FARGO-Kjersten Nelson never thought she'd be a victim of theft until she hired a contractor and was left with almost nothing but a gutted kitchen after spending $60,000.

Nelson and her husband, Ryan Nagle, first contacted Studs to Rugs in May after saving up to redo the kitchen in the south Fargo home they bought in 2009.

She said Studs to Rugs had a good reputation as a longtime business and prolific advertiser. The contractor previously did a job at a neighbor's house, and Nelson said she saw crews coming every day and meeting deadlines for that project.

"We went to their website," she said. "It was easy to contact them and they responded. It just was really easy; really easy until that Friday (Oct. 20)."

Ross Bowden also hired the company based on its reputation, though he saw warning signs leading up to its abrupt closure on Oct. 20. The situation first made news Oct. 23 when Studs to Rugs' south Fargo office was locked and employees stopped answering phones.

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Tough decisions

Bowden hired Studs to Rugs in 2010 to finish his basement, and said he was impressed by the team and work back then. That's why he hired them again to do an addition earlier this year.

Bowden said he was instructed to remove siding in mid-May, but crews didn't start their work for six more weeks. During the project, heavy rains damaged his house three times while the structure was exposed to the elements.

"It was becoming very obvious that this wasn't the same crew," he said.

Bowden said he felt trapped. Someone needed to install an 8,000-pound beam to make the project work, and he said he worried it wouldn't happen if he complained. He had already paid $60,000 toward the $100,000 estimate, and paid another $20,000 in August.

The contractor again asked for $20,000 in September, at which point Bowden said Studs to Rugs President Tim Rosene first told him the project would actually cost 30 percent more than his estimate.

Bowden said he discovered Rosene had upgraded features without permission, including installing $15,000 worth of windows even though the project planned on $8,000 for windows. He said he also noticed he was being charged for things like sawhorses and construction materials that the contractor would keep after the project was done.

Bowden said he waited until the beam was installed in mid-October before demanding more answers. He said Rosene asked to have a few days to run numbers and promised to call Oct. 23. He never heard back from Rosene, and said he learned Oct. 20 that Studs to Rugs was closed.

Bowden said his family is moving forward, getting help from subcontractors, designers and others to finish the project by Christmas. He figured he lost about $25,000 on work and materials.

"There's a chance that we might not get any back," he said.

He's also aware of at least three subcontractors who didn't get paid, including Rainbow International.

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The restoration company occasionally worked as a subcontractor to clean up messes or fix problems that arose during projects. The $5,800 gig at Bowden's house in August required Manager Bob Miller and other employees to temporarily install equipment and carefully monitor the structure until the water was removed, the only way to prevent mold problems.

Owner Ned Halilovic said Studs to Rugs had always paid "on a slow pace," but after six weeks, he tried calling the office and no one answered. He learned soon after about the company's demise.

He's hired an attorney and plans to file a small-claims complaint, and he'll also likely put a lien on Bowden's house. He said he feels bad about that because the homeowner was likely charged for the labor, but it's one of the only options he has.

Halilovic said it was a "very big learning experience," and he'll require all customers to sign work authorizations from now on. Miller said it's a necessary precaution to have more guarantees of getting paid.

"The whole sad part is when you're dealing with business, you hope that you can trust someone to do the right thing," Miller said. "It just leaves everybody a little bitter taste in their mouth."

Matter of trust

For a while, things seemed to be on track at Nelson's house after demolition of the kitchen started in late September. Things soon slowed to a crawl, and the kitchen is now a gutted room without insulation.

Nelson said she realizes now that she should have followed her instincts, though she assumed she could trust an established contractor.

Now, she questions Studs to Rugs' insistence that she put $40,000 down, about half of the $80,000 project estimate. She also wonders if she should have made sure suppliers and subcontractors were getting paid.

"When you're working with your house, it's so personal that you let your guard down," she said. "A guy who looked my kids in the eye, I feel like he wouldn't do something like that."

But she trusted them, she said, and that's why she didn't hesitate to make an Oct. 13 installment payment of $20,000.

Nelson said Rosene himself apparently dropped off a bill at their house that week claiming the money was needed to buy materials, such as a countertop and sink. She and Nagle brought a check on Oct. 13 to the office, and she said that money was taken out of her account the following Monday.

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Nelson hadn't seen subcontractors at her house in a couple weeks, so she called a project manager who explained they would be back to work soon. A few more days passed, so Nelson emailed Oct. 20 only to get an auto reply that Studs to Rugs was closed-just a week after Rosene requested, accepted and deposited a $20,000 check.

Nelson said her family had saved for a basement renovation, so they've been able to tap into that to pay for their kitchen. They're working with an attorney, and the couple is now pursuing civil and criminal cases.

Still, she said it's unlikely they'll get their $60,000 back. Nelson said they're ready to move past the whole thing, but it will take time.

"I presume someday I won't have negative emotions attached to this space," she said about her kitchen. "Right now, it just kind of ties my stomach in a knot."