House fires are traumatic. Even after the fire is out, your adrenaline may still be pumping when you think about it. But what do you do now about your fire damaged house?
We asked a fireman, an insurance representative and a home inspector what homeowners should do after a fire to help you navigate the rebuilding process.
What should you do immediately after a house fire?
Matt Albrecht is the President of the South Portland Professional Firefighters union. He says the first phone call you should make after a fire, even if it’s out, is to your local fire department. The fire department “will have a long list of resources they can contact on your behalf” Albrecht says. He continues to say “you’re likely to get a faster response if the fire department contacts these services”.
Maybe most importantly, the fire department will complete a damage assessment report that will document the cause of the fire, as well as potential costs to repair any damage. We’ll talk about report in a moment as you will need it for your insurance and contractors.
Lastly, if you haven’t called your insurance carrier, do so. Your insurance company has experience dealing with house fires. Most importantly, they will probably send a fire remediation company to your home within hours to begin work.
What are common causes of house fires?
During the holiday season, there’s plenty of Thanksgiving and Christmas tree related fires. But what are typical causes of house fires the rest of the year?
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), kitchen fires are the number one cause of home fires, injuries and deaths. In a study conducted by NFPA, 49% of all fires started in the kitchen. The primary reason – unattended cooking. Surprisingly, faulty electrical wiring and smoking only account for 15% of house fires. That’s less than 1/3 of those starting in the kitchen.
Heating systems come in at 14%. While you may not think of your bathroom vents as heating elements, they’re also a common cause of house fires. According to Albrecht, clothes dryers and exhaust vent fans like in your bathroom are common sources for fires. Dryers vents can become clogged with lint, which is extremely flammable. When your dryer vent isn’t kept clean, lint can clog your vent and cause heat to build up. Eventually, lint can back up into the heating element inside your dryer and ignite.
The same is true for bathroom fans. Lint and dust gets sucked into your bathroom vent fan and collects, providing a ready source of combustible material. This is especially true for fans with heating elements.
Clean dryer vents annually
It only takes 30 minutes of your time to pull your dryer out from the wall, disconnect the vent tube and clean it out. For your bathroom fan, you can remove the grill cover and use a brush to clean the lint from the blades. Or if you have an air compressor, you can turn on the fan and blow the dust and lint out. Not only will cleaning your bathroom fan prevent possible fires, but it will help the fan remove excessive moisture and odors. Cleaning your vents should be an annual maintenance item, just like changing your smoke alarm batteries.
What is a fire damage assessment report?
This is a comprehensive report produced by the fire department that details the cause of the house fire. According to Albrecht, these “reports are federally mandated and all contain similar information”. Additionally, it will include an estimate of losses both to the home and of personal property. Using this report, you can systematically estimate what areas need replaced or repaired, as well as how much it may cost.
Maybe most important, Albrecht says this report report will be crucial in working with your insurance company.
Should you repair or sell your fire damaged house?
Generally, most fire damaged houses can be repaired. Albrecht says “in many cases, you will find the insurance will cover most, or all of the costs. In this case, it’s much better to repair. You may be able to make modifications that make you appreciate the house that much more, and not even want to sell it”.
However, don’t expect your insurer to pay for home or building code upgrades. For instance, if you have a kitchen with basic appliances you bought at the big box stores, your insurance company probably won’t pay for an expensive new Wolff SubZero refrigerator. This will have to come out of your own pocket.
Your local building department may also insist that you upgrade the areas being repaired to current building codes. Depending on where you live, this could include some expensive items such as fire sprinklers or solar panels. If your insurance policy doesn’t provide building code upgrade costs, you may have to pay for these building code upgrades out of pocket as well.
Disclosing previous fires to future buyers
Keep in mind, that you’ll need to disclose to future buyers that your home had a fire. You’ll also want to document all of the work that was performed, and by whom. If you don’t disclose a prior house fire, it’s likely to be called out during your buyer’s home inspections.
Arie Van Tuijl, a home inspector and founder of Home Inspector Secrets says he looks for signs of previous fires during home inspections. Tuijl looks for wood that is painted over than normally wouldn’t be, like roof sheeting or ceiling joists in the attic or garage. He then takes pictures of these suspicious areas and reports them to the buyers.
Companies that buy fire damaged houses
Not everyone who owns a house with fire damage will want to repair it. If you don’t have fire insurance to pay for the damage, or you would rather take the insurance money and sell the house as is, there are companies that buy fire damaged houses. These companies are often contractors or real estate flippers who buy fire damaged homes and restore them. To be sure, you won’t get as much money as you would by fixing it up yourself. But if you don’t have the money to make the repairs, or need the money for something else, these companies offer an alternative way to sell a fire damaged home.
Does previous fire history impact the home’s future insurance rates?
Generally, a single insurance claim will not make your insurance rates increase, but this is highly dependent on your insurer. Melanie Musson, a home insurance specialist with USInsuranceAgents.com says “with some companies, you may see higher rates, and with others, you may not. If, however, you also recently made a claim for water damage and made another liability claim a couple of years ago, you can count on your rates going up. The more claims you make, the more risk you present to the insurance company, and the higher your rates will rise.”
How do you negotiate with your insurance company?
This is when you’ll definitely want a copy of the fire department’s damage assessment report. Along with your report, you’ll also want estimates from at least two contractors for repairs, preferably three.
Keep in mind that insurance adjusters work for the insurer, not you. Their job is to assess what needs to be repaired, but keep the insurance companies costs down. As a result, you can expect to spend a lot of time arguing over the scope of work and the value of damaged items. Musson says, “It may feel like a full-time job, but it’s time well spent”. She adds, “Be sure you provide documentation of each damaged item and be prepared to argue for why something needs to be replaced or repaired”.
Tip: Keep receipts and documentation for home upgrades or major appliance purchases in a fire safe location. Then, if you need to argue why the insurance company should pay for that expensive cooktop you bought last year, you’ll have documentation. If the adjuster is being unreasonable, consider reaching out to your state’s department of insurance for further help. Nothing gets an adjuster’s attention faster than a letter from the state’s insurance commissioner.
What kind of damage can you expect?
The biggest damage in most fires is caused by water and smoke. You should assume water has reached almost everywhere, and has the potential for growing mold. However, fire restoration companies can mitigate some of the mold potential by getting in early after the fire and removing as much moisture as possible.
What the water doesn’t damage, the heat and smoke will. It’s amazing how far toxic smoke can penetrate in your home. Musson says “your shower may look untouched by the fire. But the heat of the fire allows the smoke and accompanying chemicals to enter the plastic of the shower walls”. Then later, she adds, “when you take a shower, the heat allows the plastic to release the chemicals back into the air”.
What about toxic cleanup?
One major factor that most homeowners do not think about after a fire is toxic cleanup. Identifying what is or isn’t toxic, is best left to licensed professionals. Hazardous material removal companies can inspect your home, and identify things that need to be removed to decontaminate your home. You may also find it to your advantage to find companies that only perform testing for toxic contamination. These companies can help you independently define the scope of work, without the temptation to pad their profit margins by adding unnecessary work.
Be forewarned, hazardous material cleanup is big business and can be very expensive, even for small jobs. Expenses can run several thousand dollars even for something like a small kitchen fire. To protect yourself from over paying, you’ll want to obtain estimates from multiple toxic removal contractors.
If you haven’t asked for a copy of the fire damage assessment report, or called your insurance agent, now is a good time to do so. Remember, you’ll use this report both for insurance purposes, as well as for obtaining bids from contractors. If you don’t have fire insurance and want to sell your home, you can sell your home to companies that buy fire damaged houses.
Lastly, if you are reading this and haven’t experienced a fire in your home, now would be a good time to use your cellphone to take pictures or a video of your home, as well as any valuables for documentation.