The Day My House Burned Down
Updated: Sep 1
Tips from Martha after the fact.
Do you remember the 1979 rags-to-riches movie "The Jerk" with Steve Martin? My favorite scene is the one after he's lost everything, and he is running through his house grabbing random things while saying, "All I need is this lamp... all I need is this____!"
When I was a junior in high school, my friend Jenny's mom woke me up after a sleepover
at her house to break the news that there had been a fire at my house. Now, this was before everyone had a cell phone, so I raced to my house to find it vacant and partially burnt. I walked through the fire, smoke, and water-damaged property by myself randomly grabbing things, and saying, "All I need is this____, and I need is this____!"
Stuff - we tend to accumulate a lot of stuff throughout our lives, but have you ever thought about what it would take to replace it all should something catastrophic happen to your house?
Do you have a plan for your family should a fire break out in your house?
I'd like to share some tips from my first-hand experience as someone whose house has burned down.
Reassess Your Insurance EVERY Year
Make sure you are not under-insured, and do it every year. Take my home insurance reassessment tip. I can not overstate how important this is. It is as simple as calling your insurance company for an evaluation on the phone.
Consider this, what would you do if the cost of materials, labor, and home values skyrocketed? Wait! That's exactly what has happened over the past three years. In some cases, the cost of materials has risen 300%.
In my case, when I reassessed my homeowner's coverage, I discovered that there was a 30% gap between my coverage and my cost to rebuild. Let's use a $700,000 home to illustrate this. That would mean that gap would be $210,000. Would you be able to pay that gap to demolish a damaged home and rebuild it, or would you only be able to pay to demolish your home, haul the demo away, and partially rebuild it? Don't use new construction builds around you as the barometer for what it would cost to replace your home. The new construction cost for a large-scale production build is considerably less than the customized rebuild of your home plus the demolition and haul away.
Homeowners' policies provide either replacement cost coverage or actual cash value coverage. To be fully protected, make sure your policy has replacement cost coverage. Would you be able to fully replace your furniture if the insurance company gave you 20% of what the new price is?
Replacement cost coverage pays to repair or replace your house and personal property at current prices.
Actual cash value coverage pays replacement cost minus depreciation.
Most Companies require you to insure your house for at least 80% of its replacement cost. Some companies require you to insure your house for 100% of its replacement cost.
Take a Video Inventory
Since my fire happened in 1991, video wasn't as accessible as it is today. It is so easy to take a couple of hours to conduct a video inventory for home insurance of everything in your home. To make sure you know what you own, take my fire damage recovery advice. Open every drawer and closet door. Go through your attic and garage. I think my mom still has PTSD from having to remember every little thing we owned to work through our insurance claim. Do yourself a favor and take a video recording and store it in the cloud.
Homeowners' policies usually pay a percentage of your dwelling coverage limit to repair or replace your furniture, clothes, and other property. For example, say you insure your house for $700,000 and your policy covers your property at 20% of that. Your personal property would be insured for up to $140,000.
Put Important Documents in a Fireproof Safe
This isn't foolproof. The words "fireproof" are a little misleading. Know that when choosing the right fireproof safe, typically, a safe with less than a 1-hour fire rating will not be enough to protect paper or money. Data, media, and photos may need more protection than paper, so make sure you do your research when purchasing a safe.
How Will You Escape a Second Floor?
Buy a fire escape ladder. Owning the right fire escape ladder for second floor safety is important. These are cheap. My mom was prepared. She had a fire escape ladder in each of the upstairs bedrooms, and everyone knew they were stored under the beds. Make sure you buy a reusable ladder vs. a single-use ladder. This is important for practice. Your children need to know how to take the ladder out from under their bed and attach it to the windows to escape to safety. Check to make sure that the windows easily open. My family had a game plan to meet at the neighbor's house across the street, so we all knew when everyone was out of the house.
Make sure you have fire extinguishers in multiple places in your home. Did you know that these have an expiration date? Put a reminder in your calendar to replace them.
The Most Valuable Things in Your Home
My family moved to the Park Plaza Condominiums in University Park for almost a year while the attic and second story of our home were rebuilt and all the drywall, flooring, and much of the first floor were replaced. The fire restoration company packed up what was salvageable and off it went to whatever they do it to to "remove" the smoke smell. I remember unpacking the boxes while we were in our temporary housing. They even packed up the bathroom trashcans, and all of their contents, and put them through the restoration process. That was comical to unpack a moving box with a full trashcan. I remember everything had an oily feel and a weird chemical/smoke smell. Years after our home burned, when we found ourselves looking for something to no avail, we would always say, "Oh, that must have burnt in the fire." The emotional recovery after a house fire tended to surface often when I was looking for things.
I learned a lot about material things through that experience. My family lost a lot of material possessions and even our family pets died. That was tough, but I learned that stuff can always be replaced. They are just things. People can not be replaced. Now, go hug your family and tell them you love them.