Heather and Alex Apons are making their way back to Coffey Park, but the journey has been a roller coaster.
The couple lost their Banyon Place home to October’s Tubbs wildfire. In March, they celebrated the birth of their first child, Etienne. In the days after the fire, they received an outpouring of generosity, including about $10,000 from crowdsourcing and $2,000 from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund. Months later, they learned their insurance coverage wouldn’t come close to covering the cost to rebuild.
Despite the ups and downs, the Apons have found a way forward. This spring they obtained a construction loan that’ll allow them to replace their tract house with a two-story custom home, now under construction.
However, the increased loan amount and the new higher interest rate mean the couple will pay $1,000 a month more than they did with their old mortgage.
“We’re really paying the price to stay here,” Heather Apons said.
The Apons’ experience highlights the costs and benefits of construction loans, a solution many fire survivors turn to when they lack adequate insurance coverage. Such financing can be an unfamiliar topic for those who already must educate themselves about insurance policies and the myriad steps needed to replace burned homes.
Construction lending “is a process that can be overwhelming and frustrating,” said Laura Levine, a bank loan adviser and a volunteer and former board member with the insurance advocacy group United Policyholders.
Levine cautioned fire survivors to explore a range of financing options when they rebuild. She noted one downside of construction loans is they require paying off an existing mortgage. In today’s era of rising interest rates, that often means taking on higher borrowing costs.
“If you have a gap, don’t immediately decide what you need is a whole new loan,” said Levine, a TIAA Bank senior loan adviser with offices in San Anselmo and San Francisco.
The North Bay wildfires were the most destructive in state history. They claimed 24 lives and burned nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.
In Coffey Park, a tract residential neighborhood in northwest Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire killed four residents and destroyed 1,200 homes.
The Apons had lived four years in their four-bedroom Banyon Place house. The couple had built in the backyard a “chicken palace,” a 12-foot-tall enclosure for their laying hens. The Apons also have three cats.
After the fire, rebuilding seemed the only option. “All our family is here,” said Heather Apons, a 35-year-old dental hygienist and Montgomery High grad. Her husband is a 34-year-old Santa Rosa High alum who works as an assistant service manager at a local car dealership.
They got their first inkling they were underinsured after meeting with an architect who agreed to donate his work. After hiring their contractor, Black Oak Builders of Sebastopol, they determined the gap between their insurance payouts and the costs of rebuilding exceeded $200,000.
A construction loan seemed the only option, but the application process proved daunting.
“It was the most hoops I’ve ever had to jump through, ever,” Heather Apons said.
Completing the deal required the Apons fronting funds mostly from savings to later be reimbursed by the insurance company. That last-minute outlay of nearly $90,000 seemed possible only because of “all the donations we got early on.”