SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — About 40 people whose homes were destroyed in the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Sonoma and Napa counties say a construction firm has taken their money but not delivered on promises to rebuild their homes.
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore says he has referred numerous complaints about Chiaramonte Construction to the Sonoma County District Attorney, Jill Ravitch, for investigation. When reached, the company had no one who would speak about these issues.
Lynette Kronick’s home was one of thousands destroyed in the wildfires in October 2017. She returned from a trip to find everything burned, including reminders of her life with her late husband.
“My husband passed away and all of his photographs, his surfboards they had at his memorial that were signed by all the people at the service, were burned up,” Kronick said.
In the midst of dealing with her personal loss, Kronick, like so many other fire victims, had to quickly figure out what to do about collecting insurance, rebuilding plans, permits and construction.
In early 2018, Tulare-based Chiaramonte Construction held a meeting in a nearby hotel; Kronick says about 60-100 people attended. There, the company proposed to rebuild people’s houses for $245 per square foot — far less than what other construction companies were quoting.
“They had a really good proposal,” Kronick recalls. “They showed their cabinets and tiles and all of their finishes and it just seemed like it was too good to be true. Which I guess it was.”
She says the company explained the low cost by saying they just wanted do the right thing.
“When they came in, they presented themselves as a Christian family who wanted to help the community,” says Kronick.
It’s a story Sonoma County supervisor James Gore has heard before.
“You have a company that comes in and the representatives are the family and they say, ‘We’re a good, Christian family. We’re gonna keep our costs low. We’re from the Central Valley, we don’t have the same fees that other places would have’ and it entices a lot of people to come in,” Gore said.
Kronick signed a contract with Chiaramonte in February 2018, which contains no specifics about the job.
Kronick believed she was just giving a $1,000 deposit to preserve her place in line. Then, for reasons that remain a mystery to Kronick, on May 5, 2018, her mortgage company sent Chiaramonte $127,000 of her insurance proceeds.
For months, Kronick and Chiaramonte went back and forth. Chiaramonte produced at least two more pricing plans that were inconsistent with the company’s initial proposal and with each other.
Kronick says that, in a recent phone call, “He [Sal Chiaramonte] basically said, and this is a quote: ‘I threw together that [initial] proposal really quickly for a presentation and I found that I couldn’t do some of these things for that price.'”
After that conversation, Kronick sent Chiaramonte a letter terminating their services. Now she just wants a refund of the $127,000 but, in a phone call, she claims Chiaramonte told her his lawyer said he could keep 10 percent of the cost of the house plus an hourly rate for “consulting services.” (The contract Kronick showed to KPIX 5 does not contain any provision for such withholding.)
Depending on which version of the housing package is used as a baseline, this would mean Chiaramonte could keep $60,000 to $80,000 plus fees for their time.
In an e-mail Kronick received yesterday, Chiaramonte business manager Amy Perry wrote, “we will have everything calculated hopefully within the next couple of days.”
Gesturing to her empty property, Kronick said, “I just thought that was really wrong, to say that I would owe them money when — as you can see — nothing was ever done.”
Supervisor Gore says his office has confirmed at least 40 people who claimed to have been swindled by Chiaramonte.
“Sometimes they build 50 percent of a house, sometimes 90 percent and then walk away.” Gore suspects the company started with good intentions but got in over their head. Still, once it became clear that they could not deliver on their promises, the company should have come clean instead of continuing to sign up new customers.
It seems the company is struggling. “We’re hearing about checks being bounced with local subcontractors, we’re hearing about lumber companies that say they haven’t been paid,” and phone calls that are not returned.
For people who desperately need their insurance money to rebuild, it’s a crisis.
“Their biggest fear is that these guys [Chiaramonte] are gonna go under — they file bankruptcy — and these fire survivors who went through one disaster now go through a second one,” Gore said.
Synergy Construction in Santa Rosa is offering to help any person who believes they have been treated unfairly by Chiaramonte Construction.
Brian Flahaven told KPIX 5 that Synergy will meet with the person free of charge to asses the situation and offer alternatives to get a house built within the person’s budget. They can also recommend lawyers to help people with complex circumstances.