A well-known Tri-City homebuilder has filed for bankruptcy, leaving homeowners, contractors and suppliers scrambling to file lawsuits and liens in hopes of recovering their portion of the $9.2 million owed to secured and unsecured creditors.
Marco Solferino is seeking Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, weeks after he abruptly closed the doors of Solferino Homes, effective Feb. 26.
Solferino built high-end custom homes, often in a Mediterranean and Tuscan style. The business was in the midst of rebranding and transitioning to the name M|S Homes, Inc.
In an email announcing the closure of the business to subcontractors and suppliers, Solferino said, “I did not intend for any of this to happen. I can only hope that my upstanding reputation will afford me grace in the face of these tough times.”
Contractors and suppliers say they are now kicking themselves, admitting they allowed chronic-nonpayment for work done around the Tri-Cities.
“He’s been in this for years as far as not paying his bills,” said Hector Ceniceros, president of C & C Construction, who was a roofer for Solferino, and is listed as being owed about $97,000. “We (local contractors) are all partly to blame because nobody would put a stop to it. We enabled it.”
Late payments might have been an open secret among local contractors, but it’s unlikely those hiring Solferino to build their dream home had any idea they might be out hundreds of thousands with little to show for it.
This is the case for a West Richland couple, who did not want to be identified, who paid Solferino about $275,000 to build a home in Richland’s Westcliffe neighborhood. They were left with a home completed only through the wiring stage, and liens filed against their property by unpaid subcontractors.
“(Solferino) was taking money way in advance of what he was doing,” said Gretl Crawford, owner and president of Gretl Crawford Homes. “There were rumors about his business, but he’d been operating this way for so long, no one knew when the other shoe was going to drop.”
Crawford stepped in as a consultant, helping the homeowners get the work completed.
“They are victims in this, as well as all of the subcontractors and suppliers,” Crawford said. “All of the money that they had paid out, little of it actually made it to pay any of the parties working, or that had worked, on their home up to that point. Now, having to deal with liens on their home, attorney fees and the prospect of having to pay twice for everything, it’s horrifying for anyone.”
Solferino’s attorney Bill Hames did not want to answer questions about the bankruptcy without permission from his client, and Solferino did not return voicemails left on his cellphone.
“I did not intend for any of this to happen. I can only hope that my upstanding reputation will afford me grace in the face of these tough times.”-- Marco Solferino in an email announcing the closure
of his business to subcontractors and suppliers.
Ceniceros admitted that his certified public accountant advised him to stop doing business with Solferino years ago, but he didn’t listen.
“(Solferino) would drag it out. I’d have to nag him five to seven times to get paid,” Ceniceros said.
This habit didn’t just affect Solferino’s crew — it had a trickle-down effect on other builders in the region.
“Frankly, Solferino and his lack of paying subs affects the whole industry and it has for a number of years,” Crawford said. “Subs would be on a 120- to 180-day turn around on payments. So they would come to me and immediately want payment because we were more responsible. But it’s not fair to me or other subcontractors to shoulder the load, and he’s over there building $800,000 homes.”
C & C Construction finally stopped working with Solferino in October, and Ceniceros believes any outstanding work went to Pasco’s Royal Roofing, which is listed on bankruptcy documents as being owed about $86,000 for work done in 2018 and 2019. A representative with Royal Roofing declined to comment.
Richland’s Premier Landscape and Design Inc. officials said they were concerned that if they stopped working for Solferino, they’d never get paid.
“We worried that if we stopped working for him, he’s going to get somebody else, and they’ll be paid first and we’ll never be paid,” said Eve Masterman, office manager for Premier Landscape and Design. “He didn’t seem to bat an eye when we began adding finance charges to his bills.”
So, the company kept landscaping, laying concrete and installing pools and water features for Solferino Homes, despite not being paid since 2017. The company was responsible for a cascading water feature that was a highlight on the corner lot of Solerino’s 2018 Parade of Homes entry in the Westcliffe neighborhood.
Premier Landscape and Design is owed $283,640 for work done between 2017-19. Masterman said her business tried drawing up monthly payment agreements, but Solferino would never stick to them.
“It’s very upsetting. If we had that money in the bank, it’d be great. It’s made it extremely difficult to keep up,” she said.
Masterman also said the company was never paid for work done on Solferino’s personal home in West Richland.
Many contractors shared a belief that Solferino’s reputation as a quality homebuilder would result in his eventual payment for their work.
“It was a nice product that he built, and it was nice to have your name behind it,” Ceniceros said. Solferino was one of just a handful of preferred builders in Westcliffe, which limits the choice for consumers looking to build a home in the affluent neighborhood.
The controller for Apollo Sheet Metal Inc., Mary Davis, said the company was lured in by Solferino’s reputation for quality, but never received a single payment for work that started in November 2018.
“This was all new,” Davis said. “Based on his reputation, we didn’t foresee any issues with payment.”
Apollo installed heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and fireplaces in three homes before it was alerted by a homeowner that Solferino was going out of business.
Due to the timing of the work, Apollo managed to file liens against the homeowners’ property to recoup the money owed.
Despite waiting months for full payment on a job, one of the owners of Ironesque Inc. still said she was “in shock” when she learned Solferino filed for bankruptcy.
In late 2018, Juli Molvik said she was going to file a lien against a West Richland home where her company Ironesque had done work, but she said Solferino begged her not to, claiming she’d ruin things for everyone else.
Ironesque builds gates, fences, railings and other metal works.
“For other builders, I wouldn’t have been as flexible,” said Molvik, owner of Ironesque. Since they had a professional relationship going back at least 13 years, Molvik decided to hold off on the lien. “Because I’d worked with him for so long, I thought I’d give him a chance. Everyone deserves a chance, and he said he was restructuring. And then we got burned.”
Molvik is frustrated with a system that she feels is set up to benefit the general contractor more.
“Unfortunately, the subs are the ones that get hurt the most. The laws protect the big guys,” she said.
Crawford also is frustrated with the system.
“The problem I have is, how can you be legally shielded when (the homeowners’) future safety and integrity is on the line?” Crawford asked.
Ironesque is owed about $25,000 for unpaid work, which Molvik said is about a third of the remaining cost for her portion of a remodel done on a single home in West Richland.
Since 1997, Solferino changed the name of his company three times, building homes under the names Storybook Homes by Solferino Construction, Solferino Homes, and most recently, M|S Homes Inc.
In an email to subcontractors and suppliers, Solferino said his company “was one of many to suffer major economic setbacks when the housing market plummeted in 2008. This reality, along with a few other market-related factors, made it impossible for me to recover — even after a decade of hard work.”
Solferino’s contractor’s license with the state was suspended in March following a complaint against his bond.
In bankruptcy documents filed March 13, Solferino lists dozens of unsecured creditors, owed about $7.4 million and creditors secured by property, owed about $1.8 million.
This list includes private citizens, subcontractors and suppliers. Solferino divulged limited personal assets, including no cash, $1.1 million in property, $10,500 for the value of vehicles, and $500 in office equipment.
The West Tucannon Avenue address for his Kennewick office has his company name on the marquee, but the suite is vacant and the interior partially built out. Building owner Washington Securities and Investment Corp. and Solferino mutually agreed to surrender the remaining term of the five-year lease..
Solferino’s personal home in West Richland is valued at just under $600,000 by the Benton County Assessor.
ProBuild Co., which does business as Builders FirstSource Inc., filed a $62,238 complaint against Solferino’s bond for unpaid supplies.
“We’re doing what we can on our end to secure what we can,” said Leslie Fontaine, senior director of credit and collections for Builders FirstSource. “We’re working with all of his customers directly and working hard to make it a better deal for our customers.”
Since the bankruptcy filing, Standard Paint and Flooring also filed suit against Solferino Homes. According to bankruptcy documents, Standard Paint is owed $54,455 for unpaid supplies.
This is not the first bankruptcy filing for the custom homebuilder.
Solferino also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in May 1997.
Multiple private citizens are named in the current bankruptcy filing, with some owed as much as $484,000 for payments and deposits on work not completed. Those who had contracted with Solferino might face liens for work done on their homes by subcontractors and suppliers who were not paid. This could result in paying twice for the same job to be completed. Most homeowners pay a general contractor directly, and expect the contractor to pay the subcontractors and suppliers. If it’s within 90 days, a lien may be filed and the homeowner will be responsible for paying the subcontractor, despite already paying the contractor for the same work.
“Homeowners are already somewhat afraid of contractors, and when this gets out, they’re going to be even more afraid of what could happen,” Crawford said.
Jeff Losey, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities, said this could be avoided if homeowners request a lien release signed by each subcontractor or supplier who contributed to the project.
“Most people don’t get one. One of the largest purchases you make is your home, but it seems that people might spend more time investigating their cellphone contract,” Losey said.
He said the only way consumers can protect themselves is through a lien release, yet Losey estimates fewer than five percent of those working with a general contractor end up getting one.
“People assume it’s a contractor and they know what they’re doing. They trust them. It’s not personal, it’s business, and you have to conduct it that way,” Losey said.
He said even homeowners who buy a spec, or speculative, home should get a list of all subcontractors and suppliers, including a signed lien release from each one.
“There’s a ton of extra effort that goes along with lien releases on our side of it,” Crawford said.
But without a release in place, those who did work or provided supplies will still have the right to file a claim, even when a contractor was paid in full.
“This can happen to anyone,” Losey said. “The consumer has to be their own advocate.” Templates for lien releases are available online from the state Department of Labor and Industries.
For the West Richland family left with an unfinished home, Crawford is helping oversee the project to completion.
“I’m having them pay contractors directly and get their lien releases. It’s better for their attorneys to know who they have paid and the amounts,” Crawford said.
She said Solferino broke ground in August 2018, but the home went through long periods of inactivity when subcontractors weren’t showing up for the job, likely because they weren’t being paid.
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