MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Rebar and dirt. That’s all Soraya Hernandez said she had to show for the $19,875 she paid for a new pool in her backyard.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” she said.
Hernandez said she hired and paid Joseph Valdez and Sunshine Pools & Contracting Group, Inc. in early 2021. She said permits were not filed until the following April, and the hole was not dug, until September.
The concrete and tile work the Leave it to Layron team saw underway, more than a year later, was all done by a different contractor Hernandez hired to finish the job Valdez and Sunshine never returned to do.
“We had to come up with the twenty grand that he stole, plus the remaining [to finish].”
Hernandez is just one of dozens of customers who claim they hired Valdez and Sunshine, only to be left with piles of dirt, holes, or unfinished pools. A Facebook group started by alleged Valdez victims now has more than 220 members.
“He never had any intention of finishing our pools,” Hernandez said. “Even after he filed for bankruptcy, he was still taking money for, and promising to finish jobs that he wasn’t doing.”
Valdez filed for bankruptcy in March 2022.
When we stopped by Sunshine’s southwest Miami-Dade headquarters, everything was locked-up tight. No one answered the door, or our phone calls. We’re still waiting to hear back from Valdez’s bankruptcy attorney.
Hernandez said her biggest frustration is having nowhere to turn.
“We try to go to the city, we get sent to the state. We go to the police, and they say it’s a civil matter—that they can’t handle it,” she said.
She said the only common response she gets is, she should hire an attorney.
“But, if you don’t have money to go to an attorney, like us – we lost $20,000 in this project – you’re out of luck,” she said.
“We are doing our part, and we are providing the best services we can,” said Jorge Peña. Peña supervises Miami-Dade’s contractor licensing enforcement section, including six investigators who handle contractor complaints.
Local 10 News asked him if those six investigators was enough.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re busy, but we’re handling it.”
Peña said his department successfully negotiated more than $161,000 in restitution, in 2021. That’s money paid to property owners by contractors to settle disputes. He said the county has already negotiated more than $156,000 in restitution, so far, this year.
“Once we see that there is cause to bring criminal charges against that individual, we stack that case with the corresponding police department,” Peña said.
The county logged 340 contractor complaints, last year. Of those, Peña said 59 became criminal cases.
“The state attorney’s office has told us that if we have evidence that work was conducted, we don’t have a crime,” he said. “It’s a civil matter.”
Investigators’ hands can be tied if their license is not issued by the county, and rather the state through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. But, Peña said there are ways to hold contractors accountable. He said Valdez and Sunshine Pools had nearly two-dozen expired permits on record with the county, all for different jobs dating back to last year.
“What ended up happening here is that they did not correct the permits, so we suspended their license.” Meaning, under their current license, Sunshine cannot pull any more permits in Miami-Dade, potentially for the next decade.
Many times, Peña said, contractors get in over their heads and take on *too many jobs, they mismanage money and stop working. In other cases, he said, they’re just thieves.
“Some of them are predators. There’s no question about that,” he said.
TIPS ON HIRING A CONTRACTOR
- Officials advise always having a signed contracted with payment terms clearly spelled out
- Handwritten contracts, and contracts that don’t include contractor license numbers are always red flags
- Being told the job can be done without permits, and asking for substantial upfront payments, also red flags
- Never pay in cash
For more valuable information on hiring a contractor, click here.
“Unfortunately, what ends of up happening is they have, now, work that was abandoned, [and] they’re responsible for correcting those code violations.” Chaveli Moreno said that’s where she and Miami-Dade’s enforcement support and customer service staff come in—ideally, before the work begins.
Moreno said county workers can tell you if contractors have open, or expired permits, if they’ve had any complaints against them, what their current license and insurance status is, and also, the scope of work you’re doing—whether it requires permits, or not. “We want to be that first step to get them through the process, correctly,” she said.
The check if a contractor is licensed, and to talk to someone about filing a complaint in Miami-Dade County, call 786-315-2424.
Miami-Dade County officials tell the LITL team DBPR has indicated to them that the department is looking into criminal charges against Valdez and Sunshine Pools. We’re still waiting to for DBPR to confirm that information.
And starting July 2023, a new state law goes into effect: only the state will be in charge of issuing and renewing certain contractor licenses, meaning local licensing departments will no longer be able to license certain specialty trades.