LARGO — Yolanda and Micah Ochs thought they had done everything right when they bought their first house in the summer of 2008.
The three-bedroom 1950s-style Florida house was in the kind of neighborhood where the only traffic was the mailman. It wasn't a neglected foreclosure like some of the other properties they considered, and the structure passed all the inspections.
There were even trees, and a yard big enough for their four children to grow up in and memorize every corner of their little place called home.
And for about a year, everything was right — even with the bumps and curves of life in a recession. Micah's overtime as a toolmaker was cut. Yolanda stayed at home to take care of their daughter, Giovanna, 3, who has cerebral palsy. They had to cut out small perks to make ends meet, like dinners out, fresh vegetables and even their cell phones. But they had their house, and they were happy.
Then, in November, they lost that, too.
But the cause wasn't something they had ever considered. In spaces unseen, behind walls and in a closet, dangerous levels of mold were slowly taking over their south Largo home.
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The symptoms appeared before the root of the problem revealed itself.
Micah, 33, began to suffer from asthma attacks. Yolanda, also 33, developed a scratch in her chest. The kids could feel it, too.
"It feels like there's something in the air," said Joseph, 11.
The mother lode was discovered just before Thanksgiving.
Tucked away inside the closet of the couple's master bedroom was the house's air handler, a large metal duct that processes the house's central air and heating. The unit had sprung a leak, and from the dark, wet closet, sprung legions of mold spores — one of the worst kind, stachybotrys — which can be potentially toxic.
Yolanda called ServPro to clean up the mess. At first, the problem seemed little more than a major nuisance. A plastic zipper door went up over the bedroom — just a precaution. A company, Reliance Inspections of Palm Harbor, was called in to sample the air.
When the results arrived, just after the Christmas tree went up in late November, the news transformed the family's holiday season into a catastrophe.
"My husband was at work when the report came back with those harmful mold counts," Yolanda said. "Basically, it said, 'get out of your house — you can't live here.' "
The family packed up clothes enough for a week and left, tree bare in the living room, wreath outside an empty house. Leaving just weeks before Christmas was better than making themselves sick.
"I didn't even bother to bring winter stuff. I've been wearing the same pair of shoes since we left," Yolanda said.
The family moved into a small condo provided by the insurance company. They hoped that the problem could be fixed by Christmas.
It wouldn't be. In fact, it got worse.
If nearly any other disaster had come to the Ochs' home, the family's insurance company, Citizens, would have covered the damage up to the home's full value, $156,000. They felt safe knowing lightning, fire and hurricanes — Mother Nature's big guns — wouldn't leave them out to dry.
But, according to a clause in the Ochs' insurance policy, coverage for the microscopic — mold and fungus — was capped at $10,000.
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Yolanda was new to the world of mold. She didn't know how much cleanup would cost. The insurance company's assessor came back with an estimate. She suffered sticker shock: $20,000.
Yolanda contacted Dan Bickford of Baycraft Restoration in Seminole for a second opinion. His estimate was just as depressing.
"She has $15,000 to $25,000 in mold damage cleanup. The way it should be done is every item gets packed out, then cleaned," Bickford said. "Pretty much, with the insurance cap, it's really going to hurt her."
Bickford, whose company works on about 400 houses a year affected by mold, said the problem is particularly insidious because of how difficult mold is to manage once it spreads beyond normal levels found in almost every home.
"When mold starts to grow in a house and becomes airborne, it settles over everything like dust," Bickford said. "The spores are like seeds — you would need to clean everything, the entire house."
So in addition to replacing the drywall in the master bedroom, the Ochs' kitchen was affected, with spores detected behind the cabinets and above the ceiling tiles. The family's couches, mattresses and many of their linens most likely need to be professionally cleaned or tossed out.
And the problems kept piling up.
Home inspectors missed wet, rotted beams under the house that were found during the mold inspection. And that same week, the couple's oldest daughter, Briana, 12, was diagnosed with severe scoliosis.
"We don't even know if we have the money to pay for all this," Yolanda said in mid December. "We'll be fortunate if we can even afford to get our children gifts. That's how tight it is."
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The deluge of troubles for the family just weeks before Christmas weighed heavily on Yolanda, who bore the brunt of managing the crisis. Micah couldn't take off any time from work. He felt guilty he couldn't do any more than keep bread on the table and the mortgage paid.
But the consummate mom wasn't about to let her holiday slip away.
She noticed that her insurance policy allowed for $15,600 in loss-of-use coverage, regardless of the loss. She put it to full effect — and leaned on her insurance company to pay for a much larger condo near the beach in Redington Shores.
"I told them I would not be put in a hotel with four children, so I found this place," she said.
The kids might have lost their back yard, but instead got a Christmas vacation, a heated pool and beach access. The family might have lost their house for what could be another month and is likely stuck with thousands in out-of-pocket repair costs, but as Christmas rolled around, somehow, the outlook didn't seem so bleak.
"Life is going to throw you a lot of curves, and you really need to make the best of what it gives you," Yolanda said. " I want my kids to see that — so if this happens to them, they know how to deal with it.
"You can't give up in life. We just keep playing. We come together as a team. We pull each other up. We've been through some tough things. It's pouring on us right now. But we're still together."