Posted By Mike Kunze on 10/27/2007
Throwing someone new into a fire loss by themself is a big mistake and can be a confidence killer
Yep. Let's go over some other stuff to lend them a hand.
Board-Up & Chain Link Fencing
If the house is damaged to the point it cannot be locked up securely, it's not unusual to be asked to allow chain link fencing around the property. The carrier wants to avoid the liability of a vacant structure attracting people who go in, get hurt, then sue. You would allow several months temp fence rental until you get a better grip on the actual time needed. If the house is not total loss, openings should be boarded up to keep out the weather.
Obvious Total Loss
You get the footprint measured as accurately as you can, and be alert for smaller detached footings such as deck and stair supports. I have had fires where I saw those things, didn't measure how far away they were from the structure, then "hit the wall" doing the estimate.
I had a carrier insist on a stick-build estimate on an obvious total loss. My first reaction was "I'm not an architect". I found it wasn't all that hard because at least there is no argument over the scope of repair. You can start with a Sqare Foot valuation, print it out, and scrutinize the "breakdown by trade". See where your sheet may be missing some trades (did you insulate the exterior walls, allow for an electric service panel, etc.) There is a "rewire per Sf" item in Xactimate ELE-REWIRE. Does not include outlets or switches. There is also an Xactimate plumbing code PLM-ROUGH Includes: Supply and waste lines and installation labor. Priced per square foot of floor area
If the homeowner's photos burned in the fire, ask them to check with friends and family. Even interior shots at X-mas can be very helpful. See if the builder has the blueprints, see what the building dept has on file for the original construction.
Smell is the big deal with fire claims. Every neighborhood has some story floating around about the person who's house was repaired after a fire, and "whenever they opened the closet door they could still smell the smoke".
That means you have to "think" like smoke, all the little cavities it can go into. When a house gets fumigated for termites, they say after 24 hours the gas gets everywhere, into the stud walls, etc. Fire smoke is like that, and often under some degree of pressure and much more heat than fumigation.
For odor control you have to pull drywall off one side of the studs so you can spray sealer into the stud wall and on the back side of the drywall that you are leaving in place. Those are the judgments you make when you are standing at a fire site, often one part of the house is obviously damaged and the shades of gray get lighter and lighter as you leave the point of origin.
I'm not saying to go overboard. You can have a serious fire - yet a distant bedroom had the door closed and it can be thoroughly cleaned and painted. You can tell if the door was open or not. Avoid the temptation to measure all the rooms and leave, because 1/2 of the site inspection isn't done yet. Decisions need to be made. You don't want to make them sitting at your desk when you receive a contractor estimate to restore that house. If his estimate is double the one you already sent in, and you personally are not certain about the degree of removal that needs to occur, you are not in a position of strength.
With a bad fire, you will remove damaged material, heavy cleaning of surfaces that you have exposed, and if needed - spray sealer. Wood framing and concrete are porous and can retain the smoke residue. I have gone up in attics to inspect a leaking roof and seen the entire attic, including the underside of roof decking sprayed white. For a moment you wonder "why did they paint their attic". Then you realize that house had a fire in the past. And I did not smell smoke.
If only a fraction of the house burned and it's going to be restored, it's easy to overlook the ductwork if it's your first fire. All you see is the darkened registers in the ceiling, but the problem went up into the ducts as well. If it's a small fire, like something burned too long in the kitchen and got the cabinets on fire - but put out quickly, you can simply clean the ducts.
If the fire went up into some of the attic framing, may as well pull the ductwork because the insulation around them + cleaning the inside of the duct will total that run. With significant smoke residue everywhere in the attic, the central forced air unit up there will have smoke grime inside all the metal panels, the blower, etc. It is a mater of degree, if it is a light dusting of particles you would at least allow for a service call to check out the forced air unit to CYA.
This will retain the smoke odor. If fire got up into the attic then all of the insulation needs to go. We all know that "heat rises". The hard-hit rooms will have darkened paint above the center of the walls, and of course the ceilings will be the darkest - often black, and sometimes the paper is burned off the drywall. Of course that drywall has to be removed, and the insulation will come down with it.
If the room was hard-hit with darkened paint, look at the exterior walls (insulated). Pull the cover off the outlet plates. Sometimes you can see darkened insulation to justify why all that drywall and insulation needs to come off, and seal the wall framing.
You have seen how a pre-hung door is secured to the rough opening, with "shims" adjusting the gap where the inner jamb is nailed to the framing. The outer casing hides all of that, but does not act as a good seal when there is a fire. If the room you are standing in had significant smoke exposure and is darkened, you need to realize that smoke particles and residue was forced into the gaps and is inside the wall. We mentioned on page 2 that "light" hit rooms can be washed, sealed, and painted, but a harder hit room needs to have at least one side of drywall pulled from the frame in order to seal the inner framing and back side of drywall (if it remains from a lighter hit room on the other side). What are you going to do about the door openings? It is a judgment to make while you are looking at it, not at the computer.
If the room is seriously darkened, you have to replace the complete door package, especially if it is stain grade. Really hard to restore a pre-existing door and make it match new casing and jamb that didn't come as a set because you think you can save the door slab. Sometimes you can - depends how hard the room was hit. Figure it out on-site. Often the hinges that are lacquered have been affected, and these will come with a pre-hung door replacement. The lock-set won't come with it, and if the room is hard-hit you may not be able to detach-reset the old one. If you left the hardware off completely, you will have a supplement.
Heat is not kind to windows. If it isn't broken, you have to figure out if you can save it or not. If you can see a darkened region in the upper 1/2 of the room, the house is telling you it got hot, and this can damage the membrane between the dual pane windows. This is one of the judgment calls you want to make on site, not sitting at your computer. Look at it - be able to respond to questions about it. Even with single glazed windows, the smoke residue of any significant fire can get into the extruded channels to such a degree that it is not cost effective to "restore". If a baseball goes through a window, you can replace the inner panel. With a fire, the damage also gets the outer frame that ties-in to the building. If it's vinyl it is gone. If it is aluminum you have to figure it out based on degree. Just remember that replacing the entire window in the stucco homes that are common in CA will also require stucco repair. There is an Xactimate code for LF of stucco repair around windows and doors, but that just leaves a brown "worm" around the opening. If the house had been painted you paint that elevation, if it was virgin color coat then you allow for that to be applied (to the entire elevation).
As mentioned before, matching is a big deal in CA. I have had claims where the old 1970's aluminum with brown anodized finish were no longer available. I replaced all of the windows in a house, even a distant bedroom where the door was closed and that room didn't need it - but the elevation was hit somewhere else. If your policy is from a sub-standard carrier that does not care about "customer satisfaction" then you may need to be aware of the line you have to walk between the law, and your client's needs. Read the policy. Read the fair claim reg's posted earlier. Essentially you want to take the high road and "allow for a reasonably uniform appearance" when possible.
Current building codes may require dual glazed windows if they didn't have them, and you will run into lots of code upgrade issues. You need to know for certain if they have that coverage.
Call the local building department to see "at what point does the entire home need to be brought up to code" when damage is being repaired. Obviously the replaced items should meet current code, but in the local area where I work if the ESTIMATE TO REPAIR DAMAGES = 75% OF THE VALUE OF THE STRUCTURE then the entire home must be brought up to meet current building codes. In a kitchen alone that may require separate circuit breakers for dishwasher, large appliances, etc, and you could be looking at a 200 amp service panel if it is an older home with a smaller service.
With a significant fire, the utilities will be shut off pending inspection. Visualize inspecting a dark cave, and bring a good flashlight. RayoVac makes a belt mounted thing that holds 4 D batteries, with a wire running up to a light that straps around your head. It is affordable, very lightweight on your head, and a great way to free your hands so you can write a floor diagram, etc. You will have to go up in a dark attic, and you will get your clothes messed up no matter how careful you are
If you aren't sure, pull the outlet plates and LOOK at the inside of the outlet box and light switch. How does the plastic sheathing around the wire look? With a room at the opposite end of the source of fire, light hit, you may not see any outline in the paint around the cover you just pulled. If it was harder hit, replace the outlet. If there is concern of the integrity of the actual wires in the walls, you need to select the repair item that includes a wire run. Homeowners are very spooky on this subject and you cannot respond if you didn't look at the issue while you were on site. You can have Romex get very hot, possibly melt plastic sheathing inside, and there is a concern about wire not being properly insulated after such an event.
Ceiling lights will have an "always hot" wire running above the ceiling to that fixture, in addition to the "switch loop" that goes to the switch on the wall. These are higher than the wall outlets, and more susceptible to heat damage. Remember that ceiling light fixtures attach to a "box" - you will replace that box and it's run, as well as the switch and it's run of wire. You may want to pull a light fixture to inspect the wire inside that box, where it got hotter than the wall outlets. You will see Romex wire when you do the attic inspection.
Find the main service panel (usually the one with the meter on it) and visualize the wires running from that point to the far reaches of the house. If there is a hard-hit area in the middle of the attic, it may have affected runs that extend to the rest of the house. If you think you can splice a wire, just remember that you have to give them a junction box - and any junction box has to be accessible per code. You cannot splice a wire in a wall and cover that up with drywall. If you are replacing a run, the drywall needs to be gone so the framing is exposed - similar to a re-pipe.
There is a "rewire per Sf" item that can simplify your estimate if you have to replace all the wiring. If you look up the code ELE-REWIRE in Xactimate, you discover that this allows for all the wire and boxes, but excludes: Service cable, riser and weatherhead, meterbase, grounding wire and rod, main breaker panel and breakers, feeder cable between the meter base and panel, switches, outlets, covers or light fixtures. If the house is not burned to the ground, count the switches and outlets in the room. If you forgot to do that, modern code says "every 6 feet along the wall" and some estimating programs will place these for you automatically.
If the house had minor damage, you may want to allow for a trip charge for an electrician to check it out. If the electricity is on, they can do a "Megohmmeter" check, which can determine any partial short circuits or problems that are not obvious to the naked eye. If you look up the code ELE-MEG in Xactimate you will see this description: Megohmmeter and labor. Note: Diagnostic test to examine the electrical system in a damaged home for defective circuits.
I just did a claim for a house that was built in 1929 and the service panel was only 30 amps. Houses built 20 years ago may have 100 amp panels, modern ones are often 200 amp. Again you need to be absolutely certain if they have code upgrade coverage, is there a limit on it. Some policies are very generous with guaranteed replacement cost, some are not.
With a significant fire there will be "drop-down" and most of the flooring surfaces will need to be replaced. If the room was hard hit you may want to allow for washing the slab after the carpet and pad are pulled. If the concrete has visible dark staining then washing it may not be enough - and it should be sealed. In a non-cat situation, the house is often soaked by the fire dept, then emergency services hauls out all the wet carpet and pad. You may not be able to inspect the slab properly if the flooring is still in place.
None of us want to over-pay. If you aren't used to writing estimates over $100,000 you can start to feel like a Public Adjuster padding an estimate with all this expensive stuff. Get over it. Look at this one room at a time, and imagine it was your house. Avoid the urge to "clean and save" everything. If it is a back of house bathroom that does not have a darkened upper 1/2 of walls, then sure, clean the shower walls and toilet and so on. If you lift a toothbrush off the top of the toilet tank and it leaves an outline that you cannot brush off with your finger, that fixture needs to be yanked out.
If the bathroom is hard hit, the tub is going to have to be pulled (possibly refinish, possible replace) just to get to the large air cavity below it that will hold smoke residue and be an odor source - so you have to remember to allow to clean these SF of areas you are exposing as you do your estimate. How's the medicine cabinet? You have to look at everything. If it is light-hit then these repair items would be overkill.
As mentioned before, you can have some framing that is lightly scorched that can be cleaned and sealed. If it has any alligatoring on it then it has lost strength. There can be borderline damage - which is resolved when the Insured selects a contractor and the building department is consulted as to "how much material can we remove from this wood". I had a claim where a large timber needed 1/8" removed to get down to clean wood, and that was agreeable to everyone including the owner.
You get into truss issues, and even partial damage often means yanking the entire truss out, and all the decking and roof membrane above it. Building Dept's will sometimes accept an engineered fix but usually contractors will want to replace a truss rather than get OK to patch up an existing one. Don't forget all the drywall in all the rooms that may be attached to the underside of that truss. You want to figure this out when you are on site, how wide is the area of drywall removal (about 2' beyond the last truss on each side).
Anytime you pull a truss, there can be plumbing, wiring, and HVAC running through the openings. Again, you have to figure this out while you are on-site, and look at that truss from end to end. Sometimes the access is very tight, and a bright flashlight to see where you cannot fit is vital. I have a couple of boards 3 feet long that I take up with me into attics that have no sheathing - it gets hard on your shins to crawl in an attic. If you can "inch" your way around with at least some sort of support that spans the framing you are less likely to cause damage to the drywall under you.
Permits will have to be pulled unless the damage is cosmetic. If you have no idea what the permit should be and you are putting together a preliminary estimate, you should allow up to 2% of the amount of repair prior to O&P. Some of these fees vary by area, but that is going to put you in the ballpark. A call to your local building dept may give you a more accurate number for your claim. You may have to pay architect fees depending on the scale of the project.
In a fire-prone area you may encounter "ACV only" policies written by one of the non-admitted carriers, like within the Lloyds group. If you are used to normal homeowner policies - and explain to the insured that depreciation is recoverable upon completion of repair - you will have a hard time when you discover that the policy is ACV only. It is hard to suck the toothpaste back in the tube once you make a comment about recoverable depreciation - and that is a mistake I have made before.
These "Fire Policies" are rare in modern subdivisions. But you find them in high risk areas, and older homes that other carriers do not want to insure (old wiring hazard, collapse, etc.) There is a huge difference between the DP-3 and a DP-1. The depreciation is NOT recoverable upon completion of repair. You may have trouble getting a copy of the policy to look at - it is not in the CPCU handbook of Ins policies. If you are signed up with Wardlaw they have a downloadable Farmers version of the DP-1 on the Wardlaw site.
We get used to only depreciating the wearable surfaces in homeowner claims. Paint, flooring, roofing. If you are looking at a house that is burned to the ground and it was built 50 years ago, you need to realize that a carrier that could care less about customer satisfaction may be expecting you to depreciate that house based on a 100 year life. That can include framing, wiring, plumbing. We have all seen plumbing deteriorate after a few decades (slab leaks on older houses, homeowner does a re-pipe). Termite damage, etc.
After the Northridge earthquake in 1994 there was litigation that eventually resulted in statutes that defined ACV in California as "Fair Market Value" UNLESS THE CARRIER SPECIFICALLY DEFINED ACV IN THE POLICY. My State Farm policy specifically defines ACV as depreciation based on age, but these older DP-3 and DP-1 policies will be silent on that point. The spirit of the litigation leading up to this was the concept that "my house is in a desirable neighborhood and the value has increased - not decreased". It gets awkward, because we don't insure the dirt. I have had carriers ask for licensed real estate appraisers to appraise the property as it would have existed prior to the loss, and separate out the land from the improvements. That is an awkward dance, and the reason why many modern policies define ACV in their California policies. This is something to pay attention to.
Some of these old "fire policies" mention contents coverage. But you MUST LOOK AT THE DECLARATION PAGE to be sure they have that coverage. If you don't see a limit for personal property you need to verify coverage before making any commitment or having them start an inventory. And of course if the house is not owner-occupied, we would only be concerned with landlord's property.
Bring coveralls, some are disposable, or at least plan for a change of clothes before getting soot all over your vehicle. Rubber boots help, you don't want to track the stuff you are stepping in. Bring some handi-wipes because everything you touch is going to get dirty, your scope sheets, etc. If you have to spend much time in an attic, I wear a respirator because you stir up fiberglass (or whatever) and it can get pretty irritating.
Bob Harvey, Adjuster