David and Chenoa Rivera had just graduated from college when they stumbled upon their dream house: an unfinished foreclosure sited on 2.3 acres in Paradise, California, just a stone’s throw away from Chenoa’s hometown of Chico. “The property had a mother-in-law unit, and we thought David’s parents—who live in Maui—could come back and forth and stay here. Our family could grow in it,” Chenoa says.
The fortuitous find was far from move-in ready: infested with vermin, the property had no kitchen or flooring and zero landscaping. “There were a lot of issues with the house, but we could see the potential in it,” David says. “So we took a leap of faith and went all in.”
Fast forward seven years, and the house—which they share with three of their four kids—is unrecognizable. “We totally redid the property and finished up a lot of the rooms,” David notes. “It’s just been a slow and steady process of updating it and tailoring it to our design. It’s a work in progress and it’s been a lot of fun—something we could do together.”
The pair’s knack for buying and flipping homes led them to start their own real estate company, which involves purchasing fixer uppers in the $100,000 to $200,000 range, renovating them extensively, and reselling them for double. In 2018 alone, they flipped 30 houses. “We have six different contractors that work for us, and most of them are usually doing two of our houses at a time.” David reveals, adding that they usually average 20% to 25% returns on their investment.
When it comes to selecting the homes, “location is huge—the neighborhood plays a big part,” he admits. “If it’s in a desirable neighborhood, we typically like to find the worst house on a block. That’s kind of always been our criteria.”
Then a few years ago, Chenoa came across an HGTV open casting call for folks into rehabilitating homes. On a whim, she sent in their family’s Christmas card with a short blurb describing their business and brood. About a year later, the phone rang. “They wanted to ask some questions, have an interview, and do a Skype session,” she recounts. “Finally we flew down to L.A. and sat in a big conference and kind of pinched ourselves—like oh my God, is this really happening?”
They shot the pilot about a month after that. “It was a little hard because I was pregnant with our second son and filming,” Chenoa reveals. Once he was born, “I was nursing exclusively, so every two to three hours we would have the sitter bring the baby, and it was pretty funny because we’d be in the middle of filming and getting in a groove—and all of a sudden, we gotta take a break to feed him!”
Called Rustic Rehab, the show follows the couple as they locate and transform rundown vacation rentals and dilapidated bungalows in Paradise into charming abodes. The series—whose episodes each required about two to three months to film—premiered last August.
Asked what they would like fans to take from the show, “David and I hope that we’ve inspired people to chase their dreams and go after what they want,” Chenoa says. “If you put the wheels in motion, eventually, it’ll pay off. There have been a lot of setbacks and a lot of things we’ve had to overcome. It’s not always like gravy and perfect—it’s hard work.”
The couple, however, never could have imagined what fate had in store. In November, just a few weeks after the end of Rustic Rehab’s first season, the family faced their greatest setback of all time when the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history destroyed their entire hometown in a matter of days.
“We woke up that morning and you could already see a black cloud of smoke in the distance,” David recalls, “but we weren’t too concerned because there had been several forest fires in the past.” Chenoa had left to take their five-year-old, Kalani, to school in Chico, leaving him home with their 17-year-old daughter, Cienna, and their two-year-old son, Keoni. They were waiting for the sitter to arrive when “I started getting phone calls from concerned friends,” he says.
They left around 9 a.m. after gathering a few items, fully expecting to be home later that day. But on the drive down, they caught a glimpse of multiple fires that had erupted on the opposite side of the canyon. “The ashes were coming down and the traffic was congested, but we were blessed to not be stuck driving through the fire,” he says. “I knew at this point it was more serious, but I still didn’t think our home was in jeopardy.”
The family reunited at Chenoa’s mother’s home in Chico, where they waited and watched the news in disbelief. Streets were shut down, and the town was cold and pitch black from the smoke. “It was eerie,” David recalls. “As we watched footage of people filming the flames, at one point we saw the ‘Welcome to Paradise’ sign on fire, and we thought for sure our home was gone.” They were forced to evacuate two more times before day’s end. “It was a blur and quite an emotional rollercoaster,” he confesses.
In the end, four houses on the Riveras’ street completely burned down, and every property in town was affected by the fire. “Thankfully, our home was still standing,” David says—though the house was far from unscathed. “Our fencing burned down, the kids’ trampoline was melted, and the exterior stucco had areas of fire damage,” he says. To boot, the bathroom was filled with soot and the plumbing pipes underneath the home had melted into the wall. “We actually accidentally left the front door unlocked and there were footprints of the firefighters the came inside and saved our home,” he shares.
As fortunate as they were, the couple still sustained a significant blow. “We ended up losing six properties,” David reveals, noting “almost every home we have done is gone.” That includes all but two of the houses featured on Rustic Rehab.
Nearly three months have passed, and the Riveras—who have been staying with Chenoa’s mother since the tragedy—have yet to be able to move back into their own home, which only recently had its power and gas restored. The couple, however, remain optimistic. “We feel our home is still standing for a reason—that we were meant to stay and help rebuild Paradise,” David says.
One idea he proposes is to create “pocket communities,” or residential subdivisions comprised of tiny houses. “It would be a great, economical way to provide affordable housing for both young families and retirees,” he asserts. But for now, he says, “we are still in the research phase”—a preliminary stage that entails “exploring how to incorporate recycled material and build energy-efficient homes that are aesthetically pleasing.”
As for their show, “We are hoping HGTV will look into filming the rebuilding of Paradise,” he enthuses. After all, “who wouldn’t love a happy ending to such a tragic event?”
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