Saturday, February 02, 2008

Subcontractors file dozens of construction liens against Omaha area luxury homebuilder. Subcontractors such as electricians and plumbers have filed about 100 construction liens this month in Sarpy and Douglas Counties against Gateway Homes, a builder of mostly $250,000 to $400,000 custom homes in the Omaha metropolitan area.The number of liens — which is unusually high against a single builder in a short period — reflects not only one builder's struggles in a slow housing market but also the trickle-down impact on subcontractors.Gateway Homes has closed its doors, stopped construction and retained Bob Ginn, an attorney specializing in bankruptcy. Gateway owner Kevin Hebner referred questions to Ginn. Asked if the company was filing for bankruptcy, Ginn said, "At this juncture, all options are still on the table." Ginn said that because he was retained only Friday, he was still familiarizing himself with the case and could not comment further. Douglas County Register of Deeds Diane Battiato said the liens against Gateway started with three in December and then ballooned to 49, with claims of unpaid debts totaling $305,616 through Monday. Sarpy County Register of Deeds Lloyd Dowding said about 50 construction liens had been filed against Gateway through Monday. Construction liens are commonly used by subcontractors or suppliers to protect themselves, Dowding said. But to have that many filed against one company in a month's time is unusual, he said. "The last time we had a great influx of construction liens was with Benchmark Homes," Battiato said. Benchmark, once the Omaha area's third-largest home builder, collapsed in March 2006 after the founder's suicide prompted subcontractors and suppliers to file more than 2,000 liens. After Benchmark filed for bankruptcy, a judge authorized the sale of more than 100 completed and mostly completed homes. Gateway Homes, which is smaller than Benchmark, was issued 23 single-family building permits in 2007 and 32 in 2006, according to the Metro Omaha Builders Association. Lee Sharpe, Gateway's field operations manager, said Hebner's Jan. 22 announcement to employees that the company was closing came as a shock because of Hebner's repeated reassurances during the housing downturn that the company was fine. Sharpe said that even though he was surprised by the closing, the signs of the company's financial struggles started about a year ago, when some subcontractors were refusing to work for Gateway because of unpaid bills. Hebner at first appeared to take care of the problems, Sharpe said. But one contractor recently appeared at the office demanding to be paid. When he wasn't, he left and immediately filed liens, calling another subcontractor, Sharpe said. "It just snowballed," Hebner said. Matt Thomas, owner of the Tile Man, a Council Bluffs company, said it appeared that a meeting Hebner called with some subcontractors in late December might have sparked some of the liens. Hebner told subcontractors that he was trying to get them money, Thomas said. "If people would have just held out and let him do his thing, we all would have gotten paid," Thomas said. "But there were a few that just didn't understand it. . . . I figured with the market so bad, that I'm going to stick it out to the end, and he just might be able to make a comeback." Thomas, who has worked as a subcontractor for Gateway for eight years, continued working on a job for Hebner until hearing of Hebner's Jan. 22 meeting with employees. "Through the grapevine, I hear that he's locked his doors. That pretty much triggered that it's over, it's done. I said, 'Pack up your tools and go, it's over,'" Thomas said. "There's no reason to go forward with your work if you know you're not going to get paid." Thomas said he filed liens against Gateway Homes on Jan. 23 and 24. Thomas said his paychecks were delayed in the past, but he didn't file liens then because he needed the work. "He gives you work, so you give him the benefit of the doubt," Thomas said. "And then it got later and later." He said he was supposed to be paid every 30 days, but he received his last payment Nov. 24. "He's a good guy, he means well, but it all caught up with him," Thomas said of Hebner.

No comments: