JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Tennessee attorney general has sued former Tri Cities-based residential contractor Wood Construction & Remodeling on behalf of dozens of homeowners who the state claims paid Wood millions of dollars for work that wasn’t done or was done improperly.
“Sales agents provided homeowners with proposals and contracts that were unrealistic, vague and unlawful,” the suit, filed Aug. 21 in Davidson County Chancery Court, claims. “Some consumers paid deposits and received nothing. Others paid deposits and were left with shoddy or unsafe work when Wood Construction abandoned their home.”
The lawsuit is based on alleged violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). It seeks monetary relief for consumers and a permanent injunction “to prevent future violations of the TCPA by Defendants.” Leighton “Joe” Wood, who owned the company and now lives in the Charlotte, N.C. metro area, is also listed as a defendant.
“Wood Construction took millions of dollars from homeowners in Tennessee and North Carolina without delivering the services it promised,” the lawsuit states in its opening.
Wood, who according to the suit had very limited construction experience prior to opening his business in 2018, quickly expanded from the Tri-Cities to six cities, including Nashville and Knoxville. The Tennessee AG began investigating the company in October 2021.
As a result of what the suit claims were unlawful bidding and contracting practices, the company “underbid large projects such as additions to homes and entire home renovations” but “was unable to perform those projects for the amounts promised (or at all).”
The suit claims Wood Construction used a number of questionable or illegal methods to entice customers to select it over competitors, including deceptive reviews and unrealistic promises of when it would complete work. It claims the company also demanded deposit amounts that were higher than what was legally allowed, particularly when little to no work had been performed.
Two families’ experiences
News Channel 11 produced an investigative series in 2021 as a number of Wood customers were making complaints with local authorities about various components of the company’s practices. They included Jacci and Alan Wallace of Bristol, Tenn. and Kristen and Rob Holzer of Elizabethton.
The Wallaces paid more than $80,000 on $150,000 in contracts for a complete home remodel plus addition and a bathroom remodel in another house. Neither was done, and the $130,000 full remodel and addition wasn’t even started.
The Holzers paid more than $40,000 on an $80,000-plus contract for a home addition. After months of waiting on a project that was sold to them for how quickly it could get done, they say they had a block foundation that had to be replaced by a different company — a new septic system because Wood workers had ruined theirs — and nothing more.
Jacci Wallace and Rob Holzer said they feel a mixture of gratitude, relief and hope after learning of the Aug. 21 lawsuit. Maria Strohbehn, the state’s attorney in the case, emailed victim families shortly after filing.
“It was very comforting to know that we hadn’t been forgotten, regardless of whether or not something really comes from it,” Jacci Wallace said. “I’m glad we’re being fought for. I feel like someone’s on our side.”
Rob Holzer, sitting in a home addition he and his wife essentially paid for twice, said they were among the fortunate. They could afford to get the work done by a different contractor despite being out $43,000, and their home wasn’t left with unusable space.
“They have mistreated and taken advantage of so many people, and we’re fortunate that we were able to recover quickly, but I know there’s other people that didn’t,” Holzer said. “So for the attorney general to really step up and say ‘we’re going to take care of this, we’re going to put justice where it belongs,’ I’m eternally grateful for that and I’m anxious for resolution.”
Wood Construction and Remodeling appeared to check every box for the Holzers as they prepared for the arrival of their fifth child, Maverick in 2021 — they could finish their home addition quickly, their price was very competitive and their customer reviews were top-notch.
Things didn’t go as planned. By the time little Maverick came along in September, the couple had paid more than $43,000 on an $86,000 contract and a contractor who wouldn’t show back up or return their calls.
Kristen Holzer contacted the Attorney General’s office around October of 2021 to file a complaint with the consumer division.
The Holzers’ array of challenges sounded frustratingly familiar to Jacci Bowlby. So did the circumstances that made Wood seem like an attractive option: they needed extra space for family members— in this case Jacci’s parents — and they needed it as soon as possible.
The family was moving from Oregon and found a 10-acre property bordering a creek with a large house and an original farmhouse. They wanted to add 500 square feet and completely remodel the farmhouse for her parents. In the meantime, they would redo the bathroom in the larger house so Jacci’s father, who has a brain tumor, wouldn’t have to use the stairs before her parents relocated to the farmhouse.
“They told us it would all be done by the end of summer, which was really appealing because we’re living in the same house with my parents at the time,” Wallace said.
That was in March 2021. By the fall, the Wallaces had paid about half the contract cost even though no work had been done on the farmhouse and the bathroom had been demolished, partially finished and left in an unusable state. No work was ever done on the house, and the family had to get a new contractor to complete the bathroom — including ripping out the work that had already been done.
Fake reviews, unrealistic time frames and unlawful deposits
Tennessee’s suit claims Wood Construction used several methods to gain business over competitors during its heyday in 2020 and 2021. Holzer and Wallace both nodded as those allegations were listed, saying they’d experienced them all.
- Consumers were initially drawn in by deceptive reviews and testimonials that, unbeknownst to consumers, were written by Wood Construction’s employees, friends, and family.” (Lawsuit, paragraph 7)
“We definitely did our homework, we did some reviews and they were very top-notch reviews,” Holzer said. “Very highly recommended, very detailed in the reviews, a lot of them had pictures and a lot of good stuff to just convey that they were quality.”
In the Wallaces’ case, their own real estate agent came to the home with a Wood construction salesperson.
“He came with us when we looked at the property, we went through the old farmhouse, he told us Wood Construction could do everything we needed them to do, and we got quotes from him and everything went really well,” Jacci Wallace said.
“Because we found out that day they could make the property work for us, we decided to purchase the property and moved out from Oregon.”
She said her dad was very persistent on wanting her to look into other companies.
“So I would look into other companies, and I remember telling him on the phone, because they moved out here before we did, ‘Listen dad, their reviews are comparable or better than anybody else’s.’ I remember saying I’m pretty sure, those exact words.”
According to the lawsuit, though, on Wood Construction’s Google business profile “even Mr. Wood and his wife, themselves, left positive reviews, purportedly from consumers, on Google without disclosing their financial interests and ownership to consumers.”
That included the review below by Cameron Wood, Joe Wood’s wife who is also a real estate agent. It is shown in the lawsuit:
The suit says Wood Construction also had an account on Angie’s List/Home Advisor from late 2018 until August 2021, when it was terminated for lack of payment.
“During that period, Wood Construction had many five-star reviews … that were authoried by family and friends of Mr. Wood and employees of Wood Construction, without disclosure of those interests and material connections,” the suit says. That included one five-star review written by Wood himself (shown below) “without disclosing that he was the owner of the business:
Holzer had a variety of descriptions for how the truth about the reviews makes him feel. “Betrayed. Lied to, deceived, taken advantage of. We put our family and our home in their hands and they basically turned on us.”
- “Sales agents, trained by Mr. Wood, routinely undercut legitimate contractors’ construction timeframes and falsely represented that construction could begin immediately to induce consumers to choose Wood Construction over other contractors.” (Lawsuit, Paragraph 8)
Rob Holzer and Jacci Wallace both said time was of the essence when they sought a contractor — and that Wood agents promised to meet their needs.
“The timing was critical because he was supposed to be born in September of 2021 and we wanted it done before he was here so we had an established room for him,” Holzer said of Maverick, who just turned 2 last weekend. (He didn’t have his own room at first.)
Wood’s representatives said they could complete the job in four to six months. But April, May and June passed, and when Holzers emailed or texted, “they kept giving us stories of ‘we’re changing this, we’re changing that, new people were taking over the company,’ and it was in July when their new planner called and said ‘hey, I’m in charge now, this is my show’… nothing had been done.”
The Wallaces, meanwhile, signed one contract in March 2021 (for the bathroom) and a second for the house remodel in May. It was August before a subcontractor finally arrived to start work on the bathroom.
“We kept calling and texting and calling, and they would hand us off to different project managers all the time,” Jacci Wallace said.
When they sent out the sub to demo the bathroom, “we were just really excited that it was finally getting done.”
- “Sales agents pressured consumers into making unlawfully high, non-refundable deposits by falsely representing that such deposits were necessary to secure a space in the construction pipeline.”
By the time a subcontractor actually started work on the Wallaces’ bathroom, they’d paid about $10,000 of the $13,000 contract. They had also paid around $70,000 for the farmhouse renovation despite no work being done.
“I learned, after the fact of course, from our neighbor who happens to be a real estate attorney, that they can only ask legally for 10%, and we ended up paying more than half,” Jacci said.
The Holzers, meanwhile, had paid 25% down, with a contract that called for them to pay another 25% when the blockwork was complete.
“It was six months … nothing going on, slow work, damages we talked about (the septic damage), and then it went into high gear,” Rob Holzer said. “They had come out, they were laying block, it was ‘boom boom boom,’ and immediatley that phone call — ‘we need the next payment.’ Which we made to stay in contract.”
The couple had paid Wood Construction $43,000 at that point. The block was the last work done.
Moving on with life and hoping for justice
The Wallaces found a great contractor — he calls himself a handyman, they said — who completed some renovation at the farmhouse that cost about $50,000. They didn’t have enough resources to do the addition yet.
The bathroom was redone at an additional cost of $12,000, with all the previous work having to be ripped out and replaced.
“We’ve not recovered financially,” Jacci Wallace said. “I mean, that’s all of the equity we had in our home in Oregon. I’m sure someday we’ll recover financially but not anytime soon.”
She said financial pain hasn’t been all she’s felt. She spent more than a year frustrated and upset.
“Then, because hindsight is 20/20, upset with ourselves, or upset with myself like I should have looked into this more. That took a really big toll on me and my family, and I don’t feel like that should be overlooked either. It’s not just the money.”
The Holzers also found a good contractor, but the job cost much more than Wood had quoted — without even considering the $43,000 they were out.
“The way I was raised you don’t treat people that way,” Holzer said. “You don’t do stuff like that, and your word is your bond.”
He said he’s frustrated with what has seemed to be a lack of accountability for Wood so far.
“You know, a crime has been committed, and he just said, ‘I’m done, man, I’m going to up and move to South Carolina with my fancy wife and her business.”
The filing of the lawsuit has raised Holzer’s hopes.
“I think justice should be served and it should not be a slap on the wrist,” he said. “I mean, the families that he’s ruined are pretty extensive and he needs to feel that punishment, his entire family. So I’m grateful that justice is coming.”
Attempts to reach Leighton Wood through Cameron Wood’s publicly listed realty work phone number and email were unsuccessful. Wood was served with a summons in late August and has 30 days to file a response to avoid the possibility of a default judgment.