Fire: Oh, that will never happen to me

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.]
More about...Home & Garden, Insurance, Planning

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Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

The home of one of my friends burned a couple of years ago. They lost everything, including the dog they had rescued that weekend. (They both got out, though.) This couple ended up selling the land without rebuilding because they wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes on a brand new house. They just moved to Maryland where their DIL is about to have their first grand baby.

M
M
5 years ago

I assume the neighbor kids are now grounded for life?!

William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money
5 years ago
Reply to  M

Unfortunately, no. Irresponsible parents, like leopards, tend to not change their spots. The couple considered moving because how can you control irresponsible parents whose delinquency might burn your house down again? But how do you walk away from a house that’s just been done exactly to your specifications?

BD
BD
5 years ago

Ugh, don’t insult leopards by comparing them to these parents. At least leopard moms are pretty good at supervising their cubs.

But these irresponsible neighbors sound like they should have NEVER had kids in the first place. It’s disgusting how lately it seems to be there are more and more of those type of people, who should never have children, but have them anyway…to everyone’s detriment, including their own kids.

Tom
Tom
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

I know, right? I mean, we only know these people fourth-hand through biased parties, but based on this one story, I wish more rigorous barriers to entry for parenthood existed for these complete strangers who also had to deal with a horrible situation of a house fire.

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

Tom, when I was a child, I had no way to get matches. Ever. My parents made darn sure of that. It’s not like I didn’t try…but my parents were simply smarter than a child. I dunno, maybe my parents were super-strict, but they knew how to keep me (and them!) safe.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

I too was forbidden to have matches, a magnifying glass (outside the house) or anything that can cause a fire and potential harm to me or someone else. That was final. Then again, I was raised by a pediatric RN who have seen the worst of the worst in these situations.

JL Robinson
JL Robinson
5 years ago

Shouldn’t the neighbors insurance have covered much of this since it was the kids playing with matches that caused the fire?

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
5 years ago
Reply to  JL Robinson

Whether or not a child can be considered “negligent” is an interesting topic. It varies from state to state on what age they can be held responsible for their actions. It also would be hard to prove that the parents were negligent without prior issues/evidence/warning.

Working in insurance, it’s shocking to see what it takes to hold people accountable sometimes.

William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money
5 years ago
Reply to  JL Robinson

The neighbors’ insurance eventually covered a big part of it, but it took a lawsuit by State Farm.

JoeM
JoeM
5 years ago

Not even a fire – my father’s in a condo connected to another neighbor and they had a fire start in their overstuffed crawl space, which was connected between units. Huge plumes of smoke billowed into his unit, almost making it impossible to see. There was no fire damage to my father’s condo, but the smoke damage was so severe it ruined basically everything and took a couple months to sort out.

New carpet, new beds and bedding, new towels, new clothes, new paint, everything but the appliances and structure needed addressing.

Debi
Debi
5 years ago

Thanks for the reminder, William. My husband and I keep “talking” about doing a new inventory of our home but can’t seem to get around to the “doing” part of the program. This may be just the incentive we need.

Beth
Beth
5 years ago
Reply to  Debi

Someone once told me to shoot a video or take pictures. Walk around the house and open up drawers and cupboards. People think of big things like jewelry and electronics, but not how much it would cost to replace their wardrobe or kitchen (pots, plates, etc).

I’ve also been warned to keep the inventory offsite. If your only record was in the house that burned down, it doesn’t do you much good!

Deb
Deb
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth

After years of someday, I recently did a full inventory. I emailed all the pics and documents to myself. Now I have them electronically and don’t need to worry about what to do if something happens to my laptop or flash drive.

William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money
5 years ago
Reply to  Deb

That’s a good idea. I’ll do the same.

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

As an emergency planner, firefighter and avid reader of your blog, I loved this post. Thanks for writing it.

Kyle
Kyle
5 years ago

Some idiot started a fire on the 6th floor of the apartment I lived in a few years ago, smoking on their balcony when that’s illegal in my state. The top two floors of the seven story building were basically gone by time the fire was out. We lived on the bottom floor, and suffered no fire damage, though the smoke and water damage was pretty extensive. The next day, with everybody evacuated and no security on the building, looters went through every unit in the building stealing laptops, wallets, jewelry, credit cards, etc. Dealing with the looting was the… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela
5 years ago

It sounds like your friends did pretty well considering. My parents lost EVERYTHING (including their sweet dog) in a fire. It turned out that their insurance wasn’t even close to enough (obviously…lesson learned). It cost them dearly and several years later they still haven’t been able recover. It is by far one of the most devasting things to watch my parents go through. Check and understand your insurance!!!

Mrs. PoP
Mrs. PoP
5 years ago

And renters aren’t exempt from fires! A friend of mine was renting just out of college when her apartment building burned down. Without renters insurance, she had to rely on a lot of kindness from friends to help tide her over until she could afford a new place and new belongings.

M
M
5 years ago
Reply to  Mrs. PoP

Ugh. As a landlord, I encourage tenants to get renters insurance. No way to enforce this, but I have them sign a waiver saying we’re exempt from liability if they don’t have it. I suspect most don’t.

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  M

My landlords charge a $5 per month fee for every month that you don’t have renter’s insurance. Once you show them the insurance papers, they waive the fee for those months. Something you could consider.

M
M
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

Thank for the tip, BD.

I’m in Ontario and can you believe I can’t even request a damage deposit from new tenants? Or deny pets? And the government determines how much of an annual rental increase I’m allowed to submit. I don’t own subsided or social housing, either. grrrr

BD
BD
5 years ago
Reply to  BD

M: Oh yes, I believe it, given your location. Yet, everyone seems to think that taking away freedoms and raising taxes is worth the “free” healthcare there. But I guess that is a whole other subject. I’m sorry you have to deal with such skewed rental laws. 🙁

Tina
Tina
5 years ago

Good article. We had a house fire which was fairly extensive. We were young in our 20s and didn’t really know what to do. We were fortunate in many ways, nobody was home and most of our photos weren’t damaged since we just remodeled our kitchen and hadn’t brought them back in yet. Here are things I wished we had done. Check the house every day. Since my husband worked long hours and I was running our retail store with 2 young children, we couldn’t check the house daily. We had major issues afterwards that the contractor wouldn’t fix.Inspect it… Read more »

Beard Better
Beard Better
5 years ago

This was an excellent article, and brought up a lot of stuff that I as a renter would not have ever thought to consider before. As unpleasant as it is to consider, it is usually best to take action on the assumption that the worst-case scenario will come to pass.

CheapMom@SimpleCheapMom
5 years ago

Were the kids ok? I’m going to assume they were just in a lot of trouble, but weren’t hurt.

William @ Drop Dead Money
William @ Drop Dead Money
5 years ago

That’s right.

Carla
Carla
5 years ago

Up until recently we only had enough renters insurance to cover potential theft: laptops and other electronics a small amount of jewelry and maybe the TV if they can get it off the wall in time. For some reason we didn’t think about fire which could potentially destroy everything. Between living in a building that’s over 114 years old, having neighbors close by, having a restaurant and laundry mat in the building on the ground floor, there’s a lot that can go wrong. When I switched auto insurance companies a few months ago, I added more coverage to our renters… Read more »

Bdoubleu
Bdoubleu
5 years ago

Aww, thought this article was going to be about FIRE, but this works fine I guess! 🙂

Annette
Annette
5 years ago

Kind of off-topic, but I’m surprised nobody mentioned the gas cylinders– maybe shouldn’t have been storing them in the shed? I’m surprised that the insurance company didn’t kick up a fuss:

http://www.propane101.com/propanecylinderstorage.html

Great topic, btw.

Kim
Kim
5 years ago

My Husband and I will definitely be documenting the contents of our house, thanks to this story!

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
5 years ago

About 35 years ago my wife and I had a related but different experience that one must also keep in mind. We were in the midst of a move to a new city and the moving van was destroyed in a fire! The result was almost total loss of belongings. Water damage from the firemen did more harm than the fire, particularly because heat plus water equals mold and mildew very quickly. Clothing made of natural fibers was salvaged for the most part but clothing made of nylon, orlon and other artificial fibers simply melted in the heat right there… Read more »

L
L
5 years ago

My Aunt and Uncle had a total loss of their home in 07 from fire and my parents had a tree hit their home during a storm 5 months later which took out the back wall of the master bedroom. So I learn a lot from their experiences and keep an eye on my insurance. My parents were very blessed and had a great contractor and a great insurance company which did not drop them or raise their premiums significantly.

Patty@homemakersdaily.com
5 years ago

I’ve never dealt with fire but I have dealt with theft. Our home was broken into twice. Keeping receipts and photos of your possessions makes the process a LOT easier!

b'om
b'om
5 years ago

This is not to be published, but a request for future post. I love the way William Cowie
can break down complex issues and make them understandable. I would love to see a post on retirement (assisted living and independent living) facilities. I have begun to look into this as a possible next step. Many places seem to have a buy in requirement of $200,000 to $400,000. Seems exorbitant to me. This is my children’s inheritance. What are my other choices? What to do?

Emily
Emily
5 years ago

Lol, nice show of concern not even mentioning if the kids made it through the “explosion”!

Dianecy
Dianecy
5 years ago
Reply to  Emily

Lol, the answer to this is in the previous comments.

sarah
sarah
5 years ago

No one else was put off by the incredibly condescending tone toward the “girls” – I mean, retired women – in this story? I couldn’t get past the second paragraph.

Dianecy
Dianecy
5 years ago
Reply to  sarah

Sarah – The point of the article far outweighs any other quibbles you may have. I went back and re-read the opening paragraphs to see if I missed something. I just don’t understand the basis for your complaint. “Incredibly condescending tone”? Sorry, I do not see it. I’m 56 and FIRE and still think of myself as a girl at times, particularly when I’m out with multiple friends, i.e. “the girls”. Which reminds me of book I loved called “The Girls With The Grandmother Faces” by Frances Weaver. Wonderful book about growing older with grace, gratitude and humor. I think… Read more »

Adam
Adam
5 years ago

There is also the issue of insurance being categorized and having upper limits on what they will pay out. I had renter’s insurance when I first moved out for a long time and when I actually took a closer look at the policy I realized it was totally wrong for me. My renters insurance covered a lot in furniture when I only had about 1000 dollars worth of furniture. But the electronics, expensive toys, and collectable stuff I had were woefully under insured and so that made the policy worthless to me.

LeisureFreak Tommy
LeisureFreak Tommy
5 years ago

Having your house catch fire would be the worst. Although I have fortunately never experienced that, another very damaging catastrophic event that did just happen this week to me is flooding. We arrived home late Sunday night from a 10 day vacation to the sound of water running. After looking around found that a pipe in the basement bathroom had sprung a leak. Of course it was in the wall behind the plate glass mirror. Its important to know where your water shut-off valve is. I am in the middle of demo and repair now. Fortunately no damage to furniture,… Read more »

stellamarina
stellamarina
5 years ago

Twice in my life I have arrived on the scene to find a building on fire and nobody home. In both cases, after calling the fire brigade, a group of us were able to put the fire out with a garden hose before the fire truck arrived. As a result, I always make sure that there is a long garden hose left on the back and front of the house in case any good neighbor needs to use it to put a fire out in our house.

Chris
Chris
5 years ago

No one ever thinks this could happen to them. In life, I think we tend to put the important details on the back burner and do not plan appropriately.

The good news of this story. . . no lives were lost. Material items, although precious and sentimental, can be replaced. Loved ones and our pets cannot.

Chris
Chris
5 years ago

Keeping track of your insurance policies can seem like a daunting task. If you have a good relationship with your agent it will be a much easier process and will give you a chance to have a clear explanation of your coverage.

Robert F.
Robert F.
5 years ago

It is easy to say “oh, that will never happen to me” but life is sometimes so surprising and…brutal. I think that this story is a salutary lesson to all of us.

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