s license and file a complaint online with the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department.