Silvester Onate, 57, is still looking for a contractor to rebuild a house at a price he can afford. Laetitia Teyssier, 41, is waiting for the rainy season to end so she can lay the foundation for a concrete home. Linda Johnson, 70, has been living in her rebuilt house for four months.
All three Sonoma County residents lost everything on the same day nearly 17 months ago in the ferocious Tubbs fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history at the time. Today, they are in different situations as they recover from the blaze. With the two-year anniversary of the wildfire coming in October, a fortunate few fire survivors have moved into new homes, but many desperately hope contractors can finish their new houses by then - when most insurance coverage for replacement housing expires.
“So many folks are in this position because they're trying to do this on their own, and the reality is 99 percent of the people who lost a home have never built a home,” said John Allen, chief operations officer and vice president of AMP Homes, one of several major builders reconstructing the county's fire-ravaged areas.
More than 2,300 rebuild projects are now underway in Sonoma County, with about 200 houses completed, together representing nearly half of the 5,334 homes lost here in the fires.
The massive rebuild operation in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park, and slower efforts in Fountaingrove, Larkfield-Wikiup and Sonoma Valley, are unlike the orderly build-out of new subdivisions.
Instead, they resemble something more chaotic, with homes in various states of completion - some reoccupied, others a long away from that step - with all the sites and the lives of each family who lost a home intertwined.
Here are the stories of the unique rebuilding odyssey for Onate, Teyssier and Johnson.
Stay or go? Still on the fence
Silvester Onate started the rebuilding process in Coffey Park when many others did, shortly after the initial shock of the fire abated. Onate, a vineyard foreman, said he and his wife initially wanted the same style of house they lost. After speaking to architects, they started exploring something different.
They received $429,000 from their property insurance company for the loss of their home, significantly more than the $270,000 they paid for the Dennis Lane house in 2004. But after paying off the mortgage, they had only $329,000 to rebuild.
He said every builder he talks to starts negotiating at that amount. The cost quickly escalates with every added feature.
“Each little thing is extra, and the cost keeps going up,” Onate said, speaking in Spanish. “You want this type of tile? That's another $10,000. You want these door locks? That's a few thousand more.”
By last summer, after spending $26,000 on architectural and engineering plans and permit fees, the Onates could not find a builder who could construct them a house they could afford. They would have to take out another mortgage to break ground. Meanwhile, homes are going up all around him.
“My property is the only one on my street that's still a dirt lot,” he said.
On a recent rainy February day, Onate visited John Allen of APM Homes on Cleveland Avenue. APM's predecessor, Condiotti Enterprises, built much of Coffey Park decades ago, including the Onate home.
On a conference room table, the two men went over plans and Allen explained why it would be more cost effective to build the original home, save money, and then remodel later. That remodel, he said, would be a fraction of the cost of doing a “major change” in the home design.
When a large builder veers from a master plan that has been through the city's design and review process and is being used in other lots, efficiencies are lost and costs go up, Allen said.
“We're a Ford factory,” he said.
“I've begged and pleaded with all the fire survivors that were adamant. You know some of them just wanted a sliding door on the side of the house,” Allen said. “That's a $5,000 item after-the-fact and they spent $160,000 (more) for the exact same house ... I asked them, I said, ‘Why? And they said, ‘Because that's what we want.'”