WELLFLEET — John and Ella Grannis retired from their small bookselling business in Montclair, N.J. in 2019 and moved to the Outer Cape to renovate a family summer cottage. Now, at 73, John works 65 hours a week for Cape Cab, and the couple live in a winter rental in Eastham.
From a distance, the Grannises’ house at 3075 Baker Ave. looks like a newly finished Cape with fresh cedar shingles. But the interior is nowhere near complete; its frame shows signs of the builder’s errors. Wall studs have warped throughout the structure. Doors hang crooked in their frames, and many windows show signs of moisture penetration.
At least one load-bearing post is missing, Wellfleet Building Commissioner James Badera said in January when he inspected the house. Badera refused to comment for this article, but Ella Grannis recorded a video of his inspection.
“There are so many deficiencies, I would need an engineer to provide a document showing what needs to be done to bring this up to code and have it be structurally acceptable,” Badera said during the inspection.
The Grannises claim their builder, Dan Morse of Raynham, swindled them out of $230,000, leaving them with the unfinished and structurally unsound shell of a house. They say they have moved five times in the past 18 months and are preparing to do so again when their current lease expires in May.
“We’re seeing our retirement dream dissolve before our eyes,” John said.
According to the state’s consumer affairs office, Morse has an active contractor’s license and there are no complaints against him on record.
Morse did not respond to the Independent’s request for comment.
A Major Renovation
John Grannis and his siblings inherited the Wellfleet cottage from their parents, who had owned it since 1960. John and Ella bought out the siblings’ shares, then sold their house in New Jersey to fund the rebuilding project. According to plans filed with the town building department, the Grannises intended to replace the 900-square-foot seasonal cottage with a 1,700-square-foot year-round house.
The Grannises say their architect, Keith Betty of Barnstable, recommended Morse’s company, Elite Property Services of New England, among several others. But Betty denied recommending the company, and he hung up on a reporter when asked how he knew Dan Morse.
According to the contract, which was signed on May 22, 2020, the entire renovation project was to be finished in five months. But by October, when no crew had arrived to carry out demolition work, Ella became suspicious. “I got a feeling that these people had taken our money and just vanished,” she said.
The couple began to do some research on how to proceed. “But then they showed up and started working,” John said, and their fears were allayed.
When Morse’s crew demolished the house in October 2020, the town clerk informed the owners that Morse had not obtained a permit. A stop-work order was issued.
According to the state’s Home Improvement Contractor Law, a contractor may not collect more than one-third of the total project cost in advance. The Grannises say they paid Morse $90,000 of the $268,175 contract (33.6 percent) in July, before the work started.
The Grannises paid Morse another $85,000 in February 2021 after he began framing the new house. In total, they gave Morse $232,000.
“Unfortunately, it happens a lot,” said Nelson Miller, president of the Mass. Building Commissioners & Inspectors Association, of the situation the Grannises are facing.
“Most of the time, it never makes the news because the amounts are not that high,” said Miller. “The victims can be older, but there are a lot of younger people who get scammed, too, because they don’t understand what to expect from their builder.”
Miller said payments should never be made based on a percentage of the job to be completed but should rather be based on the completion of small, specific tasks, such as payment for demolition, for framing materials, then windows, and so on. When the materials arrive and the work is completed, the home owner can feel confident in making the next small payment.
A Dream Deferred
As spring turned to summer, John said, “the project suffered a sort of slow-motion abandonment.”
Donald Harris of New England Facilities Management Group Inc. in Raynham, whose construction supervisor license Morse used to obtain a building permit, offered last summer to bring a camping trailer to the site for the Grannises to live in. The trailer is still on the property. But neither Morse nor his crew have been there since the fall, the owners said.
The Grannises plan to file a lawsuit and they have hired a new builder. “My hope is to stay here,” said Ella. “My husband worked a lifetime to be able to retire here and to die here.”
In addition to project-related costs, the couple say they are currently spending $3,000 in monthly rent and storage fees.
“I rue the day we agreed to have that beautiful little cottage demolished,” John said. “If I could go back in time, I would just leave it that way.”
The state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation website offers advice on how to avoid contractor scams. Consumers should read it carefully, because laws addressing contractor fraud do not offer much protection.
A builder who accepted money but completed no work could be charged criminally, said Wellfleet Police Chief Mike Hurley. But, Hurley added, “If service has begun, if a nail has been driven, if a piece of wood has been purchased, the issue leaves the criminal domain and enters the civil.” He recommended that anyone in that situation hire an attorney.
Even if a home owner wins a civil case against a contractor, however, there is no guarantee the builder will pay. In that case, the state offers grants of up to $10,000 from the Home Improvement Contractor Guaranty Fund.