The Florida Office of the Attorney General launched a formal investigation into Nationwide Pools in May after receiving dozens of complaints from customers who paid thousands of dollars for projects that were never finished.
Other complaints allege that the Pompano Beach company refused to refund deposits to customers after they were denied financing by its preferred lenders. In at least one case, Nationwide Pools itself allegedly offered a loan to a customer.
In a complaint filed with the Florida attorney general, a Tampa resident said Nationwide Pools notified him that he was approved for $14,000 loan, but the homeowner didn’t know where the loan was coming from. After sending “numerous emails questioning the contact information for the lender,” according to the complaint, the homeowner eventually learned that the loan was from Nationwide Pools owner Keith Stuart.
It came with several conditions.
“The $14,000 will need to be secured by my home and there is a $1,500 closing cost for him to loan me the money with a 15.99 percent interest rate,” the Tampa man wrote in the complaint. Plus, there was a $17,000 upfront cost before work could begin.
Those were not the terms he agreed to, the customer noted, saying he told a salesman he would only move forward if he was approved for a $30,000 unsecured loan. When he asked for his deposit back, the “response was a threatening letter to indicate I am in breach of contract,” the complaint read.
In a deposition last month with the state’s Consumer Protection Division, Stuart said it wasn’t uncommon for customers to sign a contract and pay a deposit, giving the company the go-ahead to begin work while they waited for a loan application to be approved.
If customers couldn’t secure a loan through a formal lender, Stuart said he issued refunds on a case-by-case basis, but there were occasions when “we found some avenue for financing.”
Asked if Nationwide Pools, or Stuart himself, ever provided financing, Stuart pleaded the Fifth.
He also did not answer questions about pre-approval letters he may have sent or credit card fees he may have charged.
The Attorney General’s Office could not comment on the matter because the investigation is ongoing. However, Nationwide Pools could be fined up to $10,000 per violation if found guilty of fraud.
Nationwide Pools closed its Tampa office in April, but appears to still be operating an office and showroom in Pompano Beach, a local confirmed. However, there is a civil lawsuit pending in Broward County Court to have the company evicted from that location.
Meanwhile customers are looking for other pool contractors to finish the work.
“We’ve had calls from five people now in the Tampa area,” said Ken McKenna Jr., president of Tampa Bay Pools. “We’re not finishing them. We just don’t have the time.”
The Florida Swimming Pool Association terminated Nationwide’s membership in May and fined the company $1,000 after it failed to attend a hearing regarding a possible ethics violation, said FSPA Executive Director Wendy Parker Barsell.
“It only takes one consumer complaint to move forward. We have three official complaints in writing,” she explained.
Nationwide Pools has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau, racking up 54 complaints, and has 49 complaints on the consumer watchdog website ripoffreport.com. One less-than-pleased customer launched mynationwidepools.com chronicling his dealings with the company.
Clayton Evers Jr. is one of 47 customers who filed a formal complaint with the attorney general. He hired Nationwide Pools to build a pool at his Hillsborough County home earlier this year. Evers said they left the job unfinished and stiffed the material supplier, leaving him to foot the bill.
“The SCP [Distributors], who is their only pool supplier … had not been paid at all for any of my pool materials. I had a lien placed on my house the last week of April,” Evers said.
Florida law allows subcontractors to collect from homeowners if the contractor doesn’t pay them for the work or supplies. This is typically done by placing a lien on the house.
PoolCorp has a civil lawsuit pending against Nationwide Pools.
In November 2012, pool construction was up 300 percent year-over-year because the state is recovering from an economic slump. Nationwide Pools, in business since 2005, took advantage by undercutting competitors while under-delivering to customers, local industry insiders alleged.
“It’s another typical failure where the guy led with price and did not focus on the quality of his business,” said Bill Kent, president of Horner Equipment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Despite consumer concern, Florida’s pool market continues its upward trend. The state issued 1,507 building permits in April. That’s up 20 percent from last year, according to Home Builders Weekly, a building permit data collection firm based in DeBary, Fla.
Keith Stuart could not be reached by press time