It’s been 11 months (and a couple days) since our cabin burned down our cabin burned down and a monumental thing happened over the weekend–we finally got a check from our insurance. It actually arrived on the 11 month mark and there was a lot of relief that came with it, too. There’s not a lot out there on what happens after a fire and in many ways, what happened after was just as hardl as what happened that awful day last February. So I thought it would be important to write and share. No one EVER thinks that their house is going to burn down and there are a few things that you should definitely do on a yearly basis (that we had thankfully done because of the nature of our job) that will hopefully help keep you covered in case of disaster.
The day of the fire.
The morning of the fire, as Chris was driving Greta to school, he received a video via text of the cabin up in flames. It was from a mechanic in the area that was scheduled to fix the bobcat parked on our property that was keeping our snow cleared. It was a terrible text to receive (the actual words of the text were delayed – just a video came in from an unknown number) but we rushed up to the property an hour and ten minutes away as fast as we could.
When we arrived, the fire department had already been there for an hour and the cabin was completely gone. The Fire Marshall asked each of us to write a statement about the series of events leading up to the fire. I remember my hands were shaking so badly I could barely write but I wrote down everything in detail because I knew my memory would fade, as memories do.
Chris emailed our insurance agent before we drove up to the cabin that morning and they called back within an hour to give condolences for what had happened and let us know that we should start making a list of everything that was in the cabin.
The following weeks.
Before any insurance money is paid out, the scene of the fire has to be investigated to determine a cause. From what I understand, normally this is done as soon as possible so that the evidence is still fresh. In our case, it was February in the mountains and the snow wouldn’t stop. Our insurance (and the insurance of the people working on the cabin) both decided they would need to wait until the snow melted to really investigate.
Almost immediately we started getting a lot of mail from personal adjusters. Our insurance assured us that they would be sending an investigator, but I learned that that investigator works for the insurance company. Legally, they have to represent us, as well, but it doesn’t always go that way. We did have a conversation with a personal adjuster but he said because our cabin was very well documented, we should be okay.
The following months.
While we were all waiting for the snow to melt, our insurance company sent us an excel sheet to fill out detailing everything that was in the cabin. Down to the ziplock bags in the drawers! I can’t even imagine trying to do this for our primary home. At the cabin, we were living light but I still couldn’t think of everything that was in the utility closet, for instance. We went room by room. We looked at all the videos we took. We referenced the many photos on our blog and my phone. We had so, so much documented, and thank goodness for that.
My advice: Take a yearly, personal inventory video. Open every cupboard and every drawer. Go slow. Take photos of your receipts when you buy things for your home and import everything into a trackable, updated file.
This was a very excruciating part of the process, realizing over and over what was up there. But also trying to remember. We also had to list how old the items were, their retail value and the condition they were in–nearly everything was new or like new because we had just started bringing things up 2 months prior.
There are, generally, two insurance checks that you receive–one for the structure and one for the personal property. Around May, we received a check covering the the structure and it was small. Not even close to what we PAID for the cabin a year and a half previously, not even factoring in any renovations we did.
It was heart-breaking and confusing, but before we go any further, another very important note on insurance is to make sure you notify your insurance when you are making major improvements to your home. They will note it and after completion, they will send an adjustor out to adjust the coverage for your insurance. It’s different for each policy, for ours, we had to notify our insurance within 3 months of renovations starting to extend our coverage–fortunately, we have email records of doing that the month our renovations started.
Our original coverage covered the appraised value of our cabin at the time of purchase, but it was worth more now with some of the improvements we made. But even if it wasn’t, it was definitely worth at LEAST what we paid for it. We pushed back and it turns out they were going by original building plans, which excluded about half the cabin as “finished space,” and they said an increased settlement payout was possible after the investigation.
The Snow Melted in May
By May, the snow had melted enough to get the heavy equipment needed up to the cabin to lift the collapsed metal roof off the structure so it could be investigated. To us, it was obvious it had started in the furnace room—the window well was melted in only in that space but they pulled everything out and took a lot of pictures, mumbling to each other and pointing at things discretely. They didn’t seem very pleased that we were there, but you as a home owner have every right to be, so long as you aren’t in danger.
Two months went by, and we actually heard through another party’s insurance company that the cause of the fire had been ruled “Undertermined.” Again, it was confusing and frustrating to hear it through the grapevine and it provided no closure (something we’re still looking for in some ways). Even though the source of the fire definitely looked like it came from the furnace room, they started arguing that they couldn’t say the cause WAS the furnace because other things existed in the room, like light switches, etc.. We were so hopeful for answers, but unfortunately the fire burned too long and too hot and destroyed everything.
It was around this time that we also got word back from our insurance that looked over our personal property (which totaled around $148K) that they were looking to categorize all of our personal property up there as business property, due to the nature of our work. This would allow a $4000 total maximum payout for all of our belongings, because the cabin was insured by a personal insurance plan (we purchased it under our names, not the business).
Fortunately, for us, our taxes proved otherwise. We didn’t deduct things that were there. We didn’t rent the property out. We treated it (and our primary home, for that matter) like personal property across the board. Being a home blogger as a career definitely made things tricky though.
Examination Under Oath in August
We were summoned for an examination under oath at the end of August. I was initially VERY excited about this because we had nothing to hide and everything to prove, but the closer it got, the more nervous I became because I had never been in a high-pressure situation like this before. They were going to put Chris and I in separate rooms and ask us about everything that was in the cabin. We had NO idea what they were going to ask. We were told it could take about an hour each. We decided to consult with a lawyer and have him prep us for the examination, and I’m so glad we did. He was able to bring up a lot of potential questions that we were going to get asked and you know the whole “anything you say can and will be used against you?” well I’m horrible at that. I tend to GUESS things. Numbers. Give my opinion. So having someone to coach me on simply saying “I DON’T KNOW” when I didn’t know was incredibly valuable.
The main point of discussion was showing that our cabin and the contents in it belonged to Chris and Julia Marcum, not Chris Loves Julia, LLC. We had receipts, shipping labels, and letters from many of our partners saying that the items in the cabin belonged to us and not our company. And our Insurers looked at all the information we provided and came to that same conclusion.
Determing the Structure’s Real Value
Chris also worked endlessly with an architect in Jackson (which is just around the mountain from where our cabin was) to come up with plans for our cabin and what the cost to rebuild it would be in an effort to recoup back some of the structure costs. This cost us around $5000, but we were hoping the return would be worth it.
Chris spent August and September gathering every piece of information on our renovations that he could. He found the original appraisal for the cabin when we bought it, showing the value of the structure separate from the land, and how it was significantly higher than the first check our insurance company had sent. He delivered the appraisal, as well as a detailed list of improvements and video evidence of each (like how we added heat to the home when it previously didn’t have any, as well as an extra bathroom and bedroom etc etc).
In October, after all the back and forth and emotional turmoil, we heard from our insurance company that they would increase the payout for the structure, as well as cover all the contents of the home minus any relevant depreciation. It was such a relief and we felt like we could finally breathe, though the numbers we were given still left us in the hole.
Clearing and Selling the Land.
In October, we paid a little over $30,000 to have the land cleared. This was reimbursed by our insurance but we were in charge of scheduling it and paying for it up front. We’d already taken such a big hit at this point, emotionally and financially, that in November, we decided to sell the land in order to close the gap and hopefully come a little closer to breaking even. We had two offers to buy the land but then the holidays happened and Chris started second guessing the decision. While I felt more sure (just TOO much grief and anxiety attached to it) we decided to wait.
11 Months Later, we received two Insurance Checks
And now we come full circle. Over the weekend, 11 months after the fact, we received two insurance checks covering the structure and our personal belongings. It wasn’t the full amount but it was an amount we feel at peace with. I think we’re both ready to move on from this chapter. We learned so much from this past year about ourselves, about insurance, about protecting what we have and what we feel.
I know this was a lot and probably not relevant to everyone, but if you are living in a building, whether renting or you bought it or it’s a vacation home–insurance is extremely relevant. Even if you aren’t a home blogger (chances are you aren’t) document everything you have. If we didn’t have all the documentation we did, we would have had to walk away with such a small settlement. There were many instances our insurance wanted to see RECEIPTS!
Ultimately, Home is a feeling. It’s not things. It’s not any of the sofas or rugs or lights or ornaments or stockings or even photos. And despite the toll a massive insurance claim like this can take, our memories of that beautiful place came out unscathed, and for that we’ll forever be grateful.