Note: This is the second story of four detailing the legal travails of Bella Vita Custom Homes, and the trail of dissatisfied customers, subcontractors and investors they left in the wake of their bankruptcy. The first story can be found here.
The custom home Tod Gibbs is building was almost built by Bella Vita Custom Homes. These days, he’s considering himself fortunate that a gut check early in the process told him to move on.
“I spent two months completely wasting my time trying to work with them,” Gibbs said. “They tried to mislead me on the budget. There was a bait and switch going on where every time we met, there was a new number.”
Gibbs, who is no stranger to the custom homebuilding game, said his knowledge of how it was supposed to work made him cut ties. “They literally try to take advantage of people who just don’t know,” he added.
But cutting ties early doesn’t mean that he isn’t without a Bella Vita headache. Gibbs is currently renting a home in the hot Midway Hollow neighborhood, where Bella Vita built several homes – including the one next door to the home he was renting.
“One day tiles slid off the roof and landed on my brand new Porsche,” Gibbs said, adding that he tried to contact the builder, and even asked neighbors on NextDoor if they had been having any issues. “I sent pictures, and contacted an attorney, too.”
“Never ever to this day have I gotten that check,” Gibbs said.
But nonetheless, Gibbs knows his irritation with Bella Vita is minor compared to what others are dealing with. “Oh gosh, yes — I totally dodged a bullet,” he said. “I’m so happy I moved on.”
“Ten Percent Up Front and Nothing To Show for It”
Former NFL running back and current Hall of Famer LaDanian Tomlinson and his wife, Torsha, hired Bella Vita to build on their land in Westlake. They didn’t get a home, but they did get a nearly $700,000 judgment against Bella Vita and its principals — Mike Clem and Andy Clem.
Shortly after Austin station KXAN ran a story exposing the unhappy clients of Bella Vita, Tomlinson took to his Facebook page to talk about it.
“The same company in this news story took almost $700,000 of initial payments from my family to build our dream home and left us with nothing except damages to our lots,” he wrote. “I sued and won! But they were able to file for bankruptcy and never repaid us a single dime.”
Tomlinson added that the $700,000 price tag was the customary 10 percent upfront typically given the builder to start work. “Ten percent up front and nothing to show for it,” he said.
Tomlinson’s wife had a few choice words for Bella Vita as well. “This is one of the reasons why 2016 was the worst year of my life!” she wrote on Facebook, adding that their family was “one of the families robbed by the company and builder in this article.”
“They were supposed to be building our dream home. After paying them almost $700,000 in initial draw statements, we had NOTHING to show for it except damage to our $1.5 million lots due to negligence.”
“We sued them and after a year of lawyers and court hearings, we won!” Torsha Tomlinson continued. “But winning in court doesn’t matter when they just file for bankruptcy.”
CandysDirt.com found that in addition to the Tomlinsons, at least four families in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have sued Bella Vita for either not completing their home or, as mentioned in yesterday’s story, for not paying subcontractors, resulting in liens placed on the home. Statewide, the number of subcontractors, investors, and homeowners who have sued or are suing Bella Vita homes climbs to nearly 40.
CandysDirt.com made three separate attempts to contact the Clem family, and did not receive a reply by press time. The Clems were apprised of the deadline for publication.
Suit, After Suit, After Suit
According to court records, Allen and Catherine Cashin hired Bella Vita in September 2015 to build a home on Tulip Lane in Dallas. By November of 2016, they were filing suit for breach of contract.
“The Cashins seek damages from Bella Vita for its breach of the parties’ Residential Construction Contract – Fixed Price for failing to pay subcontractors amounts due for labor and material the subcontractors provided for the construction of the Cashin’s home,” the suit’s motion for default judgment reads, adding that they are seeking damages against Mike and Andy Clem for “failing to use their construction funds to pay various subcontractors and instead using those funds for their own personal benefit and to the detriment of the Cashins.”
In a separate affidavit, Allen Cashin told the court that J.P. Hart Lumber Co., Pennington Concrete Co., and Moore Disposal Corp. had all placed liens on their home because they were not paid, for a total of $109,609.04.
Daniel and Charlene Flick hired Bella Vita to remodel their Dallas home in August 2015. In their suit, they alleged that the contracted price was $524,232. In November of that year, the Flicks said they paid Bella Vita an initial draw of $40,635 and agreed to authorize bank drafts for the rest of the project.
“The Defendants breached the contract by failing to finish the remodeling of the home pursuant to the terms of the Agreement,” the Flicks’ original petition said. “The Defendant would go for long periods of time without working on the project, and could not finish the project by its own projected deadlines.”
The Flicks said that Bella Vita was paid via bank wire for things like HVAC work, trash disposal, portajohns, fencing materials and more, “however, the Defendant left the project and retained said funds without paying the subcontractors for their work.”
“The Defendant knew that these funds were intended for a specific purpose, that of paying subcontractors, as evidenced by Michael Clems (sic) signature on the Draw Request,” the suit continued.
In addition to liens that were placed on the home from unpaid subcontractors, the Flicks wrote that they were out the expense of additional housing.
“The Plaintiffs were required to find alternative housing and to move to the same upon the Defendants’ failure to finish in a timely manner or by the projected deadline of May 2016,” they wrote. “The Plaintiffs previously rented property in Dallas, and had their lease coordinated with the projected finishing dates for the project.”
When the project wasn’t done on deadline, the Flicks said they lost their rental and had to find yet another alternative housing option, one that cost them $2,100 a month. The couple also asked for reimbursement of their extended storage fees for their belongings.
“Furthermore, the Plaintiffs and the Defendant entered into a fixed price contract, nonetheless, the Plaintiffs will incur additional expenses in finishing the work the Defendants left incomplete,” they continued. “The Defendants under-bid most of the project to entice the Plaintiffs to enter into contract with them; however, it is now apparent that said initial bids for the project are inadequate and will not cover the actual expenses of the job.”
The Flicks’ suit claims that Bella Vita and its principals engaged in deceptive trade practices.
John Porro hired Bella Vita to improve his home and signed a fixed-price residential construction contract at the end of October 2014. The contract, Porro said in the original petition of his suit, was for $501,267 in improvements.
“Specifically, Mr. Porro made an initial cash payment in the amount of $50,126.70, and construction began in early 2015,” the petition said.
“From approximately September 2015 through March 2016, Bella Vita discontinued its main construction work and only sporadically performed small projects at the property,” it continued. “Then, in March 2016, Bella Vita discontinued all construction work on the property and failed to complete the project.”
Porro said he contacted the company and the Clems repeatedly during 2016, and was assured that contract terms would be fulfilled. In May 2016, Porro said he gave a list of 22 things that had not yet been completed, including landscaping and irrigation, the house number, painting, and completing the master bath shower.
“Each of these items was paid for in full by Mr. Porro,” the suit said.
“Go Ahead and Schedule the Movers”
By the time Rodney and Debbie Smith first began to meet with Bella Vita representatives in October 2015 about building a home in Keller, there were several suits pending already against the company and the Clems — but in their suit’s original petition, the Smiths said they were unaware of this at the time they signed their contract in April 2016.
The Smith’s suit gives more details regarding the alleged sales practices of the company. The Smiths said that a salesperson, named in the suit as Maritza Voth, gave them a “detailed rundown of BVCH’s build process, touting the fact that BVCH supposedly handles every aspect of the process ‘in-house,’ and offering a guaranteed move-in date,” the suit reads.
“In fact, BVCH said that the Smiths could ‘go ahead and schedule the movers,’ and promised that, if they missed the move-in date, they would compensate the Smiths.”
After meeting with the company’s architects and nailing down the details of what they wanted, the Smiths signed a fixed-price contract and gave the company a check for $157,077,09.
“Within days, Ms. Voth called Mrs. Smith to say that she had resigned from BVCH, that BVCH was a deceptive company, and that she was sorry to have got the Smiths involved with them,” the suit said. “She also said that BVCH owed her money.”
“Mrs. Smith immediately called the BVCH office to try to find out what was going on,” the suit continued. “She spoke with Tracey Clem, who assured her that Ms. Voth was just a disgruntled employee, and that the build was proceeding as promised.”
The Smiths were assigned a new representative — Curt DuBoise, and based on the assurances that they were given and that they had already given the company more than $150,000, the Smiths moved forward with construction, they said in the suit.
“It quickly became apparent, however, that BVCH had made no progress whatsoever. The company offered a variety of excuses, blaming everyone from the surveyor to Ms. Voth for the lack of progress,” the suit said.
But it got worse. “In mid-July, Ms. Smith received a call from the City of Keller clerk asking what the Smiths wanted to do with their — unbeknownst to them — unpaid plat application for the property,” the suit said. “The clerk explained that the application had actually been on her desk for weeks, but nobody had paid the fee.”
The Smiths called Bella Vita and were told that they were waiting for one more piece of documentation to complete the plat and that the city would have a check soon.
“At this point, Ms. Smith began to wonder whether the delays were the result of incompetence, fraud, or some combination of each.”
But that wasn’t the worst it would get. “On August 31, the bank that was supposed to finance the build called with alarming news,” the Smiths suit said. “The bank had learned that BVCH was facing a multitude of lawsuits brought by former customers as well as several subcontractors that BVCH had failed to pay.”
The Smiths again reached out to Bella Vita and were told that the build was proceeding as planned.
“BVCH’s pattern of deception, however, was just too much,” the suit continued, adding that the Smiths demanded a list of subcontractors who had actually done the work the home. “There were not many, but BVCH was able to provide contact details for two engineering firms,” the suit said.
When the Smiths contacted the companies, “the first had never been paid, and was planning to file a lien against the property,” and the second? “The second had not been paid either.” The surveyor? He allegedly told the Smiths that he hadn’t invoiced BVCH yet because he hadn’t completed the work, but that he was immediately invoicing them out of fear that he would not get paid either.
“Again, BVCH ultimately did not pay that invoice,” the suit read, adding that the Smiths paid off all outstanding invoices to avoid the liens.
The Smiths decided in September to terminate their contract. They demanded that the company return the $157,000 it had already received from them.
“BVCH did not even try to deny that it had failed to pay the subcontractors,” the suit said. “Instead, they claimed that the Smiths had not specifically identified the subcontractors that had not been paid, and that there was therefore no material breach.”
The Smiths sent them a list of the companies that had not been paid and again demanded a refund. “To date, BVCH has neither responded nor returned the money.”
The Smiths, through their suit, expressed a frustration heard frequently by those who have been interviewed by media or have filed suit. “The Smiths worked with BVCH for months to come up with a design for what was supposed to be their dream home — a place they could live in for the rest of their lives,” they wrote. “Now, a year after their first meeting with BVCH, they have no (home) and are out over $170,000. It remains to be seen whether further subcontractors will turn up demanding payments that BVCH failed to make.”
Those who have sued and won may never get reimbursement now that Bella Vita has filed for bankruptcy. Those that did get homes may find themselves without usable warranties on those homes. It’s something that continues to upset them.
“That part is what consumes my deepest anger and frustration because I know people who are in jail today for stealing much less, but these people are walking around free as a bird after stealing from hundreds to thousands of families and ruining countless lives,” Torsha Tomlinson wrote. “How is that even right?”
(Bethany Erickson has been researching Bella Vita Custom Homes and other builders in a months-long investigation that included uncovering at least 20 victims in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone. In the course of writing this story, Erickson found several families that sued Bella Vita, and some of those filings are included below. This story is the second in an initial four-part installment of what will be an ongoing series. Tomorrow’s story will look at some of Bella Vita’s subcontractors and investors. Do you have a story to tell about your home building or renovation experience? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Several families, subcontractors, and investors have sued Bella Vita Custom Homes. Here are two of the suits in today’s story: