It’s hard to know what you should do after a house fire. It is not uncommon for families to be allowed to re-enter the home shortly after a fire. During this time emotions run high and it is very easy to make a mistake.
Give yourself time to take a step back and think your actions through. It is in your best interest to be careful about how you treat the site of the fire, what you do with contents, and how you interact with the insurer, contractors, restoration professionals, and the insurance adjuster. Be careful about the choices you make. The wrong decision could complicate your insurance claim and impact money that you need to rebuild your home and get back to your normal life.
Here are some of the major mistakes people make after a house fire that can complicate or inadvertently limit their insurance claim.
#1 Never remove contents from your home without informing the insurer.
If there are personal belongings like furniture or valuables that survived the fire but could be damaged by the elements or tempting to looters, your first impulse may be to remove them right away. You are allowed to remove personal contents that could be further damaged or lost, but you must document the removal carefully.
Take pictures of everything before you remove any object. As you begin to evaluate the damage done to your home, take pictures and/or video of the damage to both the structure and to personal contents such as furniture. Even if it’s impossible to tell what used to be there, the photos will be useful when the insurance claims adjuster walks through the property and compares their findings to your Schedule of Loss.
The insurance claims adjuster should be told about every object you remove from your home and whether it was damaged. Take photos or video and keep a written record of anything removed, or proof can become an issue later in the claim. You will also want to describe and photograph the condition of contents you remove, as you can receive compensation for restoration costs. Removing smoke damage and soot particles can be an expensive endeavour.
You should also tell your insurer where you’re moving the items. They may want to inspect them before any restoration work is done, or before they agree to replacement. You should be sure that they are either in agreement with the restoration or that they have finished inspecting the item before you start any restoration.
You will also want to check for important documents such as passports, health cards, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, etc., as well as medications, eyeglasses, hearing aids, etc. Carefully record and photograph valuables like jewelry.
#2 Never throw things away from the site.
It is equally important not to dispose of contents on the site. It can be tempting to begin the cleanup process yourself, but again, the insurance claims adjuster will take a walkthrough of the site. They will want to inspect items prior to agreeing to replace them, and they will compare their walk-through notes to your final Schedule of Loss.
Your Schedule of Loss is a complete list of the belongings that were lost or damaged by the fire. Your home insurance policy should reimburse you through either the Actual Cost Value of the lost contents or Replacement Cost Value. Your Schedule of Loss includes contents such as clothes, entertainment items (like books or records), furniture, toiletries, and even groceries ruined by fire and smoke damage.
You will need to be able to back up your claims. If you have electronic receipts available, or the original paper receipts survived, they can help you establish the original value of the items and calculate depreciation. But they are not a substitute for evidence that the items were on the property at the time of loss. Removing debris and damaged personal belongings could raise questions from the insurance claims adjuster.
The insurance company can also pay for cleanup and debris removal. Smoke damage can be very dangerous for your health as well, so it may be best to let professionals handle debris removal.
#3 Do not stop the work the insurer is doing without a plan.
The insurer often works directly with contractors and professionals in debris removal, smoke damage restoration, and dry cleaning (which can restore contents such as smoke damaged-clothes). Do not stop work that is being done on behalf of the insurer without a plan or an alternative.
You do have rights when it comes to decisions about how your home is repaired, but you should have a plan in place if you disagree with the insurer. For example, if the insurer has contracted a company to make repairs and you are unhappy with progress, rather than instructing contractors to halt work, you should discuss your options, learn about your rights, and discover an alternative plan for finishing the repairs.
Keep in mind that halting work will delay the ultimate period of recovery. If you halt work without a plan in place, the delay that results may ultimately be used against you when it comes time to finalize your Additional Living Expenses. If the home could have been repaired in twelve months, but you halted work without reasonable cause, and did not formulate a plan to re-start for eight additional months, that eight-month period may not be covered.
#4 Never throw out a receipt while you are displaced.
Besides Personal Contents and Structure / Dwelling insurance, your home insurance claim can also reimburse you for Additional Living Expenses. These are extra living expenses that you incur because you do not have the use of your home. For example, hotel stays, renting a house or apartment, or ordering takeout while you do not have access to a kitchen. Keep track of all of these costs as you will be adding them up and submitting them to your insurance claims adjuster for reimbursement. You are only reimbursed for the difference between your normal living expenses and what you spent while you were displaced.
It always helps your case if you have documentation to prove your expenses. Create a folder for receipts, use electronic receipts when available, and wait until you can sit down to review everything before dismissing a potential expense.
As you begin your insurance claim, in addition to avoiding the above, you should know these important terms to understand your policy and the steps you should take to maximize your claim. This glossary will explain terms such as Declaration Pages, deductible, personal contents, Schedule of Loss, replacement cost, actual cost value, depreciation, market value, and many other terms relevant to the Personal Property / Contents sections of your home insurance policy.
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