Being Prepared for House Fires
Last July, Jeremy Slutskin and his neighbors in a four-story condo building in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, experienced a reverse miracle: A fire broke out in a top-floor apartment due to — wait for it — spontaneous combustion of chemicals.
“As a cause for fire, it’s up there with St. Elmo’s fire and lightning,” Mr. Slutskin said.
His wife was home at the time, and he quickly left his office and returned to find a chaotic scene. The streets were blocked off and fire crews were dousing his building. The Red Cross was there. Big men in polo shirts brandishing clipboards appeared, offering to board up windows. More men in suits followed, promoting their services as adjusters. And someone claiming to be a fire marshal kept calling Mr. Slutskin’s cellphone and vouching for one of the polo-shirt guys.
“This is all happening during the fire — flames going,” he said. “It’s just nuts.”
The owner of a television production company who considers himself highly capable under normal circumstances, Mr. Slutskin, 43, had no idea what to do after the blaze was contained and the fire crew left. Neither did his newly homeless neighbors, or anyone they knew.
Jeremy Slutskin in the sublet that he and his wife, Brandi Nicole Wilson, and their dog, Billy, moved to after a fire destroyed their home in Brooklyn. Credit Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
“Everyone reached out and said, ‘Who else has had a fire?’ No one seems to be any wiser than us,” Mr. Slutskin said. The period that followed, he added, has been “a large leap of faith.”
As traumatic as it is to have your possessions incinerated, many people who experience a house fire say the most difficult part comes afterward. What follows is often a long and stressful ordeal involving a search for temporary housing, dealings with insurance companies, bureaucratic agencies and contractors and financial strain.
Jim Bertini, senior vice president at ServPro of Central Manhattan, a national franchise that handles fire and water cleanup, said overwhelmed homeowners often look to him for guidance.
“The biggest devastating piece, other than losing your domicile, is trying to put everything back together,” Mr. Bertini said.
And navigating that process can be more complicated in New York, where many people live in multiunit buildings, he added: “In multifamilies, you may have 14 different units that are affected. It makes it more of a complex claim.”
Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and a New York firefighter for more than two decades, said it goes against human nature to plan for a devastating event like a fire. Virtually everyone is caught off guard.
“Nobody ever thinks there’s going to be a fire in their apartment or house,” Mr. Cassidy said. “Even the ones that are prepared — who have insurance and family in the area — the property damage can be severe. Now what do you do?”
Many people will face that question in the coming months, Mr. Cassidy said, because the colder it gets, the more likely it is there will be house fires.
“Some of it is related to space heaters,” he said. “A lot of it is related to electrical cords. People have four, five things going off an electrical outlet. As a fireman, you know you’re going to go to more fires in the winter than any other season.”
It was in February, three years ago, that Jennifer Maroney’s Cape Cod home on City Island in the Bronx caught fire. Ms. Maroney and her husband and three sons were at the Bronx Zoo when a neighbor called. The cause was never determined, though she suspects it was related to a recently installed dishwasher.
“When we got there the whole interior was charred and black,” Ms. Maroney said. “Basically, all of our belongings were destroyed. The only thing that was still working was my old MacBook Pro. The light was breathing in and out.”
Like Mr. Slutskin, Ms. Maroney, 41, was hounded by opportunistic adjusters and at a loss for what to do next. In the short term, she and her family were able to stay first with a neighbor and then with her mother, and they found their insurance company to be responsive. But they soon ran into problems and made rookie mistakes.
The adjuster they hired suggested they have their smoke-stained clothes professionally dry cleaned, Ms. Maroney said, which cost thousands of dollars. And with the insurance company sending them chunks of money to cover living expenses until their home was rebuilt, Ms. Maroney repeatedly ran to stores to buy replacement items.
“Looking back, I would’ve budgeted better,” she said. “Let’s buy cheaper clothes for the kids. Let’s go to a church and get dishes, instead of Bed Bath & Beyond. With things like the dry cleaning, do you really need it?”
Mr. Slutskin, too, found himself struggling with financial concerns as well as the immediate problem of finding affordable temporary housing while covering his mortgage. His policy awarded him $40,000 for living expenses, and the insurance company called to say they had found him an apartment three and a half miles away.
But although the amount “sounds like a ton,” he said, “we’re going to be out of our home six months to a year.” And the temporary apartment was in the suburbs.
“Three and a half miles away doesn’t mean the same in New York as it does if you live in Dallas,” Mr. Slutskin said, adding that he and his wife couch-surfed, stayed in a hotel and rented an apartment for one month before finding a longer-term sublet in Brooklyn.
Jeff Schneider, president of the Gotham Brokerage Company in Manhattan, said many people take out only basic coverage to comply with their co-op or condo board’s requirements. They also underestimate the costs incurred in a house fire or don’t read their policies carefully. For instance, most policies have separate buckets of coverage for living expenses, structural repairs and personal property, with different corresponding amounts.
“It may be worth it to spend a little more on insurance, so if something nasty happens it doesn’t mess you up financially,” Mr. Schneider said. “Especially if your apartment is an investment. It’s always more expensive and more time-consuming than you think it’s going to be.”
Ms. Maroney and her family didn’t return to their house for a year and a half, in an odyssey that saw them living in a rental with mold problems and defending themselves against their insurer’s complaints that the process was taking too long. They might have rebuilt sooner, Ms. Maroney said, but she waited until she received a substantial remittance before hiring the architect. By then, Hurricane Sandy had hit, she said, and “all the construction companies jacked up their prices.”
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The rebuilding process was further complicated by the limitations of her policy, which covered only putting the house back to the way it was before the fire. It turns out that the family hadn’t much liked the way it was. “We had a cute old Cape, but it was cut up in a weird way,” Ms. Maroney said. “It was very outdated. We wanted to do it better.”
A number of expenses, from installing large windows that overlook the Long Island Sound and a third bedroom to part of the contractors’ fees, they paid themselves. “When we get a new home and insurance, I’ll get a plan that goes above and beyond being able to put it back the way it was,” Ms. Maroney said. “But you don’t think of these things.”
As for Mr. Slutskin, his rebuilding efforts involved not only his apartment but the other 11 units in the building, and the building itself, which dates to the 1890s. Rebuilding each affected unit in a cost-effective, code-appropriate and timely fashion, he said, is like assembling a “giant million-dollar jigsaw puzzle.”
In a cruel irony, he and his wife had just completed a gut renovation of their master bedroom and bathroom a week before the fire. Much of that upgrade wasn’t sufficiently covered by their insurance policy; to return the home to the way it was is impossible. For starters, Mr. Slutskin’s kitchen cabinets aren’t produced anymore. And all of the original prewar details were lost.
“For us, there are small changes,” Mr. Slutskin said. “Like the entire living room is gone, so why don’t we move that closet?”
He hopes to be back home this spring. Until then, he said, he is still navigating what he called the “sprawling, intimidating, overwhelming” process that grew from a spark.
Balm After The Blaze
A house fire always comes as a painful shock and rebuilding is never easy. But there are a few things you can do to make the process smoother and save time and money.
Be Properly Insured
Basic coverage can be obtained from about $250 a year in New York City, with broader coverage and higher limits starting at about $450 to $500 a year, said Jeff Schneider, president of the Gotham Brokerage Company in Manhattan. Renters’ insurance, which covers fire damage, is also widely available for $100 to $150 a year for a basic policy.
Be sure to set up the coverage buckets in ways that best fit your needs. Is $150,000 for personal possessions necessary, or is a higher amount better suited to structural and living expenses, otherwise known as loss of use?
Buy a Fireproof Box
When his fire was contained, Jeremy Slutskin had 20 minutes to go through his apartment and take whatever he needed. “You come out with a ball of yarn, a corkscrew and one shoe,” he said. “You just choke.” In retrospect, he said, he wishes he had been the kind of overprepared person who sets aside a metal box containing his deed and $500 in cash in case of fire.
Make sure you hire a reputable insurance adjuster and remediation company. They can help guide you through the complicated post-fire process. To do it all yourself is like taking on another job, said Jennifer Maroney, whose Bronx home caught fire three years ago. “My husband and I both work and we have three kids,” she said. “Those adjusters are like project managers: They are experienced in dealing with insurance companies and third parties, and can push back.”
Document Your Belongings
Don’t worry if it seems silly to walk around your house and take photos of what’s inside. It will come in handy after a fire. “When stuff is really destroyed, we find it’s very useful to have 20 or 30 digital photos stored online,” Mr. Schneider said. “If you can establish ownership, it expedites the claims process.”
A version of this article appears in print on January 8, 2015, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Learn, Baby, Learn.