How to help homeowners recover from fire damage

Real estate agents can be an invaluable resource in the healing process
  • Homeowners should have a copy of their homeowner’s insurance policy and connect with their provider early in the process. They should document everything, keep a record of who they speak to and what they speak about, track living expenses and consider a home inspection.

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Just two months after fires devastated sections of Northern California, a cluster of fires have broken out across Southern California, fueled by dry brush and Santa Ana wind events. Southern California has seen an outbreak of at least six major active fires.

Here’s a rundown of damage according to the LA Times (at the time of writing this):

  • The Rye fire, along the Rye Canyon Loop, west of Valencia, is over 6,000 acres with 93 percent containment.
  • The Creek fire, which in Kegel Canyon near Sylmar, is over 15,619 acres with 95 percent containment.
  • The largest fire is the Thomas fire, which is now over 230,500 acres and has spread from Ventura County to Santa Barbara County.
  • The smallest fire that has gathered the most attention for the dramatic footage of flames surrounding the 405 freeway in the Sepulveda Pass is the Skirball fire. Some of the most lavish real estate in the Los Angeles area is located in the Bel-Air and Brentwood communities, and some of those homes are in the evacuation zones. At least $20 million in Bel-Air homes have been reported destroyed.
  • The Lilac fire in north San Diego County has claimed over 4,100 acres.
  • The Liberty fire in Murretta burned over 300 acres.

Preliminary data from the CoreLogic hazard risk analysis showed that a total of 86,242 homes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties with a combined reconstruction cost value of $27.7 billion are at some level of risk from the Thomas, Rye and Creek wildfires.

This did not take into account newer fires that have broken out in both Riverside and San Diego counties and the Thomas Fire’s encroachment into Santa Barbara County.

A record $9 billion in insurance claims were filed in relation to the fires that ravaged Northern California two months ago, making it the costliest fire in U.S. history.

What homeowners should do

The Los Angeles Fire Department has been stressing its Ready, Set, Go initiative. It reminds people to be ready to evacuate: secure homes early, load cars ahead of time and be ready to leave as quickly as possible.

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Even those not in the immediate danger areas should prepare strategies for themselves and their pets. Having documents, including insurance policies, can be very important.

Most homeowner’s insurance will cover fire damage and can also compensate people who need to leave their homes for an extended period. However, homeowners should determine exactly what their policy covers.

As a real estate agent, you can be an invaluable resource for your clients. If they don’t have their homeowner’s insurance policy handy, providing them with a PDF of the policy will save them much stress.

You can also instruct clients on the best ways to prepare for and handle fire damage by passing along the tips below.

4 tips for homeowners dealing with fire damage

The first thing homeowners should do if their property, vehicles or possessions are damaged by fire is reach out to their insurance provider and give information on damage to homes, cars and other belongings.

Photographs, videos and any other documentation showing ownership of expensive items is very important. Not all policies provide the same coverage.

1. Document everything

When homeowners return home, they should take photos before cleaning or rearranging items so that they have a complete photo record. This can be especially important when it comes to items that are not destroyed but might be smoke-damaged.

“One of the biggest hassles for people with large or total losses is listing all of your personal property that was damaged. This is where having pictures or a video of your home and belongings really help. People should video each room separately and treat the closet as a separate room,” said Charlie Porter of Farmers Insurance in Menlo Park, California.

2. Follow up phone calls with insurance personnel with written or email communication

In times of stress, it’s important to make sure you have a record of what was discussed and what the appropriate next steps are. Note whom you spoke with and what was said.

3. Document and track expenses related to living outside of the home

“Be sure to also save receipts from any expenses incurred in the short term, such as hotel stays, and document the time you missed from work. Taking photos or videos of the damage can also help verify claims if it is safe to re-enter the structure,” said Tanya O’Coyne, president of  TSC Restoration, Inc., a water, mold and fire damage restoration company in San Diego.

“The reimbursement process for fire damage can vary based on the insurer and the scale of the damage. Your insurer may send you a check for a smaller loss, but for a larger loss, you could receive payments in stages over several months.

“Be sure to ask your adjuster and get it in writing. It’s also important not to cash any checks until you understand their ramifications. In some cases, you may accidentally wave rights just by cashing a check. Checking your policy, or working with a fire damage restoration company, can help protect you from ending a claim prematurely.”

4. Consider a home inspection

Depending on how close the home was to the fire, it may make sense to have it inspected to look out for any potential roof damage and any issues with electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems.

If the home isn’t affected by the fires, this is a good reminder to make sure coverage is up to date and accurate.

“People should review their insurance policies with their insurance professionals annually. This helps insure that your insurance matches your needs,” Porter added, noting that the cost of rebuilding, especially in California, continues to rise each year.

Other ways you can help

If you are outside of Los Angeles, one of the best ways to help is by donating. The United Way chapters in both Los Angeles and Ventura counties have created fire relief funds for communities.

The Red Cross is accepting donations through its website or by text. To make a contribution, text REDCROSS to 90999.

The Salvation Army is working to provide food and supplies to evacuees in Ventura County; its also requesting donations, which can be made online or by phone (1-800-SAL-ARMY).

Deidre Woollard is the co-founder of Lion & Orb, a real estate public relations company. Follow her on Twitter @Deidre.