You read about house fires in the newspaper and sometimes you see them on TV, but not many of us give it a second thought. We simply say “oh that’s terrible” or “what a shame”, but what if it happens to you? Most people are unprepared to say the least, and probably all of us are guilty of thinking “it will never happen in my home”. A home fire can cause extensive damage and recovering is not always easy. Learn the harsh realities of insurance and reconstruction when it comes to house fires, and how to deal if it happens to you.
About 10 years ago my house burned to the ground. I was devastated at my loss and confused by all the attention I was receiving. I remember staring at my own tear streaked face in the local newspaper covering the story, and all I could do for weeks was shake my head in disbelief. The day after my house fire I remember pulling into the driveway and seeing a charred black frame with no walls, the front steps still sat where the door used to be, and my roof had a giant hole in it. Bits of clothing, dishes, furniture, and other items were strewn about the lawn around my home where the firemen had thrown them out windows. I found a rhinestone buckle from one of my favorite shoes among the ashes, as well as a spoon from my grandmother’s silver, and a couple of other things. Everything that I ever owned, earned, or bought was gone and I was only able to save a couple of trinkets and a quilt from my mother.
The Actual Fire is Just the Beginning……
Anyone that has ever had a serious house fire knows that the actual fire is just the beginning. Your home, if there is any left is covered in soot, ash, and smoke. The contents of your home may be charred or incinerated, windows may be blown out, a hole cut in the roof, and you are certain to have widespread water damage. Beginning the process of cataloging your losses not only causes emotional stress but can take a lot of time.
Strangers, neighbors, family, and good Samaritans will offer all kinds of services and hospitalities right after your house fire but it is best to avoid them all. The first thing you should do is call your home insurer right away. An adjuster should arrive immediately to help you sort things out. Often your home insurance will cover living expenses for up to 12 months after a home fire and your claims agent will also help you document your losses.
As I was standing across the street at a neighbor’s home, watching the firemen tame the blaze at my own house I received a telephone call from a person identifying themselves as the County Fire Marshall. They then asked for my information; phone number, address, my insurer’s name, and then asked if I had a public adjuster. I answered all his questions and then we talked briefly; he said he would be calling later in the week. Later that night, while at my father’s house the phone started ringing off the hook. At least 15 people called to offer their services boarding up my home and cataloging my losses. It was only then that I realized I had been scammed. No reputable business would call in the middle of the night, and besides that where did all of these people get my phone number?
Dealing with Do-Gooders, Sympathetic Neighbors, and Public Adjusters
The fist moments right after a fire can be hectic and confusing. There are so many people that feel bad and want to offer their sympathy, others that want to help, camera bulbs flashing in your face, reporters asking questions, the phone ringing; it can be very stressful. The best thing to remember is to be sure of who is asking for your information. Don’t give out any phone numbers and don’t agree to services from people or companies you do not know. Beware of “ambulance chasers”, people that offer services right after or during your house fire. Avoid answering unknown phone calls and be wary of strangers that seem to know information that you didn’t give.
Chances are many public adjusters will be calling after your house fire, but be careful. It’s best to know who you are dealing with before you agree to any services. A public adjuster will help you board up your home, count your losses, and sometimes help you find a temporary rental or cheap buy. Public adjusters are bonded and licensed by the state but in most places competition is fierce. A dozen businesses will be banging your door down and they may be good at what they do, but there is no way for you to know this. The best thing to do is get a business card and a reference and then tell them to have a nice day. Do your homework before you hire a public adjuster by checking with friends, family, and your lawyer to see who may be a good choice for you. Just make sure your information is coming from a trustworthy source.
Documenting Your Losses
You should also document all of your losses, as soon as possible. Don’t rely on a public adjuster or your insurance agent to write down everything that was lost or damaged. Most often, they do not know what you had in the first place which is not going to help you make a list. As soon as you can sit down and take note of everything you had stating the age, approximate condition, and the cost to replace it or buy a new one.
If you don’t document you own losses the insurance company will do it for you, and it is very likely that you will not get what you are allowed. Insurance companies only want to save money so they will leave many things out that should really be included. My grandmother’s silver and my extensive collection of rare prints were not included by my insurance company on the claim because they didn’t want to pay for it. Only when I pointed out that it was left off their claim was it added.
Working With Your Claims Adjuster
As with most home insurance companies, my company (State Farms) had an adjuster for everything. One adjuster handled the loss of my home’s contents, one took care of structural issues, and another agent dealt with reimbursements and living expenses. When it comes to getting what you are entitled to the first thing you should do is review your contract. This document outlines what rights you have, defines limitations, and describes the obligations of your insurer.
Before you just take the first adjuster your insurance company offers there are some questions you should ask of him or her.
1. How long has he/she done this job?
2. What is their area of expertise?
3. How important is your claim to them and the company?
If you are uncomfortable working with you adjuster, because of their answers to these questions you should give their boss a call and let them know you are not satisfied. Explain why and see what can be done. It is always best to avoid trainees, recent graduates, and Jr. associates because they are often inexperienced and do not have the knowledge to handle your claim.
After you have put together a detailed list of your losses your adjuster will handle mostly everything from there. But, you do have to remain an active part of the process to make sure you get what you want. The longer your insurance company stalls the better it is for them so make sure you are pushing the whole process along. It is not uncommon for a house fire claim to be submitted and then nothing done for months on end. When my house burned my agent was very helpful in the beginning but as time passed he became less and less responsive, and eventually I had to go above his head to the boss.
If your claim adjuster ignores you for weeks and months on end, makes empty promises, and doesn’t fulfill requests then there is nothing you can do except go to the boss. Hopefully you won’t have to go through all that, but if you do you should see an improvement rather quickly. When my house burned 10 years ago, it took nearly 6 months before I was reimbursed for living expenses and found a permanent residence. My agent promised me I would see a check within 4 weeks but that never happened and I got fed up after waiting for weeks and struggling to get by.
As with most home insurance companies, you are entitled to having your home and belongings restored to their previous conditions. If they cannot be restored, often they must be replaced. You will have to fight for what you want, and it is a bumpy road to travel but under no circumstances should you give up. When you give up, you loose and it is likely you will not get what you are entitled to.
When it comes to cataloging your losses and damages it pays to be realistic. Just because you see value in an item does not mean that it has actual value. Insurance companies often will not pay to replace antiques, family heirlooms, or small collectible items unless it was previously agreed upon in the original contract. When placing values on your homes contents, be fair and sensible especially if the item was old, not in the greatest condition, or not really worth any money.
Keeping a level head throughout the entire process will also help things roll a bit smoother. If you home was completely destroyed or has extensive damage your claim is automatically going to take much more time than a 1 room fire. Be persistent and stay on top of your insurance company making sure promises are fulfilled. Understand that the paperwork will also take some time, but it should not be too lengthy. Typically, a house fire claim will take 3-9 months to be fully resolved.
Even if your original claims adjuster promises that your home will be rebuilt you should still get estimates from contractors. If the damage is not that bad, for example a small kitchen fire, it is likely your home can be repaired within a couple of months. But actually getting the repairs done is another story. Don’t wait for the adjuster to send a contractor, instead seek out several estimates from legitimate companies and submit them to your insurer. You may have to fight to reach an agreeable damage estimate and cost for repairs but don’t give up. By getting your own estimates you are only improving your chances of actually getting your home fixed up.
In my case, my home was totally destroyed; only a charred frame, the front steps and holey roof remained. I didn’t need estimates for construction but instead estimates on the worth of items I had in my home. If you are trying to seek reimbursement for antiques, family heirlooms, and other collectables it is best to get a real estimate from a dealer. If you have pictures available take them to the antique dealer to get an estimate on the real worth of the pieces. When dealing with art, as I did with my collection of rare prints you may have a much harder time getting an accurate approximation of the cost, but something is better than nothing.
When All Else Fails……
It is almost impossible to take your insurance company to court, and win. Even if you do make it to court, and you win your case the insurer still may not have to pay damages. There is usually a 24 month window to make a legal claim against your home insurer, so if you have issues try to get them worked out in the beginning. In most states, the State Insurance Department also investigates all claims covering house fires, and you can refer to them if you have a problem. The New York site is http://www.ins.state.ny.us/