Raleigh, N.C. — Apples, raspberries, grapes are all growing in Seth Kaplan's raised garden.
The yard is not quite finished, but it has improved over what used to be a cinder-block construction mess. Kaplan said that’s how Robert Sykes, owner of Triangle Outdoor Spaces, left the job.
“(The) last time I saw Rob Sykes was probably either last February or early March,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan hired Sykes last November to build the garden and redesign his driveway. He checked references and even looked at one of Sykes' previous jobs.
“The clients seemed quite satisfied with the workmanship, and it seems like he did a very good job. And we actually found him through a friend of ours as well,” Kaplan said.
Triangle Outdoor Spaces had an impressive website, with plenty of photos of fabulous outdoor projects. So, Kaplan paid a deposit of more than $9,200 – half of the total job.
Kaplan said Sykes started work in January but stopped weeks later.
“He kept coming up with excuses – be it issues with himself and requiring knee surgery, be it a friend who was in the hospital,” Kaplan said. “His father, I believe, wound up in the hospital as well.”
Then, Kaplan found a story WRAL News aired about Sykes in 2006 about a $6,800 landscape wall he built that fell over twice. At that time, Sykes’ company was called Choice Landcare. After 5 on Your Side got involved, Sykes rebuilt the wall a third time.
When approached about Kaplan’s issue, Sykes blamed problems on the weather and a contractor he says owes him money. Sykes said he has a few jobs in limbo, including Kaplan's, and that he "messed up.”
"I need to make that right,” Sykes said.
But based on court records, making it right could be difficult.
Sykes filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy for himself and Choice Landcare nearly two years ago. The list of creditors and judgments is long. Between his two companies, Sykes owes his customers nearly $80,000, according to 5 on Your Side's calculations.
Triangle Outdoor Spaces has an ‘F’ rating with the Better Business Bureau.
As for the impressive website Kaplan saw, it has been taken offline. The website was very nearly identical to a company in Dallas, Texas. That company said their copyrighted design and photos were pirated. The company Sykes paid to design the website blamed a subcontractor.
As for the photos on the website that a customer might believe were examples of his work, Sykes said they were simply to show what a project "could look like.”
Kaplan has since hired another contractor to finish his driveway and garden. Now, he just wants people to know about his experience.
“We'd love to get our money back, but if we don't get our money back, the main issue is keeping this from happening to other individuals,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan took Sykes to small claims court, but he didn't show up.
The best way consumers can protect themselves from this sort of situation is to not pay too much money up front. Half of the final total is too much, experts say.
It is better to pay no more than 10 percent down and then, as more work is done, pay more.