For the past three months, Yolanda and Micah Ochs and their four children have been living with an open question: When can we go home? In December, the family was forced to leave the modest three-bedroom house in south Largo after it became infested with mold, causing breathing problems for the entire family.
Spore colonies hidden in the walls were missed by inspectors when the family bought the house in 2008, and as time went on, the fungi spread — culminating in a bloom of black mold in November after an air conditioner malfunction.
A dust of mold coated the carpet, walls, couches and even the stuffed animals of Giovanna, 3, the family's youngest child. Most of their belongings had to be thrown out. The damage was estimated to be about $40,000; the family's insurance cap for mold damage was only $10,000.
"When it rains, it pours," Yolanda Ochs said in December. "If it doesn't pass inspection, we can't move back in."
The St. Petersburg Times wrote about the family's plight shortly after the Ochses spent Christmas in a hotel room.
But now, just a week before their insurance company, Citizens, will stop paying for temporary housing, the family's house is nearly habitable again — thanks to the generosity of a local contractor and help from the family's church.
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Dan Bickford, owner of Baycraft Restorations of Clearwater, got to know the Ochses after they contacted him instead of one of the insurance company's preferred vendors to do work on their house. He said the family's situation is all too common — when families have more damage from mold or other problems than their policies cover.
"I saw her policy didn't even allow enough to barely begin," Bickford said. But, he said, he felt that because he could help, he should.
"When I looked at the family and talked to Yolanda, I was reminded of something I heard a long time ago: 'When your neighbors need help and you don't help them, you're no longer a society.' "
Bickford and his staff spent days wiping every surface, every square inch of the house's insides, and tearing out mold-covered drywall.
Members of the family's church, Gulf Coast Church, came to help in the final phases of putting the house back together. But Yolanda Ochs said without Bickford's help, the home would still be in shambles.
"He's just really seemed to care about our family. He's been more than just a contractor for us."
Any costs over what the insurance company would pay for, Bickford said his company would absorb.
"To do a job for somebody and make no profit is a little bit tough in these economic times. But it's when times are tough and you decide to help someone is what matters, not when times are good. We just toughed it out. My staff got onboard and we just did it," Bickford said.
Another business owner has offered to help. Al Greco, one of the owners of APSCO Appliance Center on East Bay Drive in Largo, said he will donate appliances.
"Tough as business is, once in a while, you got to work out something," Greco said.
The Ochses plan on moving back into their home by Wednesday.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org