TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Tampa Fire Department is investigating a pair of fires in a vacant house that is at the center of a bitter dispute involving a Tampa contractor and a homeowner who claims she’s been waiting far too long to move into the home.
Mary Browning, who signed a $165,000 contract with Hopps Construction in 2018, said she went to the E. Caracas Street home Wednesday morning to meet with a new contractor to discuss completing the stalled project.
“We smelled smoke. We saw the backdoor wide open and we went into the closet and there was a big pile of debris,” Browning said. “I was very shocked. It had been on fire and was still smoking.”
Piles of ashes were discovered in the garage and the closet.
8 on Your Side reported Monday that the city is investigating several complaints about the home. A city spokesperson said the city was not asked to inspect the framing or the slab under the back bedroom that includes the closet where one of the fires was apparently set.
A ball placed at the top of an apparent dip in the closet floor rolled on its own to the back.
“In the closet where you rolled the ball to show how unlevel the floor was is where the largest fire was,” Browning said. “It’s very suspicious.”
The fire department has yet to respond to a request for comment, but investigators at the home called it a crime scene and said the fires are suspicious.
Contractor Victoria Hopps said she had not been contacted by anyone about the fires as of late Wednesday afternoon.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Hopps said. “I don’t have any insurance on the home. I would if I was on the project but I submitted in March to get off the job.”
Hopps said she “forgot” to get the framing and back room slab inspected. She blamed the city permitting process and Browning’s revisions for the construction delays. Hopps claims Browning owes her money, and she has filed a lawsuit that states she recorded a nearly $91,000 lien on the property.
Browning filed a complaint against Hopps with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state agency that licenses contractors. Hopps does not have any active complaints against her license other than the one filed by Browning.
Browning said the fire adds to her frustration about what she thought would be her dream home.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Browning said. “Do the job you were paid to do. If not, refund me all of my money.”
Browning signed a contract with Hopps Construction on Nov. 12, 2018, agreeing to pay the company $165,000. The agreement stated “the contractor shall substantially complete the work no later than 120 days from” the date the plans were approved by the City of Tampa.
According to a city records, the initial permit was issued June 16, 2019, and the main slab was poured the following September. The house currently has no electricity, kitchen or flooring and is missing several other finishing touches.