In October 2017, five days after giving birth to my second child, my garage caught on fire. Four pieces of paper towel with linseed oil on them forgotten in the fog of sleeplessness self-ignited and set fire to a wooden work bench. Because our house was built in the 1950s, the smoke detectors in the garage were not connected to those in the main house, and we couldn’t hear them going off over the sounds of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. When my husband smelled the smoke and realized that the garage was aflame as was our connected three-season porch, all we did was grab the kids, phones, and car keys.
The fire department arrived quickly and put the fire out, but due to another fun leftover from the 1950s, a vent in the garage had reversed and sucked smoke into our house and a non-code meeting wall between our attic and garage had burned completely through. Between that and the firemen themselves, almost everything in our house was a loss. The interior has been gutted to the studs and the vast majority of our personal possessions were smoke-damaged beyond recovery.
It’s all been truly awful, and there’s been a steep learning curve for us. Here are a few house fire preparation things that you can do right now to make sure that, if you face a catastrophic loss, you end up with the best of a bad situation…
Make sure you have insurance
Make sure you have insurance and that your insurance is an accurate reflection of your home’s value. Most home owners insurance policies are broken up into Property and Personal. Property is anything built into your home. Personal is the stuff that fills it. Make sure your insurance maximums cover the current market costs. If you make any improvements to your home, make sure that the replacement value is reflected in your policy.
Check your personal property coverage
Check your personal property coverage for categorical maximums. Many policies have computer and collectible limits. Ours were set at $5000 for each. We had about $10,000 worth of computers and $8000 worth of collectible Star Wars memorabilia. This sucked for us pretty hard. This applies to renter’s insurance, too.
Video tape your house
Walk through with your camera on video and just go over your stuff. Open up closets, take a trip through your attic or basement, scan over your book shelves, hover over appliances. Upload it to the cloud or other remote server. We were lucky that since the majority of our items were smoked damaged, we were able to take an accurate inventory after the fact. If the house had burned to the ground, it would be hard to prove we had all the stuff we said we did both in terms of the value of the structure and the value of the contents.
Get a fireproof box for important documents
Most fire boxes will burn in a hot enough fire, but they are better than nothing. We store our marriage license, passports, birth certificates, etc. in ours. If you’re really worried, a safe deposit box is the way to go.
Check for Loss of Living coverage
This is basically your insurance paying for you to live elsewhere while your home is unlivable. Some have caps on the amount or length of time. It is a separate pot than the property and personal items.
Build an emergency savings (if possible)
Insurance is going to pay, but it takes a lot of time. We didn’t get our first significant check until about four months after our fire and we had to replace a LOT of stuff before it came through. Stuff like a car seat for the baby, laptop, clothes, shoes, winter coats, etc. We had a solid emergency fund set up, so we had cash on hand to buy things without putting ourselves into massive credit card debt.
Check your house for easily fixable fire code issues
At least in Delaware, older houses are only subject to the codes that they were built to at the time unless you start opening things up. Current codes here state that the smoke detectors need to be linked, so if a fire is in one part of your home, all of the alarms will start to go off a few seconds later. If we’d had this, we probably could have put the fire out with the fire extinguisher from under the kitchen sink. It would have been a relatively easy and inexpensive to install them, but we thought “what are the chances of a fire?”
We are looking at another five or six months before our home is repaired and we’re able to move back in. It’s been a huge headache dealing with insurance and contractors on top of working and caring for two tiny people. Because no one was hurt and we had insurance, this fire ruined our house and messed up our year, but didn’t ruin our lives.