Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rebuilding and Recovering: How to deal with a house fire

Rebuilding and Recovering
How to deal with a house fire and total loss of belongings from two people who have walked in those shoes.

In the wake of the recent tragedies in California, Arizona, and Colorado, my mind has been on fire and loss. I send my heartfelt condolences to the families of the 19 firefighters in Arizona who lost their lives trying to save the lives and livelihoods of others; they were brave and heroic. And I want to I pay tribute to all those firefighters who risk their lives to help, protect, and rescue throughout this great country. You are true American heroes and we are forever grateful.

This time last summer as wildfires blazed in Colorado, I offered up my dad’s guidance to some friends who had lost their homes.  Sadly, once again Colorado and other areas are in a very similar scenario. Those circumstances prompted me to ask my father and his girlfriend if I could interview them about their experience, about our loss -- we lost almost everything -- and use the notes so others could learn from their loss.  They were kind enough to say yes. Here is their story.

Sanders family home burning
My father’s house burnt down on June 7, 2007. It was six years ago, and we both remember it plainly. I was in Roseville visiting with my daughter. I was pregnant with my son, and I had just welcomed everyone to the 10th Annual Summer Sanders Invitational Swim Meet at Woodcreek High School when I got a call from my dad’s girlfriend Cathy.  She said, “Summer, your dad’s house is on fire!”  I quickly said, “OK.  We will leave now.”  My father was with me at the meet, but we weren’t too concerned, at least not until someone pointed beyond my shoulder and said, “Is that your dad’s house?”  There was a huge plume of black smoke that was hundreds, if not thousands of feet in the air.  I immediately thought, “No, that can’t be my dad’s house.” 

About 15 minutes into our 30-minute drive home, we got another call from Cathy.  “Summer, the fire department says they can’t save the house.  Summer, his house is gone.”  I gently shared this news with my dad who was driving, and his first response was, “Well, I am glad I didn’t fold the laundry in the dryer.” It took awhile for the shock to wear off and the news to settle in.  He had his car, the clothes on his back, his tennis racquet and a dirty towel.  That was it.  My childhood was gone, my home, my photos, my Olympic flag, even my MJ "good luck note" - almost everything but my Olympic medaks went up in flames. But all he focused on was that everyone, even the cat, was safe.  All the grandkids were at my brother’s house for dinner, and Cathy and my mom, who was also visiting, were there as well.  No one was injured, and the fire didn’t spread.  But the house was a “total loss.”  According to the firemen, it was one of the hottest fires Placer County had ever seen.  And it started because the people staining my dad’s house put the stain can with the rags in the trashcan.  Instantaneous combustion is a real thing, and we found out first hand.

Believe it or not, Cathy has been through this twice.  Once from an electrical arc in the ceiling at a previous house, and this her second house fire. (She had just moved in with my dad a few months prior.)

What my dad and Cathy learned about preparing and recovering, I’d like to share with you in the form of tips from their advice.

Dad's home rebuilt, 2-years later
10 Tips for Rebuilding and Recovering from a House Fire
  1. Make sure you understand your policy.  Your insurance is your responsibility. Pay special attention to the living expenses you are guaranteed while rebuilding, meaning you want to make sure you are allotted an appropriate amount that will pay for rent in a home comparable to the home that was affected. Guard yourself for the worst-case scenario.  And make sure to cover all personal content…especially collections, collectable items and antiques. 
  2. Document your possessions. Photograph and videotape everything you own and store it in a separate location! Everything from pencils to cars is covered. 
  3. Call an insurance agent right away. An agent can come out and be your advocate.  They will think of things that you won’t be able to think of in the moment.  They should call you and/or come out right away.  They will give you a checklist and come armed with your policy, which you should also examine to make sure you accurately understand how you are covered. Call your mortgage company, garbage, utilities, phone/cable/internet and water to put all payments on hold. They should work with you on future payments, and your insurance policy might even help pay for your mortgage payments so be sure to ask when you’re looking thru your policy with a fine-tooth comb. 
  4. Ask friends and family to help. When you are allowed back into the property, you should call upon your friends. Friends are important at this stage because they will help you sort through/recover the things you need, and,if you have children, they can help take care of the kids so they do not have to see the devastation.
  5. Make a list of important items to recover. The list should include such items as documents (passports, birth certificates, deeds, stock certificates), jewelry, mementos and anything else that could be stolen. (My dad had some money stashed in his high school letterman jacket that he didn’t recover fast enough, and both the jacket and the money were gone without a trace.) Do this room by room, and track your steps.
  6. Form a system for recounting every single item in your home.  This system should take the form an “inventory list.” This is the most daunting process because you have to think of every little thing you owed and every detail so that you are compensated appropriately.  What helped my family was a Sears Catalog.  Cathy looked through this to jog her memory of all the things she had from electrical cords and tools to kitchenware and appliances. And don’t rush it. Take this in steps and tackle one room a week because it’s really important that these are thorough.
  7. Be aware of Depreciation. Depreciation is not your friend.  Everything that you list in your “inventory” will be considered used so you will not get the “new” price tag unless you have the actual receipts or you buy them after the fire and have “replacement value insurance,” in which case you will turn in the receipt and be refunded the new amount. If you don’t have replacement value insurance, they will ask for the date in which you originally bought it, and then determine a price from there… so be sure to consider this when creating your list.
  8. Consider hiring a liaison. If you have the time and are good with attention to detail, you can do all of this on your own as Cathy did after her first fire.  But with my dad’s house, they hired a liaison to help make sure the insurance adjuster was fair.  This can take a lot of stress off your shoulders and add a ton of knowledge/experience to the situation, but comes at a price, which is usually a negotiable percentage of your settlement amount. (They originally wanted 10%, but my family negotiated it down to 5%).
  9. Exhaust all options when deciding to rebuild. Gathering plenty of information and really weigh whether you should rebuild or take your settlement and relocate. You are allowed three appraisers.  The insurance company provides one and you can provide two others.  While they usually take the lowest of the three, but having multiple appraisals gives you adequate value information and the opportunity to fight claims if necessary. There was too much of a discrepancy between the high and the low appraisal in Cathy’s case, which made her worried, so she fought to get the proper value of her home. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and run through everything thoroughly.
  10. Review things you’d never think of. Last but not least is a mini list of all the things you would never think of…For example: you live on acreage of any kind, you have to consider the worth of your surroundings.  Your trees have value.  If your family has allergies, you have to make sure things are replaced versus just cleaning.  You cannot be compensated for upgrades but you can add them on for a cost during rebuilding, so make sure to discuss.  Have a good look at your policy and see how long it allots you to rebuild.  (It took my family 6 months before they were allowed by the county to demo the old house and two years to rebuild. ) Make sure you are covered with plenty of time.
My heart goes out to any and everyone who is affect by fire. I will never forget the surreal feeling of watching my childhood home engulfed in flames, but life does go on, and you quickly realize that the most important things in life are the people who are hugging you telling you that everything will be ok.

No comments:

Post a Comment