What I Learned From A Kitchen Fire – PART 2 (INSURANCE)

“The problem with insurance is that you never know how bad your policy is until you are involved in an incident. At that point enlightenment begins.” – Anonymous

Recap

In my previous post: What I Learned From A Kitchen Fire – PART 2 (INCIDENT) I described how I was involved with a kitchen fire that damaged my apartment and left me with several injuries.

Continuing from where the last post left off, I discuss the struggles and lessons learned dealing with insurance, property management, and contractors to resolve the damages that I was liable for.

Dealing With Insurance

A few days after the incident, There were two claims started on the insurance policy.

A liability claim by the property management against me to pay for the damages to the apartment.

And a personal property damages claim by me to reimburse lost property during the fire as well as pay for lodging and food during the repair of the apartment.

The process for the personal property claim was pretty straight forward. I would need to document an inventory of all personal property that was damaged in the incident and provide photo evidence of each item on the list. I figured this would be the easiest part of the experience so I put it off until later.

After the fire, the fire marshall deemed the apartment to be unsafe to stay in until it was fully vented. The ash, smoke, and dust from the fire had contaminated the air in the entire apartment making it harmful to breathe in.

As part of the personal property claim, I was also allotted $1200 to pay for lodging, food, and gas during the cleanup and repairs.

To save as much money as possible my girlfriend and I resorted to Airbnb in the area that offered the cheapest rates. Despite where you live or how frugal you try to be, $1200 lasts around 5-7 days. $150/day for hotels. $40/day for food for two people. $40 for gas.

By this point, the property management company had moved forward with their partner contracting company for the job. This company would handle the maintenance and repairs of the property and there was already an established business relationship between them. This contracting company would be handling all of the clean-up, replacement of property and repairs.

My first priority was getting the cleanup started on the apartment so that we could have our apartment livable by the time the Airbnb stays ended.

Due to the extensive backlog of appointments, the contractors stated that it would be at least two weeks until the cleanup crew could start. I pleaded with the contractors to provide air filters and at least seal off the area impacted by the fire. They reluctantly agreed.

With half of the apartment sealed off and air filters running for a few days cycling out dirty air for clean air, my girlfriend and I moved back into the apartment after the Airbnb stays ended. Our two bedroom apartment turned into a 200 square foot studio. Since the living room was full of ash and the second bedroom contained storage, we were confined to the master bedroom and bathroom. Electricity to most of the apartment was out. We had to cook any/all food in the bedroom and use the bathroom as our kitchen sink.

Realizing that these are not livable conditions we reached out the property management to
see if we could be relocated to another apartment on the property or allow us to terminate the lease so we could find another home.

They refused on all asks. They even refused to send an electrician to fix the power. The only way we could terminate the lease is by paying a hefty early termination fee. Thus, we decided to stay in the hopes that the repairs could be completed relatively soon.

After a few weeks, the cleanup team arrived. They gutted the kitchen and removed everything inside. They also tore up the carpet and pulled it all out.

A week later an estimator from the contracting company came to provide an estimate for the replacement of lost property and repairs. When I asked him about when the next team would arrive to start the work he informed me that the contractors would not be able to send anyone until full payment was provided to them to start the work. They even refused to schedule the work.

The insurance informed me that they would only provide one payment for the entire liability claim. As such, all estimates of charges would need to be submitted at the same time. There would need to be an estimate for:

  1. Cleanup: Removing any toxic or destroyed items by the fire. Sealing up the fire impacted areas. Providing any filtration devices and cleaning services.
  2. Repairs: Repairing any electrical or structural damage done to the housing unit
  3. Replacement Damaged Property: Replacing all appliances, cabinets, flooring as per the property management’s standards
  4. Additional Expenses: Fees or costs incurred by the property management company for lost revenue during the duration of the repairs

The estimate took another three weeks. I spent days communicating between the contractors and property management to get all of the estimates property created and submitted.

Neither party knew that one estimate had to be submitted. Neither party wanted to communicate with each other to provide information on where to order replacement materials for the apartment like carpeting, cupboards, and appliances. Neither party knew to include contingency costs for electricians, plumbing and loss of revenue. Neither party worked in any urgency to get this done.

All of this had to be communicated, coordinated and managed by me. Had I not stepped up the process would have easily taken twice or three times as long.

By this point, it was mid-September when all the estimates were finally submitted to the insurance.

The insurance now took their own time to review the estimates. At first, they estimated that this would take 1-2 weeks. However, at the end of those two weeks, I was informed that they would need a third-party adjuster to audit the estimates to ensure they were reasonable. This was due to the fact that they felt the estimate contained some inconsistencies.

To make things worse, at the time, several hurricanes and tropical storms (including Hurricane Michael and Florence) hit the East and South East Coasts of America. This caused the insurance company to be overrun with new cases and people calling in. This slowed down the whole case considerably.

It was now late October. The third party adjuster was still reviewing the estimates with no clear ETA defined.

For almost three months we had been living in an apartment with no kitchen, no electricity (to half the apartment) and no carpeting. Our lease was to end in November and it was clear that the repairs would not start or complete by the time the insurance processed the payment.

I contacted as many managers as I could to apply an exception and just accept the estimate. I reached out to the parent company to apply pressure to the case, threatening to drop all of my bundled insurance if this was not resolved soon.

Two weeks before the lease end date, I was informed that the insurance company would be making an exception on my case, would accept the estimate and process the payment.

I made sure that the insurance company has the property management and contractors all agree to the final payment. This would leave no room for extra or additional expenses that I would be liable for.

At the end of the lease, my girlfriend and I moved out and found a new place. It has been several months since then and the repairs are still underway. It is hard to imagine where things would have been right now if I had not stepped up and just let the process take its own time.

Important Lessons I Learned

Through an event like this, I learned a lot of valuable lessons. I would like to pass this information forward because it could potentially save or help someone who finds themselves in a similar situation.

1. Document Everything. 

After an incident, document as many details as possible. Create a detailed account of the incident. Take pictures and create an inventory of everything damaged or destroyed.

While dealing with insurance or liability cases you will be asked this information multiple times.

Having your story documented and ready to go will save you time and effort. After an incident, you are being bombarded with new information every day. Details can be forgotten if you do not write them down.

After the fire, I did not document anything. I convinced myself that I would be able to recollect it at a later point if I needed.

Because of this, I had forgotten the important details that I had to communicate with the insurance later. I had not taken any pictures of the damages or damaged property.

As a result, when I was filling out the property damage sheet I had to reach out to the contractors to get their pictures. This delayed the filing of my case for a few weeks.

2. Renters Insurance Is Actually Liability Insurance. 

Renters Insurance is really liability insurance. It can also contain personal property damage but that is not it’s primary payout or coverage.

Your renters’ insurance might not provide much coverage for you during an incident. Review your policy and adjust as necessary to ensure that you have appropriate coverage for yourself.

Make sure your policy provides a sufficient payout towards reimbursing you for lost property and accommodations while you are dealing with the incident.

My insurance policy only covered $1200 for living expenses maximum. It did not adjust to the type of incident nor the number of people under the policy.

This amount was not even enough to support me and my girlfriend for a week and a half. If I had a family or I could not reenter my property due to unsafe conditions.

I had a very difficult time because my policy had very little coverage for well being of the insured.

3. Proactively Save Anything Worth Saving.

If there is anything in your house that is valuable, salvageable or memorable, you need to save it as soon as you can.

When the clean-up crew comes, they will throw out anything they consider harmful or lost. Despite what you may instruct them about keeping vs throwing, they will most likely dispose of everything.

We clearly instructed the clean-up crew on what we wanted to keep. We even asked them to create a pile of all the items they intended on throwing so that we could review it and keep items worth saving. They completely ignored us and trashed everything in the kitchen.

By the time we realized what they were doing, everything was in black trash bags and it was impossible to go back and salvage items we wanted to keep. As a result, we lost expensive and memorable items that were salvageable.

4. Make Friends NOT Enemies

Dealing with contractors can be a pain. They are rude, late and (at times) unprofessional. However, it is important to make friends with them. Do not try to fight them or manage them.

They have all the leverage over you and can make your life hell if they want to. Being nice to them and building friendships can help speed up the work and have them listen much better.

At first, I tried to manage the contractors and complain to their superiors when work was not getting done as expected. This quickly backfired.

They started to become rude. They showed up late and took extremely long breaks. They make simple tasks take much longer.

Even their superiors took the same attitude with me. They became unresponsive and trite. When I needed documentation (estimates) from them or pictures for the damaged property they kept delaying giving me fake excuses. All of this considerably slowed down the resolution of the claim and only added to my stress.

For this to change I had to apologize. I started to treat them as house guests and befriend them.

I hated every moment of it and had to swallow my pride but it worked. Their attitude changed. They started to show up on time. They provided documentation and treat my case with urgency.

5. Your Claim Will Go As Slow As You Let It.

Insurance or the contractors have no incentive to treat your case with urgency. It monetary benefits them the longer your case takes.

There are many steps within the process that are designed to add delays to paying out the claim. If there is no intervention the process can take months.

You are essentially the intermediary. You can help push along this process and speed it up.

  • When a part of the process is stuck, you can try to resolve it
  • When communication has gone stale you can try to jump start it
  • When progress is not made you can escalate it
  • When documents need to be sent/received you can expedite them

Through the entirety of the liability case, there were so many delays due to simple things. Incorrect contact information. Unresponsive agents. Sending a message and waiting for 3 business days as a courtesy.

I learned that if I did not push this forward myself, no one would do it for me. They did not care if this case took 4 months or 4 years.

I had to step up and unblock, communicate, manage or escalate the process forward. Had I not done this, the delays would have easily added an additional 4-6 weeks to the duration of the claim.

6. Get A Lawyer

When dealing with a liability case you need to know what is legally acceptable and what your rights are as a tenant.

Trying to research and find this information out by yourself can take hours or days. There are trained legal professionals that specialize in the area of tenant law or deal with liability and injury cases.

They can help you navigate through this situation with the best possible outcome for you. Getting a lawyer will also give you so much peace of mind. This alone is completely worth the price.

We continued to stay in the apartment because the property manager convinced us that we could not break the lease without a steep termination fee. We accepted anything that the contractors, property management or insurance said as the truth. I was afraid of the consequences to push back and did not know my legal rights.

Speaking to a lawyer months later, I was informed that if the conditions were inadequate we were well within our rights to terminate the lease without any legal repercussions.

7. Decompress On The Weekends

Make sure that on the weekends you disconnect and do not think about insurance, contractors or property management.

There are times when you need to manage and push the process along, however, there are times when you need to put your faith in the process and remove yourself from the situation.

The process will give you anxiety, stress, and restlessness. During the week you can channel these emotions into making progress, however, on the weekend there is nothing you can do and remind yourself of it will be of no use. Use the weekends to focus on gratitude for what you still have (health, family, money) and decompress.

Insurance claims can take months to resolve. It is not healthy to constantly bring it into your personal life or the life of people around you. The point of insurance is to rebuild your life not to lose it in the process.

I used to constantly worry about the claim every day of the week. From Monday to Sunday I was making calls and sending emails.

I brought the stress and anxiety into the weekends and it started to affect my health and relationship. My girlfriend and I started to fight more often and every night I would lay awake for hours running through “what if” and “worst case” scenarios. My cholesterol and blood pressure spiked and I had massive acne breakouts throughout my face.

It was unhealthy and took much more from me than it should have.

8. Thursdays Are The Deadline

Very little work gets done on Friday. Anything due for Friday will most likely be shifted or done on Monday. This is especially true during long weekends when people leave early on Friday or take it off.

Thursday is the last business day that progress can be made.

If a key action needs to be taken (documents sent or received, communication with a party) you need to ensure that it is done by Thursday.

Thursday should be viewed as Friday. When added up, doing this can potentially save you weeks in lost time.

During the processing of my liability case, I lost at least 3-4 weeks alone on Friday work shifted to Monday or long weekends. Simple tasks that could/should have been done on a Friday were moved to Monday because contractors, property managers, and insurance agents all do not work on Fridays. Phone calls and emails would go unanswered.  People would not be reachable during office hours.

Little progress is ever made on Fridays.

9. Be Liberal When Filing Property Damage Claims

As part of your renter’s insurance coverage, you might be entitled to reimbursement to property that was damaged. The guidelines for acceptable items is purposely vague. Do not get deterred by these vague guidelines. Be liberal and document any/all items that were damaged.

Failing to do so could mean losing out on recouping the cost of those items.

When I filled out the property damage claim sheet, the insurance agent provided insurance jargon and a lot of conditions against what I could not report.

As such, I was scared into only documenting items that I had the picture and details for. Out of all the damaged goods in the kitchen, I only documented 20 items. There were at least 30 other additional items that I did not include which would have just been a financial loss.

Thankfully, I changed my approach at the last minute and documented everything that I could. I figured that if it was not covered then the insurance would not pay out for it. For everything else, I would at least claim it and see what happens.

To my surprise many of the items that the insurance agent first stated that would not be reimbursed, was. Had I submitted my original list I would have lost out in recouping much of the damaged items and walked away from this incident with a net loss.

How Would I Have Handled It Again

Knowing what I do now, here are the steps I would take to ensure an efficient and effective strategy for dealing with a liability claim or insurance in the future.

1. Review and understand my renter’s insurance policy

Prior to an incident, I would review my renter’s insurance policy. I would clearly understand coverage for:

  1. Personal Liability: Coverage when you are at fault for damages to other people’s property
  2. Personal Property: Coverage for damages to your personal property from an incident or theft
  3. Loss of Use: Coverage for extra expenses if you cannot live in your property due to unsafe conditions or damages
  4. Medical Payments: Coverage for medical expenses if someone is injured on your property

Understanding the coverage amounts and limitations would have helped me know exactly what I am entitled to during an incident.

With this information, I could have started an “emergency fund”, adjusted my policy for better personal property coverage or adequately budgeted for longer stays at alternative accommodations.

2. Document everything early

With the information fresh in my mind, I would have documented as much of the incident, injuries, and damaged property.

This would allow me to send clear and complete information about the incident to all parties involved (insurance and property management). I could save lots of time and clarifications if I had gotten all of the information at the start and sent it out rather than piecing it together later on.

3. Get extensive contact information

Once the case was opened I would get the contact information for a point person and their direct supervisor for all parties involved. I would make sure to get phone numbers, email addresses, business hours and timezone.

  • Property Manager:
    • Phone
    • Email
    • Business Hours
    • Timezone
  • Property Manager’s Supervisor
  • Insurance Agent
  • Insurance Agent Supervisor
  • Contractor
  • Contractor Supervisor

With this information published to all involved parties, it would speed up the process and improved the efficiency of collaboration.

This information would have also served as an asset if I needed to get a hold of someone or escalate a piece of the process along.

4. Make sure everyone is on the same page

Once the claim has started, I would ensure that all parties involved (property management, contractors and insurance) is aware of the process and what key information is required.

With contact information circulated, I would have the insurance agent reach out to a point person on the contractor and property management side to communicate:

  1. The steps of the process
  2. Key documentation needed
  3. Full documentation of the policy and coverage

With everyone on the same page, there would be no confusion about what is covered and what is needed. This would prevent future problems like multiple estimates sent or incorrectly including contingency costs in the estimates.

From a legal perspective, this would also help build your case in the event that I was sued or invoiced for additional expenses after the insurance has paid out the claim.

5. Proactively recover anything of value

As mentioned earlier, the clean-up crew does not know or care about your personal property. As such, you have to do it yourself.

Before the clean-up crew arrived, I would go in and take all any items that are salvageable, reusable or valuable. Anything left, I would take pictures of and document for the personal property claim sheet.

When the clean-up crew arrives, they could junk or trash everything remaining. I would not have to deal with the stress of worrying about those items and I could start the process of reimbursement by submitting my personal property claim sheet early.

6. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate

As the case progresses, I would communicate key dates and status to all parties involved. This would allow everyone to understand timelines and what is blocking the process.

Every week I would send an email to the property manager, contractor supervisor and insurance agent, outlining the following information.

  • Status of claim: Where in the process is the claim?
  • Blockers: Is there anything or anyone blocking progress on the claim. If so, what is needed? This is to call out who is blocking the process. This can also help build a legal case against any party that might be deliberately slowing down the process with intent.
  • Next Steps (and ETAs if applicable): What is the next upcoming step. This is to bring attention to anyone or anything that is needed soon.
  • Days Passed Since Start of Claim: How long has the case been opened for. This can help escalate or expedite the case.

I would send this out on Wednesday which would give 1-2 additional business days to act upon any of the information in this email.

This information would help everyone stay on point and be held accountable if they are slowing down the process. This information would also create transparency and remove me from fault for withholding information.

Lastly, this information can become extremely useful if I needed to sue a party for deliberately blocking the process.

7. Review with a lawyer

At this point in the process, I would seek the advice of a lawyer. I would want to clearly understand what are my rights and how I can ensure that I adequately protect myself in this situation.

Speaking with a lawyer I would:

  1. Review my actions thus far (including any email communication)
  2. Relay all information received from any party
  3. Understand what I am legally obligated to as a tenant and what rights I have to exercise
  4. Ask for any additional actions I can take to legally protect myself from anything going wrong

Having legal review so early in the process could prevent me from making any costly mistakes. I would also have the flexibility to correct any actions without facing any severe penalties.

This would also help build confidence that I have put myself in the best possible outcome for this situation and have legal protection if needed.

8. Move Out

Knowing what I know now, my apartment was not suitable for staying in after the fire.

There missing power to over half of the property, no sink, no kitchen, and unhealthy ash and debris in the air. These were all safety hazards and not acceptable living conditions for someone to live in.

It is the landlord’s liability to ensure safe and living conditions for their tenants. When they cannot do so, the lease becomes void and can be ended.

With the help of the lawyer, I would clearly document the conditions and express to the landlord that we would like to move out without any legal penalties because the poor and unsafe living conditions in the apartment.

Insurance and the lawyer would be there to protect me from facing any penalties for moving out before the repairs have finished. I would exercise this protection and move to a safe, new location with a peace of mind that I am covered.

9. End with agreement from all parties

When the estimates have been approved by the insurance and payout will be provided it is important to ensure that all parties are in agreement that this will be the final and all-inclusive payout.

I would instruct the insurance agent reach out to the property management and contractors to ensure all expenses and contingency costs are included in the estimate and that they are in agreement with the payout.

I would ensure that any discrepancies are addressed and handled here so that there is not any surprise expenses or fees that I am liable for at a later point.

Summary

I wanted to share my story and the lessons learned because incidents like this can happen to anyone.

I was oblivious to the challenges in dealing with insurance, contractors and property management. We believe that insurance is there to protect us. While that might be partially true, there are a lot of nuances that can make your experience pleasant or painful.

I hope that the lessons and learning shared provide some useful information. And I hope that you never have to use this information but in the event that you do, I hope that it helps.

What Are Your Insurance Stories or Advice?

What I’ve shared above are learnings from my own experience. However, I am sure there is plenty more that I missed. I would love to hear what lessons/techniques you have learned or if you have any corrections to my points. Feel free to comment below with some examples. Please share so we can all learn and grow.

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