It's hard to drive past any neighborhood without seeing a home or two with solar panels on them.
As more people invest in eco-friendly energy options, it's important to background check the company you're about to hire.
One group of homeowners who did business with Sopris Solar ended up with liens on their homes at no fault of their own.
Now, as mortgage rates hit record loans, some homeowners might be thinking about refinancing which can save tens of thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, refinancing or selling a home is not an option with an outstanding lien.
Since 2019, News 5 Investigates has been looking into Sopris Solar, also doing business as CJR Partners LLC.
In the last 15 months, we've spoken with multiple homeowners who say they entered into contracts with Sopris and made payments, only to have liens placed on their homes because of an alleged payment dispute between Sopris and Lone Star Construction, a third-party contracting company that installed the panels.
Sopris says the issues have all been resolved, but homeowners we re-connected with have a different story.
On August 27, 2020, Scot Birrell with Sopris Solar sent News 5 the following message:
Last year you aired an investigative report on us that is still floating around out there. We have resolved all items that were reported to us and have even had the clients change their reviews to 5-star reviews. The problem we have now is that clients are researching us and finding this incredibly negative reporting about us and it is affecting our business. Please call me to discuss ways that we can get this retracted as resolved.
We shared Sopris' message directly with Jo Self, a Pueblo West homeowner who was part of our original investigation back in 2019.
"We never told him we were satisfied," Jo Self said. "Not at all. Shortly after you contacted me, Scott Birell contacted me."
Birrell is the new registered agent of Sopris Solar, according to records on file with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office.
The previous owner, Nathan Billmaier, who we learned is a convicted felon, is no longer associated with the company.
"Nathan is no longer running Sopris Solar," Birrell said in an email.
Jo Self says a change in new management still brings old problems.
She invested thousands of dollars to have solar panels installed on her home but after the panels were put up, she and multiple other homeowners told us they suddenly had liens put on their house by the installation company which claims Sopris did not pay them and the only way to recoup their losses was through liens.
"When mortgage rates started to drop, we thought it would be a great time to refinance," Self said. "However, with the lien on the house, that was impossible."
Self says no one would allow her to refinance with a $10,000 lien on her property. She says she ultimately ended up settling for $4,800 to get it removed.
"We went ahead and paid off the lien so that we could refinance," Self said.
News 5 Investigates held off for several months on airing an update on this case because Birrell reportedly called Self and wanted to "correct" an issue he had already told us was resolved.
Still, News 5 Investigates wanted to give Birrell and the company the benefit of the doubt to make things right. Unfortunately, that never happened.
"He (Birrell) says he wants to get this off their record because it's impacting their business very negatively and I said I can't say anything good right now," Self said. "We had to pay this money when it was your responsibility and not ours and that wasn't fair."
News 5 asked Birrell for an opportunity to hear his side of the story in October and then again on December 7. Birrell has not responded to our request for an interview.
"Make sure you know what kind of company you're running with before you invest in this," Self said. "We were so excited about this, my sister and I made the leap and said this is what we need to do and we did it without investigating. It taught us a big lesson."
Despite Birrell saying that the company has resolved all previous issues it was aware of, court records obtained by News 5 Investigates reveal that's not true.
We found the company owes thousands of dollars as a defendant in multiple lawsuits.
You can read track those lawsuits here.
Sopris Solar is a BBB-accredited business with a "A" rating. However, online reports show there have been 27 complaints filed with the BBB against Sopris in the last 3 years. 10 of the complaints were filed within the last 12 months.
You can read reviews and complaints consumers have filed with the BBB here.
Tips when hiring a company or contractor:
It's important to background check and research any company before writing a check. While the BBB and Google can be a resource for reviews, it may also be worth checking with the Colorado Attorney General's Office to see if they have any formal complaints on file.
Business owners always suggest you shop "local", although that's never a requirement. Ask for references and follow up with those customers to make sure they were satisfied before signing a contract.
Multiple lawsuits can be a sign of financial trouble. You can always see if a company has been sued by calling your local courthouse.
When entering into a large contract, make sure you know whether the company you are doing business with is actually going to be the company that's going to do the work. It's not necessarily uncommon for businesses to use subcontractors, but you should background check the subcontracting company just like you would with the main company.
There are several companies performing solar work in Colorado and across the country. It never hurts to get a second estimate to help you make an educated decision.
Remember, solar panels are a big investment and when properly installed, they can save you money on utilities bills if you plan on staying in your home for a while. Plus, there are tax credits and other incentives available to homeowners who make the switch.
Do you have a problem or issue you'd like our News 5 Investigates team to look into? Send an email to News5Investigates@KOAA.com.