Several local families claim when flames gutted their homes a contractor arrived at the same time as fire crews, then pressured them into signing contracts to rebuild. The homeowners say the restoration company took over their insurance claims, ran up the costs and triggered painful delays.
Consumer Investigator Todd Ulrich looked into the controversial contracts used by companies that critics call “fire chasers."
“It started here at the stove,” Jerry Wonder said pointing out where the fire started.
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Jerry Wonder discovered the fire at his son's Deland house. Within minutes firefighters arrived, followed by Chris Barnett, from Orange County Construction 911 Inc.
“So, this guy arrives right after the fire crews?” Ulrich asked.
“Yes sir, he's a fire truck chaser,” Jerry Wonder replied.
Orange County Construction 911 rebuilds homes after fires and floods.
“Did he want you to sign that day?” Ulrich asked.
“He did,” homeowner Jonas Wonder said.
The assignment of benefits contract Jonas Wonder signed gave the contractor control over the fire insurance claim. That day the Wonders thought it was a good thing, but they don’t anymore.
“I couldn't even think straight, and this man was having us sign a contract,” Jonas Wonder’s wife, Renee Dicaro, said.
Five months later, Jonas Wonder and Dicaro claim Orange County Construction 911 only took pictures and bagged some debris, then sent their insurance company a $43,000 bill. That's what they told the Florida attorney general in a formal complaint.
“Our house just caught fire and they're trying to take all this money from us,” Jonas Wonder said.
The couple tried to cancel the contract. The company said it would cost $60,000 to cancel.
Jonas Wonder and Dicaro hired a lawyer, who said the charges came out of nowhere.
“They went three to four months without notice of what a bill may look like or the cost of the rebuild,” attorney Stuart Levine said.
The couple say they'll sue Orange County Construction 911.
Action 9 learned another homeowner has already sued the company.
“And I just really broke down,” Bill Haar said the day fire gutted his home last year.
His lawsuit against Orange County Construction 911 claims employee Chris Barnett's insistence he sign "in the midst of personal tragedy … was appalling, deceptive and unfair." The lawsuit challenges the company’s charges, including a $29,000 cancellation fee.
Three other homeowners told Ulrich they had serious issues with the contractor's charges and felt pressured to sign the day their homes burned.
Ulrich contacted the company requesting an interview. OCC911 sent a written response denying it did anything wrong. The company said it has hundreds, if not thousands, of satisfied customers and managers said the two homeowners in our story terminated voluntary contracts after services were provided and that's the only charges they owe.
“I just wish this were a bad nightmare and we could wake up and everything would be fine, but it's not,” Dicaro said.
Six months after the fire, Jonas Wonder and Dicaro’s home remains unlivable. The rebuilding has not even started.
A new Florida law has reformed Assignment of Benefits contracts. Now, homeowners have seven days to cancel the contract, and the reform limits legal fees that critics say drove up repair costs. Despite the reforms, signing AOB contracts the day of the fire can still be risky.
Our company prides itself on providing excellent service at a fair price. Your story is based on 2 customers out of hundreds, if not thousands, of customers we have had over the years. The vast majority are satisfied and happy with our service. Nonetheless, we take any customer complaint seriously and try to resolve it. Unfortunately, the two customers you referenced have attempted to terminate the written contracts they voluntarily signed after our company had already spent time and money providing services to their homes. We have sought reimbursement only for the work that we have completed and for which we are entitled to receive payment.
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