This article is by staff writer William Cowie.

Laughter and hooting filled the house as my wife had Karen and a few other friends over for a mid-morning tea. (Such are the joys of retired life.) The chirping of a cell phone rose from the pile of purses on the sofa. Nobody paid it any attention — whoever it is can leave a message was the general sentiment. Sure enough, the chirping stopped. But then they heard it again. The girls noticed it, paused, but went right on with their story.

Then the phone chirped again. “Whose is that? Don’t answer it!” After the ruffling of half a dozen handbags, Karen held up her little chirper. “Sorry, guys. It’s Rick.” Then she added, firmly, “I’ll call him back later.” Back into its pouch in the purse the phone disappeared, just like a little kangaroo.

It rang again. “Hey, Karen, maybe you should see what Rick wants.”

“No! He knows when I’m here. He needs to leave me alone.” Back into the little kangaroo pouch.

Never happen

Then it rang again. With an exasperated sigh and rolling of the eyes, she reached in and clicked the button. Suddenly, her eyes flew wide open and her entire face changed. “My house is on fire!?”

In one motion, she scooped up her bag, dropped the phone into it and ran for the front door. The rest of the ladies sat stunned. This is not supposed to happen to any of us.

The damage

That picture you see above, that was their house on fire. The neighbors’ kids played (unsupervised) with matches in the shed across the property line, not caring that there were gas cylinders in the shed. The blast of the explosion shot across the fence and set fire to the roof of their house and its siding. Karen was clear across town, having the convivial tea which took the ladies three months to put together, and Rick was at work. Fortunately, a neighbor heard the bang, saw the flames, and called the fire department.

When the smoke cleared from the fire, they surveyed the damage. As it turned out, they were a lot more fortunate than most.

The good news

The firefighters arrived at the house pretty early. One of them heard Toby, the family dog, in the kitchen. He rushed in, grabbed Toby amidst the flames and brought him to safety. As any pet owner knows, that is incredibly good news.

That’s not all. The integrity of the structure was intact, so no beams or framing needed to be replaced.

The fire was extinguished before anything was totally destroyed. It’s not the good news you’d expect, though: nothing was salvageable. The good news is that everything was still identifiable. That might not sound like much, but it turned out to be huge.

The final good news, of course, is that they had homeowner’s insurance with replacement value. That meant they were covered for the replacement value of every item, not just its original cost. True to their ad, State Farm was there, handing them a check for $5,000 the same day, to cover immediate expenses like hotel, meals and incidentals. That helped a great deal.

The bad news

As is usually the case, the fire destroyed some items which cannot be replaced. There’s just nothing you can do about that except to try to move on as best you can.

The disruption was next. It’s hard to prepare for living elsewhere temporarily for seven months, while you continue on with your life. As it turned out, however, that was a blessing in disguise because they got to live very close to Karen’s mom, who was nearing the end of her life. So they got to spend some good, quality time together.

The real hassle, though, is the process. They had to choose a restoration company, which is closely akin to a building contractor. Dealing with a contractor like that is an endless stream of battles, large and small. Our friends wanted some things restored because they were “antique-y” and high quality, while the contractor wanted to replace them with generic stuff because that would be cheaper.

Then, speaking of replacement, there was a series of “discussions” about the quality of the replacements. If you bought a high-end refrigerator, which is not made anymore, the restoration company will tell you the cheapest thing on the market is an “equivalent replacement.” On an almost daily basis, there was push-back over replacements which had our friends going back and forth as each item was considered.

The other thing they had to contend with is the tendency for even the best contractors to cut corners. They ended up going to the house every day, ostensibly to pick up the mail but mainly to oversee the work that had been done each day. Karen said that was one of the best things they could have done for themselves. It wasn’t easy, but definitely worth the effort.

In the end, though, they emerged from the fire in fairly good shape. As it happened, Karen’s mother passed away during this time and she received some inheritance, which allowed them to afford a few upgrades on things like kitchen counters, carpets and so forth.

By the time they moved back, they said it was like they got a brand new house for just the cost of the upgrades. That took the sting out of the fire’s hassle and inconvenience; and it will, of course, be with them much, much longer.

Tips and advice

I asked them what advice they would give others. It came in two parts: preparation, which applies to everyone, and restoration, which of course only applies to the victims of a fire.

Preparation

1. Keep a detailed inventory of your possessions. The fastest way to do this is to walk through the house with a digital camera, taking pictures of everything, especially the contents of all closets and drawers. Then copy the contents to the laptop you usually take with you and give the chip to a friend to keep. This will resolve the inevitable disputes that ensue over what you did or didn’t have.

2. Check your homeowner’s policy once every year or two. Things change that you don’t think of and, if nothing changed, it’s only a few minutes of your time.

3. Make sure you know which items your insurance company needs you to itemize. Some require things like art, guns, jewelry, etc., to be itemized if you want not to be limited to a small amount.

4. Keep receipts of every item you buy over $400 or so. When there’s a dispute over whether an item to be replaced is top of the line or run of the mill, those receipts are invaluable. Rick happens to be one who keeps everything; and that paid off in spades for them, especially when it came to the video equipment he kept in his basement.

5. If you have a house, keep your yard free of garden debris. Rick had just picked up about five trash bags’ worth of old needles, twigs and leaves the week before the fire. A fireman told him if that debris had still been on the lawn, the fire would have advanced around the house much faster and they might not have been able to save the house!

6. Try to plan an escape for pets left behind. It’s not easy, because pets will sniff out the escapes and use them all the time, but it is definitely important to give some thought to this.

7. Establish a good relationship with your insurance agent. There are always things that come up that are fuzzy in one way or another. It’s helpful then to have an agent who goes to bat for you. Human nature being what it is, friends bat harder than mere business acquaintances.

Restoration

1. Don’t go on a spending spree with the insurance money. Everything you get is only a reimbursement, not a gift or windfall. There’s a psychology that’s hard to put your finger on which happens when you hold a big check in your hand. Resist the temptation to tell yourself you’re entitled to that cruise or new car and put it in a high-yield savings account for the time being instead.

2. Keep receipts for everything. You will be required at the end to give a detailed accounting for everything you received and spent. In the end, the insurance company only reimburses you, and they will deduct all the advances they gave you. If you spent any of that on other things, those will end up coming out of your pocket.

3. Photograph everything the moment you get back to your home if, of course, things are still recognizable. Everything, down to the liquor in your cabinets and the steaks in your freezer. That stuff will all be tossed because of smoke or water damage and, if you don’t have a detailed record of it, you won’t get reimbursed. Of course, if everything is destroyed, you won’t be able to take those pictures, which is why the prior photographic record is so important.

The aftermath

When all the smoke had cleared from the restoration, our friends pretty much had a complete remodel for a fraction of what that would have cost. However, State Farm dropped them. The fire wasn’t their fault, but State Farm dropped them anyway, the end of a 20-year relationship. Fortunately, they have another friend who’s an insurance agent, and he helped them with the transition.

The bottom line is that anybody’s home can burn down through no fault of their own. It’s hard to overstate the difference in the outcome a little preparation can make.

[Editor’s note: Since September is National Preparedness Month, and the theme this year is “Be Disaster Aware: Take Action to Prepare,” we hope you’ll take some time to learn about your local hazards and take action by practicing your own emergency preparedness plan, consider participating in a PrepareAthon event, and make sure your smoke alarms are in good working order too.]

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