Copyright © 2008 by Ralph F. Couey
All rights for reprint or reuse reserved by the author.
In the summer of 1996, our home caught on fire. The experience of that night is permanently etched in our memories. Because we knew what to do, our family, including our pets, got out of the house without injury. But the days and weeks after that disasterous event were full of moments when we were close to being overwhelmed. We had no idea what to do, who to call, or how to plan. I wrote this planning to get it published as a helpful brochure. Rather than wait for the uncertain tides of publishing companies, I decided to post it here so anyone who needs the benefit of our experience can have it.
“Putting the Word “Fire” in “Fireworks”
July 3, 1996. A typically hot and humid day for a
summer. The sun had set and we had just
cleaned up after exploding our ration of fireworks on the driveway and in the
street in front of our suburban home.
The kids were upstairs watching television and I went down to our
basement bedroom to shower and get ready for bed. My wife, a Registered Nurse, was at work,
having been called in to do an emergency surgery. Missouri
I had just stepped into the shower when my youngest began banging on the bathroom door. I responded with some small irritation. She was, in the words of her siblings, a drama queen, susceptible to fits of extreme excitement over relatively minor things. I shut off the water and went to the door to listen. She yelled that a neighbor had come to tell us that our attached garage was on fire. I hurriedly dressed and ran upstairs. My daughter, in her panic, had opened the garage door. The garage was blazing from the inside and the fire, now supplied with a fresh burst of air was literally exploding in ferocity. I ran back inside and yelled at the kids to evacuate and to take our pets with them. I ran to the phone and called 911. I then made a quick tour of the house, making sure that everyone was out. By this time, I could feel the heat coming off the living room wall next to the garage. Realizing that time was running out, I left the house, seeing the relieved looks on the faces of my children. Outside, the heat was very intense. I saw that my car was parked on the driveway and remembering that I had just filled the tank with gasoline, I quickly moved the car out onto the street. I was just in time, since the plastic headlight lenses were already scorched. A neighbor brought over a 50-lb CO2 extinguisher. I activated it and began to move towards the fire. But the intense heat prevented me from getting close enough for the fog to have any real effect. I retreated to the other side of the street and stood among the growing crowd of my neighbors and watched our home burn.
The fire department responded quickly, although it seemed forever before we began to hear the sound of sirens coming down Route K. The trucks pulled up in front of the house, deployed their hoses and went to work. They attacked the blaze intelligently and swiftly and it seemed that in a surprisingly short time, they had control of things. The fire was extinguished and to my surprise, while the two-car garage was a pile of smoking ash, the house had apparently been largely saved.
We were lucky. With me downstairs in the shower and the kids mesmerized by the television, if our neighbor hadn’t been walking his dog and seen the fire through the garage windows, there’s no telling how far along the fire would have gotten before one of us inside would have noticed. Another thing that saved us was that the garage had been an add-on to the house by the previous owners. As such, instead of attaching the garage to the house, they built an additional wall. That double-wall between the garage and the house, and the lack of any direct access (door) from the garage into the living room, kept the fire confined for an additional space of time, enough for us to escape. In addition, our barbecue grill was sitting on the back deck with a freshly-filled 20 lb propane tank, less than 20 feet from the blaze. Had that tank exploded, the firefighters assured me, the force of the blast would likely have leveled most of the house and would have put at risk any human within 300 feet.
“Shock and Awe”
We stayed with friends that night and the next day, July 4, we drove back over to our house. Rounding the corner onto our street, the bright sunlight revealed the extent of the damage. The garage, of course was gone, as was the large satellite dish that had sat on the roof. The double wall had protected the house, but the fire had eaten through into the attic space and consumed most of the roof. I belatedly noticed that the trees in front and back had sustained some damage as well. With no small amount of trepidation, we unlocked the door and went inside.
Going upstairs first, we entered the living room. The heat had buckled and charred the paint on the wall, but the fire hadn’t gotten in that way. Our prize piece of furniture, an elegant and beautiful china hutch was undamaged although against that wall. It did smell strongly of smoke, as did the contents. Looking up, I saw a huge blackened hole in the center of the living room ceiling and another one in the ceiling between the dining room and kitchen where fire had burned down from the attic. Walking to the back door, I could see that the heat had warped the sliding door frame, although the glass seemed to be intact. The deck appeared only slightly burned and the shed in the back yard had sustained some heat damage. I saw my lawn mower sitting in the back yard. Looking closer, my jaw dropped in amazement. The mower was an expensive one with a solid steel frame and deck. Now, in looking at the mower, I could see that the steel had partially melted from the intense heat, although the mower had not been in the garage.
We toured the rest of the house. There were signs of obvious smoke damage and the upstairs ceilings all showed signs of fire. Downstairs, the only room that seemed to be affected was our bedroom, which had originally been the family room. There were gaping holes in the wall and it was here that most of the damage from the fire-fighting water could be seen.
After finishing the initial inspection, I went back upstairs. I picked up the telephone and to my surprise, got a dial tone. I called the claims line and got a recording, quoting normal business hours. Apparently, they had given their staff the holiday off. Next, I tried to contact my agent, but he was spending the weekend on his boat at the
I sat down on the smoky couch and tried to think. The trouble was that I had no idea what to do. Should I call a contractor? Should I try to clean up? Or, should I just sit there and wait for something to happen?
I had never been in this situation, nor had I ever known anyone else who had. I was literally frozen in confusion. Hence, the reason for this essay.
If you’re reading this now, than you are either looking at your own smoking ruin of a house, or just preparing for that contingency. The experience of recovering from this disaster, of dealing with the insurance adjuster and the contractors was an education in and of itself. If I had the benefit of someone else’s experience, the road over that three-month span would have been a much easier one to travel. While everyone’s story is manifestly unique, I offer to you the benefit of my travails in hopes that my story will help you through your own bad time or at least arm you with some useful knowledge in the possibility that you too could suffer a house fire.
Chapter One – Before the Fire
If you’ve already had the fire, then skip this section. If you’re doing your research, then pay attention.
It’s important that you know exactly what’s in your house, and what condition the home is in. This is important information to have when dealing with the insurance folks after a fire. Things will go much smoother if you can show them in a picture exactly what they’ll be restoring.
Once a year, schedule yourself a weekend. Start in the basement and take digital pictures (film can fade over time) of every wall, ceiling, appliance, piece of furniture, décor, artwork, large possessions, sports equipment, vehicles, etc. Make a list as well. Find out in advance if fire damage to vehicles parked in the garage is covered under the homeowners policy or the auto policy.
If you are a collector of any sort, have your collection appraised and get an official appraisal document, listing each item and its current market value.
Don’t limit yourself to the inside, but go around the outside of the house. Include any outbuildings (even the doghouse, if you have one), decks, or other add-ons that you’ve done. Take pictures of the property, showing the yard, fences, trees, gardens, plants, lawn or deck furniture, etc. At the end of the weekend, you should have documentation of the entire house and all of its contents. By the way, while you’re at it, check all your smoke detectors to make sure they’re functional. Light a match, blow it out and allow the smoke to drift up into the detector. If it doesn’t go off, replace the battery, or the whole detector. They’re not that expensive.
While you’re doing this tour, look carefully at the stuff that you store around the house. Most homeowners don’t ever consider that on the shelf in the garage may the makings of a pretty effective incendiary bomb. Take a good look at the cans and bottles. If you haven’t touched them in six months to a year, get rid of them, especially if they’re flammable or explosive. The same goes for that black hole under the kitchen sink or in the corner of the basement.
Garages can be death traps. It’s amazing the items that end up out there in long-term storage. It was one of the places that added to the ferocity of our fire. Lined up against one wall were a stack of newspapers, a roll of unused carpet, and a five-gallon plastic gas can. From the clarity of hindsight, it was a really stupid thing to do. But when I put that stuff there, I wasn’t thinking about a fire hazard; I just needed the space.
Look for places where flammable items have piled up. With the recycling movement, there are places in our homes which have become storage locations for newspapers and other such items. Try to be prompt and regular about their disposal, so that you don’t end up with a three-foot stack in a bad place. Just about everyone has that small one or two-gallon gas can for the lawnmower. But if you keep gas in larger containers, spend some time pondering over a better place to store them. In retrospect, I had a perfectly good shed in the back yard that would have been a fine place to store the gas. It would have been much better to lose the shed, rather than the house.
Take a good look at your outlets. 30 years ago, electrical needs were pretty basic. Lights, TV and stereo, appliances, furnace and A/C, and the occasional power tool. Now most of us have larger, more power-hungry entertainment systems, video games, desktop and laptop computers that run continuously, cell phone rechargers, and all manner of electronic goodies. The problem is that a lot of homes were designed in those simpler times. The much higher electrical demands of today can push those older systems beyond their limits. When that happens, wires get hot, outlets heat up, and fires can break out. Adding to that danger, most homeowners think nothing of loading up outlets with extension cords and power strips, even gang-loading several of those items into one place in the wall. Look for those places and fix them ahead of time. Talk to an electrician about upgrading your home’s breaker box to higher amperage, and adding additional outlets where needed.
Take a good look at your smoke detectors and where they’re placed. You might think about adding one or two, if for no other reason than to give your family that extra minute or two to flee the house. Most people don’t have them in the garage, but at least consider one that would detect a fire in the garage, and sound an alarm inside the house.
Once you complete the tour, upload the pictures to your computer, and create a document listing the items from your inventory. Put copies of the pictures and the document on three CD-ROMs. Put one in a safety deposit box, leave one with your attorney, if you have one, or a trusted friend, and the third one keep in your desk or locker at work; in other words, completely off the property. And don’t get lazy about keeping it updated.
Locate your important insurance papers, not only property insurance but (gulp!) life insurance documents as well. Make certified copies and put the originals in the safety deposit box and leave copies, again, with your attorney or a trusted friend, and in your locker or desk at work.
If you haven’t had your insurance policies updated in a few years, get it done. It might raise your premiums a bit, but that’s better than leaving your house several thousand dollars short of protection, which would come out of your pocket during the rebuild. You also should make sure that you have at least enough life insurance to cover your family’s outstanding debts. Men, for some reason, have a difficult time with this. But just think for a moment. How would you want to be remembered? As a father and husband who made sure his family was cared for, or a selfish lout who left his family homeless and destitute?
Get a workable escape plan for your family. Examine every room and place in the house where someone might find themselves in a fire and figure out the best escape route. Designate a place across the street where everyone is to meet. Make sure you always know where everyone is. You’d be surprised how many people risk injury or death charging back into a burning building to rescue someone who was playing video games down the street. Then, as silly as it seems, practice the plan. Kids, especially, can face danger better if they know exactly what to do and where to go. Why is this important? Between work and other activities and responsibilities, parents can’t be home all the time. Train your kids thoroughly, and their chances of surviving will go way, way up.
The only way a person can anticipate disaster is to occasionally entertain their darkest fears. No one likes to do this, but in order to be prepared it will be necessary to mentally travel to some scary places. As hard as this may be to do, such preparation will save lives.
Chapter Two – “The House is On Fire!!”
The realization may come in several ways. You may be sleeping or watching TV and smell smoke, or the smoke detector will sound off. Perhaps, as happened to me, one of your neighbors or a passerby will call you or pound on your front door and tell you that the house is on fire. Don’t waste a second. Put your emergency plan into effect.
1. Evacuate the house. Get everyone out immediately and send them across the street, being sure to look for traffic. Anyone driving down the street will be awestruck by the flames and won’t be looking for pedestrians. If you can easily shoo your pets out, go ahead, but don’t risk your life for them. If nothing else, open the front and back doors, providing them a means to escape. Don’t stop for belongings and make sure no one else runs back to their room to get anything. That kind of foolish sentiment can leave them trapped, unable to get past the flames.
2. Once the evacuation of family is complete, call 9-1-1. It’s likely that one of your neighbors has already made the call, but go ahead anyway. The dispatcher will need some very basic information, accurately delivered:
- The house is on fire (as opposed to a commercial structure).
- The address, including the nearest cross street.
- Your name and the fact that you are the homeowner.
- If you know everyone is out of the house, tell them so.
- If you are in the habit of keeping dangerous chemicals around, or you know that your barbecue grill with its 20-lb propane tank is in or near the fire, they’ll definitely need to know that.
Keep your voice and emotions under control. Time is of the essence and every request to repeat information uses up that time. Keep your family together. It’s possible that one of your neighbors may offer to take your children to their home. If everyone is uninjured and accounted for, let them go. That’s better than letting them stand there while their symbol of safety and security burns down before their eyes.
In my case, the longest stretch of time I’ve ever experienced was that time that passed between when I called 9-1-1 and the fire trucks actually appeared. It’s probable that they’ll get there in fairly short order, but it’ll seem like days to you. Resist the temptation to go back and try to fight the fire with a garden hose or fire extinguisher. House fires, once they get going, will burn very hot, around 1,000 degrees. You won’t be able to get within 50 feet without getting burned yourself, so just stay clear.
Once the fire fighters arrive, identify yourself to the Senior Officer and tell him whether or not everyone is out. If you think your pets are still inside, tell them that as well. There have been instances where dogs, especially have attacked firefighters trying to rescue them, simply out of fear, or the instinct to protect their home.
Now, all you can do is stay out of their way. They’re professionals; let them do their job. At some point, the Senior Officer will seek you out and ask some questions about how you think the fire started and where. Don’t speculate, invent or embellish. If you don’t know, just say “I don’t know.”
At some point the adrenaline will fade and you will be hit with some powerful emotions, and yes, guys, even tears. You might as well give into them for a few minutes, if nothing else, to clear your mind. Grief is not only an emotion; it’s a process. Losing a home is a terrible shock. Be ready for that moment.
Chapter Three – First Priorities
If the fire has taken the life of a member of your family, I offer my sincerest condolences. I do not believe there is a harsher reality to deal with. If this is the case, you should enlist some help, a trusted friend or, better yet, an attorney who will represent you to the insurance company and the contractors while you are grieving. Strong emotions, by their nature, interfere with rational thoughts. In this state, you could be highly susceptible to making bad decisions as well as becoming vulnerable to scam artists and unscrupulous contractors. Check your homeowner’s policy. Most will contain provisions for legal representation.
Your family comes first. If any members of your family are injured, make sure that they are taken care of. Hospitals are scary places to children, not only as patients, but as visitors if a sibling or a parent is inside. See to their immediate needs, especially shelter. Children who have just seen their home, the symbol of their safety and security destroyed, along with their possessions, will be especially vulnerable. Over the short term the young ones will undergo fits of tears as they remember treasured possessions that have been lost, especially if you’ve lost a pet in the fire. Likely they will be especially clingy during this time. That’s okay; it’s normal. With the house gone, you are their only remaining source of safety and security. Indulge them as much as your other responsibilities will allow. Teens, especially boys, may withdraw during this time as they try to find a way to deal emotionally with this turn of events. Seek them out; get them involved in some of the “adult” jobs. Not only will this help you out, it will keep them busy and give them a sense of mission and connection. You’d be surprised at the growing-up that happens when you give a kid some adult responsibilities and hold them accountable. As a old Navy man once told me, “You’re much better off doin’, than thinkin’.
As much as possible, strive to keep as much normality in your life as possible. Soccer, baseball, gymnastics should still happen. Putting your kids back in touch with their normal routine will help them tremendously. And you, as well.
Adults will also go through a period of “mourning.” A house is merely a structure. However, "home” is the emotionally symbolic icon of the one place we can go to find shelter from an all-too-often pitiless world. There, we feel safe, secure, protected. It becomes the anchor in our lives, the place we will always yearn for, no matter where we go. Even as adults when we go to visit our parents we refer to it as “going home for the holidays.” Now, seeing this place in charred ruins and our possessions in ashes is a shock to our systems. If this is the first time something like this has happened, it may take a while before you feel “at home” again, even after everything’s rebuilt, repainted, and re-installed. Again, that’s perfectly normal, so be prepared for those feelings.
Chapter Four “Post-Fire”
As soon as you reasonably can, contact your insurance company. Some companies tell you to contact your agent; others have special claim centers to call. Find out ahead of time which applies to you. If you are required to call your agent, ask ahead of time what to do if you can’t reach them. Remember, my fire happened over the 4th of July and it took two full days before I was actually talking to someone from the insurance company. Locate those telephone and policy numbers and put them on a card. Carry that card in your wallet and put a copy someplace outside your home, like in your desk or locker at work. Keep copies of your insurance policies in a fireproof filing cabinet at home and the originals in a bank safe deposit box. This ensures that if your house is completely destroyed, you still have those vital documents in a safe place.
Today, most of us keep a lot of vital information in digital form on computer hard drives or on disks. Heat, smoke, fire, and water do terrible things to that kind of media, so make sure you back up your drives on a regular basis. The Cloud makes this pretty easy, but if you still use disks, keep them in a safe place, with copies in the safe deposit box or with your attorney. I remember talking to the wife of another family who had a bad fire. She spoke with great emotion how her husband rushed back into the house, already mostly involved, to grab the computer tower. This dangerous act resulted in burns and smoke inhalation. Had he backed up and stored off-site, he could have stayed safe and whole on the sidewalk along with the rest of the family. For months afterward, his children reported terrible nightmares, seeing Daddy run in…and not return.
You’ll need a place to live while your house is getting rebuilt. There are several options. Ask the adjuster or your agent how much cost and how long the policy covers for you to live elsewhere. Furnished apartments or corporate housing are good choices. You’ll want to be living in a safe neighborhood, so do your search with care. The place should be clean and in good repair. Make sure that the landlord knows that this is temporary and you may only be there a few months. Most landlords require long-term leases, unless you or your insurance company can negotiate something less.
Some people will stay in hotels or motels. This can be more expensive and in some cases more dangerous. Hotel populations are transient and you never know who your next-door neighbor may be. Background checks are never done on people checking in, so there will always be an element of risk to you and your family in that kind of setting. The longer children stay in one place, the more comfortable, and therefore careless they become. That sense of comfort can cause them to drop their guard, which makes them vulnerable. If you choose to stay in a hotel, keep track of your family at all times. You may even want your children to stay with friends after school until you pick them up. That’s better than having them traipsing around a hotel alone among a bunch of strangers who could be hundreds of miles away by tomorrow.
When you call the insurance company, you’ll need some information at your fingertips. Having the policy number on hand will speed things along. They will ask you a series of questions before sending the adjuster out. Keep a cool head and answer them carefully. If you don’t know the answer, just say “I don’t know.” You will be asked about the extent of the damage, the circumstances surrounding the fire, and if any members of your household were injured. They will ask for a police or fire report number. You can get that from the appropriate agency when they’ve completed their investigation. In some cases, the investigator may forward a copy of the report directly to the insurance company.
The fire department will conduct an investigation of your fire. This is to ensure that the cause wasn’t arson. The department will send out an investigator, a senior firefighter who has spent a professional lifetime around fires of all types. Not only do they know how to expertly “read” the remains of a fire, they are also pros at reading human behavior, so answer their questions honestly and truthfully. Again, if you don’t know the answer, don’t speculate. Just say, “I don’t know.” Some of the questions may hit you as being accusatory and may trigger an emotional response. Don’t give in to that emotion. Stay cool, stay factual, stay under control.
When the adjuster shows up, you’ll be subjected to another “interrogation.” The purpose, of course, of all these questions is what is referred to as “due diligence,” the process of determining that the cause of the fire was accidental and not purposefully set. If you keep track of your credit records, you may find during this process a “hit” from the insurance company and the FD investigator requesting copies of your credit report. Occasionally, property owners who have gotten themselves into deep financial trouble will “arrange” a fire so they can collect the insurance proceeds and pay off or pay down the debt. The insurance company does these investigations in order to protect their financial interests. Don’t take offense; it’s just routine procedure.
After your interview, the adjuster will do a walk through of the property in order to make an initial damage assessment. Go with the adjuster and take a digital camera with you. Take hundreds of pictures and make sure you point out things that the adjuster might miss. In our case, the adjuster completely missed smoke damage in the closets at the other end of the house from the fire.
Once the initial assessment is done, the adjuster will tell you to contact some construction contractors to get an estimate. They will depend on you to do this. Because of some bad history concerning collusion and kickbacks, the insurance company cannot give you any recommendations. This is where you have to do a little homework. Ask your friends who have had work done, especially restorative work. If you know of someone who has had fire damage, go meet them, introduce yourself and ask about their experience. When you decide on the three or so contractors, ask them to bring names and addresses of previous clients. Make some phone calls and ask the clients questions about the company’s overall honesty, the quality of the work and materials, the fit and finish of their work, and especially about any problems they encountered during the process. This is important because the lowest estimate may not be the best choice. Remember, you’re rebuilding your home. Demand high standards and stick to your guns.
Once you’ve chosen a contractor, sit down with their representative and talk about exactly what they’re going to do. Also ask about materials. Insist that they use the best quality, commensurate with the amount of settlement money available from your insurance company. Ask about when they can start and how long the repairs/rebuild will take. In my case, it was a bad summer for fires in our city. Consequently, the quality contractors were backed up with work. My first three choices said that they wouldn’t be able to start right away and probably wouldn’t finish until early November. I decided to go with a company that was less reputable, mainly because they could start immediately. In retrospect, I should have waited for one of the good companies.
Chapter Five “Before the Rebuild”
Depending on workload, there may be a time lag between the fire and when the contractors can start work. If the inside of the house has been exposed by a hole in the roof or side, make sure they put tarps up to cover the holes. Insurance companies may not cover additional damage that happens after the fire. Also, if this was an older home, you may need to pour some substances down the drain on a regular basis to keep the sewer clear. In my case, during the two months of the rebuild, roots grew into the sewer pipes and backed up the drains into the basement. The insurance company told me they would not cover the damage to the carpets and walls from the water, so I had to not only cover the cost of the damage out of pocket, but I was also on the hook for the cost of clearing the sewer pipe, which ran in excess of a thousand dollars. Luckily, an emotional plea to the county sewer authority resulted in them assuming the cost. I won’t guarantee the same result for you.
Damaged and empty houses are attractive targets for thieves and vandals. The fire has compromised your home’s security, making it much easier to enter. Even though you may have removed all your valuables, vandals could still do plenty of damage with paint, axes, or whatever else they may bring with them. They may even set another fire. Curious kids from the neighborhood will be a problem as well. If a child somehow gets into the house and is injured, the parents could sue you. It’s a suit you would probably win, but to fight such an action takes time, money, and emotional resources, all of which are better focused on your own needs. Ask your neighbors to keep an occasional eye on your property. Also, contact the local law enforcement agency and ask them to check on the property, especially after dark. Put up large and conspicuous “No Trespassing” and “Dangerous Area” signs around the property’s perimeter and on doors and first floor windows. If there will be an extended time before the contractor starts work, have them cover the first floor windows with plywood. This ensures that proper notice of the danger inside is given and helps to protect you legally.
You may also discover that four-legged poachers have taken up uninvited residence. These creatures could be mice, rats, raccoons, rabbits, or feral cats and dogs. You may have to hire animal control to remove them. Don’t try to do this yourself. As far as the critters are concerned, this is now THEIR house and they will fight any eviction efforts. Raccoons may look cute and cuddly, but when cornered, they can tear you to ribbons, especially if defending their young.
Make arrangements for movers to remove all your remaining possessions from the house and put it in storage. Because of the carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) present in smoke residue, everything made of fabric in the house will probably need to be discarded, even if it wasn’t burned. Bedding, mattresses, carpet, sofas, chairs, drapes will all need to be examined. If it can’t be easily cleaned, like clothes and drapes, then talk to the adjuster and get those items listed on the contents list. Hire a fire restoration company to clean your wood furniture and other items, like dishware and pots and pans that you intend to keep. If your computer and peripherals survived the fire, take them to a repair shop and order a thorough cleaning and a full systems check. If anything needs replacing or repair, get a list of the components and the cost estimate and take it to the adjuster before authorizing the repair. You need to make sure that the costs you incur will be covered costs.
Chapter Six “Clearing Away The Mess”
Once the contracting crew begins work, make it a point to visit the property at least once per day, preferably while the crew is there. Your visible presence tells them that you are keeping an eye on things and will induce an atmosphere where shenanigans are less likely to occur.
The first step for the contractor will be the removal of debris and demolition of the parts of the house that are unrepairable. Some homeowners will want to keep a piece of the old house, a wooden beam, for example, as a keepsake to be incorporated into the new structure. If that is your desire, communicate that to the crew and pick the piece you want to keep.
If the fire has happened in the garage, you might want to take a good look at the floor. In my case, some of the items that had been in the garage, particularly our bowling balls, had melted to the concrete. The crew ended up using a backhoe to pry and scrape the melted debris, which left the floor in bad shape. I pointed this out to the adjuster, but the claim was denied because, as the adjuster maintained, the gouged and pitted condition of the garage floor was commensurate with the age of the house. Since this was early in the process, I hadn’t yet learned to put my foot down. Of course, had I retained any pre-fire pictures of the garage, the matter would have been settled without debate.
While the demolition is going on, talk with the foreman and make sure any questions he has are fully answered. Again, your visible interested presence helps the communication.
Meet with the contractor and get the hard information on where they will be getting the materials and the grade of materials they’ll be using. This is important. Admittedly, I trusted too much. They had already started to reinstall paneling in the basement when I saw what they were using. Not only was it a poorer grade than what had been replaced, it was stuff that would have looked cheesy in a 70’s Disco Van, let alone a home. I stopped them in their tracks and went shopping myself. I found some paneling that came much closer to the quality of what had been there before. I took the information back to the contractor and ordered him to use it. He whined later that he had to drive two hours to pick it up, a noise to which I turned a deaf ear. This raises an important point.
Businesses exist with two overriding missions: Maximizing income, and minimizing outgo. As far as the contractor is concerned, he will use the cheapest materials he can get away with. Why? Because it extends his profit margin. The insurance company has already told him the most he will get for the job. He will do everything he can to minimize his costs, from materials to labor. As the homeowner, you need to stay on top of this procurement process. Insist that the contractor clear with you the materials he is going to use. This not only means paneling, as in my case, but carpets, windows, doors, hardware, plumbing, siding, insulation, and electrical components. His employer wants to make money on your job. Your job is to make sure he doesn’t inflict dollar store décor on your home. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself. That company is effectively your employee and you have a right to demand the best effort and materials. Remember that their quality of work will have a direct effect on the long-term quality and value of your home. This is your investment. Not his.
This may be a good time to think about some upgrades. For example, we decided to add a whole-house attic fan during the reconstruction. Whatever you decide to change, be careful to keep those costs separate from the actual rebuild, and pay them out of your own resources.
At some point, you will want to begin shopping for replacement furniture and appliances. Check with the adjuster to find out how they want to handle the money. Usually, you will go to the store, find what you want and take an invoice to the adjuster, who will then cut the check. Avoid the temptation for huge upgrades in this process, as this tends to make adjusters a little grumpy. Of course, if you’re replacing a washer that was 12 years old, it’s going to cost more. But if you’re replacing a 19-inch tabletop TV with a 54-inch Plasma HD, don’t think for a moment that you’ll be able to sneak that one past the adjuster. Now, you can still order top of the line equipment, but tell the adjuster that you will cover the difference in the cost. They will appreciate your honesty. And you may avoid committing insurance fraud, a felony in most states.
These purchases should be timed to coincide with the move-in date, so you will likely have a long lead time to shop for exactly what you want. You can even drive a harder bargain because you’ll be paying cash. Don’t be afraid to get a little aggressive. Who knows? You might enjoy the process of bargaining.
It is likely that there will be times that you and the adjuster will find yourselves at loggerheads during the rebuild. The adage about business applies equally well towards insurance companies. I remember seeing a quote from the underwriters’ manual of a major insurer. On one page was their stated policy: “We agree to pay every penny we owe. And not one penny more.” Despite the warm and gooey platitudes voiced by the marketing folks in their ads, they are, first and foremost, businesses. There will be times when they will say, “We’re not covering that.” What I discovered late in the game was if I truly felt I had a legitimate beef with an underwriting decision, I could plant my foot and insist that they cover the item. Of course, I had to justify my position with convincing proof, but in the end, the adjuster would sigh, look up from the clipboard, and ask, “What exactly do you want, Mr. Couey?” And then give in. I didn’t yell; I didn’t scream or fling insults. I stated my case strongly, convincingly, and WITH PROOF, all using a calm, reasonable tone of voice. While I still lost some battles, I won a few more and the house was better off because of it.
One notable battle concerned the carpet. The sections of carpet close to the fire were obviously smoke-stained and beyond restoration. The adjuster made the case with me that the carpets at the other end of the house merely needed to be cleaned. I pushed hard for complete replacement and won. Why? Because the old and new carpets came from different dye lots. That would leave an obvious knit line between those sections. I bolstered my position by pointing out the heavy smoke damage in the closets (which the adjuster had completely missed). In the end, we compromised by having all the upstairs carpets replaced, along with the family room section downstairs, and then cleaning the rest.
One thing commonly overlooked is damage to your yard. Believe it or not, the trees outside the house, if they were damaged by the fire, are covered in the policy. You may need to hire a company to take down damaged trees, lest they rot and eventually fall on your newly-rebuilt house. Your grass can be re-sowed and your gardens restored under most policies. Fences and any outbuildings damaged during the fire can be repaired or replaced as well. If you live on a hillside, make sure that the water path is steered by landscaping away from your foundation.
Chapter Seven: “Readying for Re-occupation”
In the last week or so, the contractor will inform you and the adjuster that he is almost done. The adjuster will then arrange for an inspector to examine the repairs/rebuild. Again, this is primarily for their benefit. If you want, you can also hire your own inspector, at your expense, to conduct a parallel inspection. You might also consider a visit from a Realtor, to identify any issues that would affect the resale value. It probably won’t be necessary unless you have some suspicion that shortcuts were made.
During that week, you should also do your own walk-through. After all, it is your home and you know what should be there. Bear in mind that their responsibility was to RESTORE your house to the way it was before. If the fire damaged the roof, make sure you go into the attic and check the roof structure and supports. If there’s been any rain since the roof was completed, check carefully for signs of leaks.
Remember human nature. Strangers just aren’t going to feel the same way about your home as you do. To them, this was just another job. Take several moments and stand in the center of each room. Look it over carefully starting with the floor and working your way up to the ceiling. Take your time and try to find the mistakes. The time to get them corrected is before the contractors sign over the house to you.
You should at this time arrange to have your remaining household goods moved back in. Also, your personal possessions that you haven’t already replaced should be replaced during this time.
The company that cleaned your household goods will be bringing them back. Take careful inventory, as some things can just turn up missing. Also, any things they could not clean and had to discard will be listed. You can go shopping and replace those now.
Spend some time with your family, especially the kids, telling them as far in advance as possible that they’ll be going home soon. There will be some anxiousness and anxiety, so be ready for that.
Chapter Eight “Home, Sweet Home”
Moving day. After many months of waiting, you finally can take up housekeeping again. Coordinate with the landlord your departure of the temporary quarters. Make sure you get all your belongings out and give the place a thorough cleaning. The complicated logistics may mean you having to stay in a hotel or with friends for a day or two. Contact the stores where you bought the replacement appliances and furniture and schedule their delivery. It might be best to have that done the day before the arrival of the rest of your belongings. Put up some tarps to protect your new walls from getting dinged by the movers. Hopefully, you will have already decided where you want the things placed. Nothing is more exasperating to movers than to stand there, holding heavy furniture while the homeowner looks around the room and says, “Hmmm….”
The two or three days that this is going on will be frenetic and full of tension. Don’t be rushed into quick decisions, but take your time and work hard to keep your wits about you. This might be an excellent time for your kids to visit the Grandparents.
Those first few nights will be a bit strange. It is still your home, but since everything looks new and fresh, things will feel a bit…off. It may take some time to be re-acclimated, not only because of the fire itself, but also because of the disruptions you’ve experienced. Your kids will be restless, perhaps even experience some nightmares. Be ready for that. The good news is that generally, children are very resilient and they will probably be fully readjusted before you will.
Find out the time limits of the contractor’s liability. Over time, you may discover some things that were missed, or some things that don’t work right or don’t work at all. Keep on top of those items and call the contractor’s attention to them as soon as they come up.
Once everything is back in and set up, the adjuster will probably make an appearance. After all, they’ve been through this process with you and despite the attitude of the corporation, most adjusters are genuinely interested in seeing a successful end to this long process. Try to part on good terms, because you never know when you might need them again.
Once your family is back home and things have calmed down, hold a family meeting and talk about what this experience has taught you. If the fire was the result of an accident, talk about what you can do as a family to keep those kinds of accidents from happening again. Also, remind your kids that your old house is now brand new and impress upon them the need to keep it looking this nice. Not only will this protect your investment, but will also help teach them an important lesson about value.
If you didn't have an emergency escape plan before, now would be the time to put one together. Make sure every bedroom has a viable exit, and everyone knows where to meet. Know that fires happen in dry weather and wet, in summer and in winter. Coats, jackets, and boots should be easily accessible. Think about it. When your family goes somewhere, how long does it actually take to get everyone dressed and out of the house? Now take that time span and imagine your house is on fire. You won't have nearly enough time if you have to go look for everything.
Your friends will at times ask you about your experience. Don’t be reluctant to share you good and bad about what happened. Any knowledge you can pass along will help them immensely if they should find themselves in a similar situation. And any information about the fire itself will help them prevent such an occurrence in their home.
Life is neither good nor bad; it is merely indifferent. What ensures our happy passage through that process is how well we handle those difficult times that will inevitably confront us. Restoring a family to normality after a disaster is an experience that will strengthen those bonds and teach children priceless lessons about how to respond to adversity. And all of you will discover personal strengths you never thought you had.
None of us ever expects disaster to happen. But when it does, it is imperative that we respond in the most effective manner. If you are reading this because you’re just looking for information, then I pray you will never have to use my experience in your life.
If, on the other hand, you are reading this because your home has been turned into cinders, then may God give you the strength to survive the difficult challenges which lie ahead.