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Bill inspired by HD Custom Homes nightmare would crack down on contractor fraud

It's every homebuyer's nightmare: taking the leap to build a new custom home, only to end up abandoned by your contractor, your money vanished and home left incomplete.

Yet it's what happened to dozens of customers of HD Custom Homes. The builder, based out of Port Charlotte, suddenly went out of business late last year. Left in its wake are unfinished homes, abandoned mid-construction, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost customer funds, numerous unpaid contractors and nearly a million dollars' worth of unsatisfied liens.

In response, a state legislator from Port Charlotte introduced a bill this month to crack down on contractor fraud. The bill - titled "Reduction of Construction Contracting Fraud," HB 877 - would make it easier for contractors to face criminal charges.

Under current law, it's challenging to prosecute contractors when they go out of business and leave customers high and dry. Current law requires charges to be brought under the general theft statute. This, in turn, requires prosecutors to prove that the contractor had an intent to steal at the time they solicited or received the funds - something that rarely happens in these cases.

The bill would remove this hurdle and instead make it a felony offense for contractors to fail to perform the work, absent proper justification and redress to the customer. The level of felony offense (and resulting penalties) would depend on the amount of money the contractor took that exceeds the value of the work already performed.

If passed, the bill would go into effect as early as this summer - which would still be too late for victims of HD Custom Homes. However, it would provide a stronger deterrent for contractors going forward.

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