What To Do After Suffering a House fire

Since the devastating fires in Lake County last year, posts about wildfire and house fire recovery tend to catch my eye. State Farm Insurance recently shared some tips that I’ll summarize below. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also has some excellent information online. No one ever thinks they will be the victim of a natural disaster, but it’s best to know what to do in case the unthinkable happens.

Lodging

First, you’ve got to figure out where to stay, whether it’s with friends or family, in a hotel, in a campground, or in a community shelter. If you have pets, this can be tricky. The Red Cross and Salvation Army can sometimes provide assistance, but rural areas can throw them curveballs. During the Lake County Valley Fire, for example, thousands of people were displaced, and many had animals that were a little bigger than dogs and cats—like horses and llamas.

Insurance Claim

Whether your home is the only one to burn or is one of hundreds, you should contact your insurance agent as soon as possible to file a claim. According to State Farm, “loss of use” funds from your insurance policy will cover living and other daily expenses. Keep receipts of your expenses while you’re dealing with the disaster (e.g., meals, lodging, necessities like clothing and toiletries), and some costs can be reimbursed. Your insurance agent should be able to help you secure your property and suggest ideas on how to clean up or restore salvageable items. Never enter a damaged home or apartment unless the fire department says it is safe to go in. Fire damage isn’t always obvious: roofs and floors may be damaged and could cave in.

Finances

Whether you have a house left standing or not, you still need to pay your mortgage. Depending on your homeowners’ insurance coverage, you will receive financial help to rebuild or purchase a different home, but that comes later. Initially, keep paying your mortgage. You should also continue to make payments on any car loans, even if your car was destroyed in the fire. Finally, don’t forget to cancel credit cards that didn’t make it out of the fire.

Inventory

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—make a record of what you own. Include the date of purchase, cost at purchase and description of each item. For insurance to reimburse you for your possessions, you have to know what you possess. In most cases, when a loss occurs, you will receive the cash value of your damaged items at the time of settlement and may recover the replacement cost once the items have been replaced.

Emotional Recovery

While the physical recovery may seem onerous but straightforward, the emotional recovery may take longer and be more difficult to deal with. Some people benefit from counseling or talking about what happened with a trusted leader in their faith community. Post-traumatic stress can be difficult to manage, and self-medicating is typically a bad idea.

Rebuilding/Planning Ahead

Hopefully you’re reading this before you ever experience a house fire. If so, consider putting valuable documents in a fire safe or a safe deposit box. If documents were destroyed in the fire, here’s a list to review so you can start the process of replacing important records: driver’s license, auto registration; bankbooks (checking, savings, etc.); insurance policies; military discharge papers; passports; birth, death, and marriage certificates; divorce papers; Social Security or Medicare cards; credit cards; titles to deeds; stocks and bonds; wills; medical records; warranties; income tax records; citizenship papers; prepaid burial contract; animal registration papers; and mortgage papers.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or visit www.realtyworldselzer.com. If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.