FORT MYERS — In federal court Wednesday, Matt Harden and Stephen Dukes listened as Greg Higgins told the court how he paid the contractors $343,000.
Instead of completing his home, though, HD Custom Homes took his money and then shut down days later.
The court-appointed bankruptcy trustee Robert Tardi told Higgins that he made a statement, and reminded him the purpose of the hearing was to ask the owners of the now defunct building company questions.
Higgins did have a question, As he returned to his seat, the 62-year-old former North Port resident asked Harden and Dukes, “How do you sleep at night?”
The crowd of nearly two dozen in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers chuckled. Dukes and Harden didn’t laugh.
Last year, Harden and Dukes abruptly closed their South Gulf Cove HD Custom Homes model office leaving more than 50 customers with unfinished homes, liens, permit fees and headaches.
Higgins, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, explained he paid HD Custom Homes, but his pool, doors, tile and stucco, were never finished.
Dukes said he didn’t have his financial paperwork in front of him. He blamed a former employee for not handing over everything he needed when the business closed.
Another homeowner, Michael Hains, whose South Gulf Cove home took a year-and-a-half to reach an incomplete state, explained he paid the builders $55,000 for a pool. Instead, Tropical Pools placed a $18,000 lien against Hains.
“My question is, are you going to pay me back the $18,000 for the lien?” Hains asked.
Tardi told Hains that was “an inappropriate question,” reiterating this was a bankruptcy hearing.
Higgins and Hains were among several HD Custom Homes customers seeking answers. After hearing Dukes explain what led to the companies demise, many customers believed the meeting of creditors was unproductive.
Dukes said the company’s sales agents offered about $500,000 in free upgrades to customers, which cut into the profits. He said after Hurricane Irma in 2017, the cost of supplies escalated. However, the existing contracts with customers didn’t allow the builders to charge more and make up the difference.
He said banks weren’t giving the money as scheduled, which also caused construction delays up to 18 months. Dukes said he lined up other investors, but the deals fell through.
Dukes said his family members split from the company and opened their own construction business, which also caused a drop in sales and a depleted reputation.
But the reasons were not what the homeowners wanted to hear.
Anne Hill told Dukes and Harden she paid them $366,000 in cash for her $384,000 home which was left unfinished.
“We gave you that cash, not the bank, we had to take $200,000 of our retirement to finish our house,” Hill said, adding she used a “reputable builder” Gilley’s Custom Homes to finish her home.
Tardi said Hill’s and other’s money went into all sorts of sources and no escrow accounts were set up.
Some customers say they have $300,000 in losses from HD Custom Homes. Each customer could receive up to $50,000 in a state recovery fund of $500,000. However, each must follow steps required by the fund.
Tardi said after the hearing, he will tally any of the assets from Dukes and Harden and send the information to the court.
Outside the hearing, Dukes said he’s been treated unfairly.
“We did not open a business to close it,” he said. “That wasn’t our intent.”