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Having a fire destroy your home is a devastating thing to endure. While having insurance is a blessing, the companies have the potential to make a bad situation ten times worse once they get involved. So this doesn't happen to you, I'm going to relay the lessons I learned when my apartment building went up in flames in December 2006.


1. Read Everything your insurance company gives you.


Sounds simple enough, right? It is, but let's take it a step further to Understand Everything. The forms the company will want you to sign will be chock full of legalese. To everyone outside of the lawyer set, these documents can be extremely daunting. Don't let it intimidate you. Take your time and read over it paragraph by paragraph if you have to.


2. Listen to what your insurance company is telling you vs. what others tell you.


Especially where these documents are concerned. If someone says that the document just does this or that, read it to make sure that the person is correct. Look for clauses that contradict their statements. Have them point out the section they're talking about. Read that section for yourself. If it doesn't say what they claim it does, do NOT sign the form until you have clarification.


In the aftermath of my fire, I was convinced to sign forms that released the cleanup company that my landlord hired from all liability. I was told that the form needed to be signed before my insurance company could even go in to assess the damage. My insurance company urged me to sign the form. They even downplayed my concerns and reassured me that it was just so they could enter the premises.


Additionally, the abatement company forced all the tenants to sign the form again when we came to pick up our salvaged property. We were told that the form just allowed them to release the property to us. By then I'd wised up a little and read the form with an eye to understanding. It said nothing about releasing the property to us. What it did say was that we agreed not to sue the company for any damage they did to our property. When the form didn't say what I was being told it said, I questioned the liaison about it. He even pointed out the section in the contract, but it still didn't say what I was told. I read it aloud proving him wrong and was still able to gather the first round of my belongings. That leads me to:


3. Question Everything.


If something doesn't make sense to you, ask about it. If you don't understand a term, ask for the other party's definition of the term. If you don't feel you're getting a straight answer from the people involved, call other professionals from the same industry, just in another area.


My fire was in Long Beach, California. When I came across this issue of people giving me wildly different answers on the same question, I called an abatement contractor in Ohio. He answered all my questions and gave me an idea of what should happen. That was very helpful when the company handling my clean up did not do what I expected and wanted them to do.


4. Do NOT let your insurance company issue a two party check to any contractor or anyone else.


Normally, these checks would require your signature as well as the contractor's for the company to cash it. Back to Read Everything, the contractor I dealt with initially included a clause in their "Oh it's just so we can start work" form that allowed them to cash the two party check without my signature. Needless to say, when they didn't do the job I expected them to, I had no leverage whatsoever to make things right.


5. Don't let the insurance company subrogate at your expense.


As noted on http://www.lectlaw.com/def2/s084.htm: "The most common form of subrogation is when an insurance company pays a claim caused by the negligence of another."


Recovering from a fire takes time and it takes money. My insurance company was chomping at the bit to pay off my claim and move on. The reasoning behind this, I was told, is that they wanted to get me back on my feet as soon as possible. To make that happen, they didn't want me to have to wait for my landlord's insurance company to pay for my clean up. It's quicker if they pay the claim then sue his insurance company to recoup my entire policy.


Sounds great on the surface. What really happened is that my policy paid for asbestos clean up then my insurance company got all of their money back. Except, I was still out over half of my policy because I paid for clean up for which I was not even liable. The kicker, even though my company subrogated the claim, "it's not their policy to reimburse the insured" even though my continued loss was still substantially higher. It would've been much better if I'd held out and waited for the landlord's insurance company to pick up the tab.


6. Don't let the insurance company rush you.


Take time and think out all your options. This includes tallying up your loss. Sit down and figure up the value of all your property. Separate it into "sentimental, but replaceable" vs. "irreplaceable." Replaceable is the first TV set that you bought with your own money. Irreplaceable is the poem your son wrote you for your birthday. Fight tooth and nail for the irreplaceable FIRST.


Stands to reason, the replaceable is much easier to salvage and the clean up company will try to get you to agree to let the rest go. Don't do it. Get creative if you have to, but depending on the extent of the damage you should be able to salvage quite a bit that the company will try to get you to forget about.


In my case, the fire went to six alarms, but thankfully the only apparent damage inside my apartment was scorch marks above the door. The issue that got me was the asbestos contamination. The company only wanted to clean things that were non-porous from the unit. This goes back to reading, understanding and getting a clarification on what's in the forms you sign. I didn't understand that all of my books and notebooks and papers that contain everything I've ever written since I was 12 were considered porous and thus not salvageable.


I screamed "bloody murder" when the company tried to toss all of those items. They ignored me until I found the government agency that regulates them and had to step in with the threat to pull the contractor's license until the matter was resolved. By this point, my insurance company had completely abandoned me. They cut me check for the remaining amount on the policy and got out.


7. Don't let the insurance company use the same clean up professionals your landlord hired.


It doesn't matter if they're already on the scene or if they're the third largest contractor in the state and the insurance company would've used them anyway. Insist that they find another consultant and contractor to handle your clean up. At the end of the day, the initial companies on the project work for your landlord first and they will treat you accordingly.


If you're unfamiliar, the way asbestos abatement works is that you hire a consultant to test for the extent of contamination. Once he gets the results, he writes up what's called a Procedure 5. A Pro 5 is just a detailed work order for the contractor to follow. The contractor is only responsible to do what the consultant prescribed.


If I'd hired my own people from the beginning, I wouldn't have found myself in the subsequent five-month fight to retrieve my writing. There's no record that the initial consultant even tested my apartment for contamination. Instead, I suspect they tested the most damaged areas and wrote up the Pro 5 based on those results. After I wised up, I spent the other half of my policy hiring a second consultant and contractor to retrieve my property. The second consultant found that my property was not contaminated until the initial contractor came in to do their clean up.


I pray you never suffer a loss due to a fire. But if you do, please learn from my mistakes.


Make sure you:


1. Read/Understand Everything your insurance company gives you.


2. Listen to what your insurance company tells you.


3. Question Everything that doesn't make sense.


4. Do NOT let your insurance company issue a two party check to any contractor.


5. Don't let your insurance company subrogate at your expense.


6. Don't let your insurance company rush you.


7. Don't let your insurance company use the same clean up professionals your landlord hired.


Until next time! Don't be weary in well doing.

Fire Recovery: How to Deal with Your Insurance Company