The Fixer-Upper From Hell

An Eastside couple may have some relief after nearly $400K in legal fees.

In the movie The Money Pit, Tom Hanks and Shelley Long play a couple conned into buying a home whose many hidden problems nearly bankrupt them. They have nothing on Mark and Carol DeCoursey.

In 2003, the DeCourseys moved from Burke, Virginia, to Redmond, where Mark works as a software engineer. As they were struggling to find a house they could afford, their realtor, Paul Stickney of Windermere, suggested that an available house in Education Hill could be renovated by contractor Home Improvement Help to meet the DeCourseys’ specifications and, they say, even increase the house’s value relative to their investment. The DeCourseys purchased the home in June 2004.

What the DeCourseys say Stickney failed to tell them was that he was an original incorporator and the vice president of HIH, that HIH was not registered and bonded—as required by law—at the time it began the work, and that he and HIH president Richard Birgh were joint venturers on a land deal and were behind in their payments on a loan they had taken out to develop the land.

HIH’s renovations were disastrous. The lowlight was a potentially fatal bathtub drain that ran an electrical current of up to 110 volts. HIH billed over its estimate and left the DeCourseys with a structurally damaged home that did not meet code and was uninhabitable.

Adding insult to injury, in April of 2006 the DeCourseys were sued by a subcontractor who hadn’t been paid. The DeCourseys say they turned to Windermere to help cover the damage and were told, in effect: Sue us.

Thus begun a mess of litigation that has cost them more than $380,000 in legal fees. “We’re so far under it’s pitiful,” says Carol. “We have had to cash in our IRAs and retirement funds.”

But the DeCourseys caught a break last Friday, when the King County jury hearing their case awarded them $522,200, finding that Stickney had breached his fiduciary duty, violated the Consumer Protection Act, and proximately caused the DeCourseys’ damages. Windermere, which is also on the hook for the judgment, declined to comment. “I think it’s fair to say we were pleased by the verdict,” says Mark, who adds that he expects Windermere to appeal.