My House Burned Down, Now What?

If you’ve been Googling “what to do when your house burns down,” this is the page for you. First things first:

  1. Don’t despair: this is Day 1 of a new beginning.
    No automatic alt text available.This is not the worst thing that can happen. In some ways, it can even be an opportunity, a blank slate to start fresh. You’ve no doubt lost things that were very precious to you, and your home in and of itself, as your sanctuary, your safe place, the place of countless memories — these are tremendous losses that you will need to grieve. But you’re also uninhibited by belongings — not a lot of people can say that.You may find that many things you’ve lost are not really that special to you and hey, now you get to buy new stuff. It’s like the world’s most effective garage sale, without having to spend your weekend negotiating the price of a broken old lamp or children’s toys you wanted to get rid of anyway.

    If you’re feeling heartbroken right now, I don’t mean to make light but I can sincerely say that in the long run losing our home in a fire has been an opportunity. We approached it as the start of a new chapter, a blank slate. Whether that’s setting down bad habits, adopting new life or career goals, whatever you would like to change about your life while it’s upended anyway, it does allow you to take a step back and reset, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  2. Contact your insurance agent ASAP
    They can help with your immediate needs such as lodging and emergency cash. In the event of a natural disaster, insurance companies often even set up temporary booths in public spaces and “hand out” checks to fire victims. If you don’t have insurance but are the victim of a natural disaster, contact FEMA for the same purpose.

  3. Allow yourself to box out the rest of the world.
    Your community may rally around you, which is a wonderful thing. But it can also be overwhelming. Remember that people only want to help but if you are too busy to reply to texts and phone calls, don’t put that additional pressure on yourself. Everyone will understand. Take the time you need to focus on the immediate and go ahead and box out the rest of the world for the first few days or weeks if you need to.

    In all likelihood, you are feeling a crippling amount of pressure, stress and worry about a thousand different details right now, so it’s important to simplify and prioritize your needs. To that end, if at all possible, take a leave of absence from work. Do you have a close friend or family member who can run point on communicating to your social network how you are doing and how they can help so that you don’t have to carry that burden?

  4. Channel friends and family support in ways that are helpful.
    If you feel up for it, anticipating that people may want to contribute in one way or another, try to find a gracious way to steer people toward things that are going to be helpful rather than burdensome. People often want to send physical donations such as clothing, not realizing that if you are moving from place to place while you’re in temporary housing, it’s actually a burden to have a lot of things to take with you. Get ahead of it by posting on Facebook, sending an email or setting up a GoFundMe page (ask a friend to do it for you if this feels awkward) and try to give people some guidance as to what will be most helpful.We felt uncomfortable asking people for money but very quickly received more children’s clothing and toys than was really practical for us. Instead we send out a notice that we would greatly appreciate help from friends and family in rebuilding our children’s library. I’m so glad we did this as this was a simple and inexpensive way people could contribute in a personal way that was genuinely meaningful and helpful to us. Another really helpful gift which some people contributed on their own initiative (I wouldn’t have felt comfortable asking for this) was money via Venmo or PayPal and Amazon gift cards.

    Finally, I asked my coworkers to take the reins on planning a birthday party for my girls, as their birthday followed the fires by only a couple of weeks and it just wasn’t something I could focus on. This ended up being one of the most thoughtful and touching gifts we could receive and I think they were happy to be able to contribute something that was fun to work on and genuinely really helpful.

  5. Find your community.
    In the event of a natural disaster, on the bright side you will find that your community rallies together and you’ll have the opportunity to get to know and become close with lots of neighbors and other community members you wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to meet. Embrace this. It will be a source of comfort and strength to you. In our case, the app/site Next Door was the best way to stay connected, as well as local community meetings.
  6. Itemizing possessions.
    This will be one of the most cumbersome and terrible tasks you will have to deal with. However, it’s important to do this relatively early while your memory is still fresh. It can also be a way to mentally say goodbye to each and every one of your possessions.

    More on this topic here.
  1. Your mental well-being.
    In the beginning, the most important thing is to take things one day at a time. This is going to be a very long, very slow process overall. It is better to accept that and give yourself space to tackle things at a reasonable pace and try to find some semblance of normalcy and joy in your life in the meantime. Otherwise you will find yourself incredibly frustrated, overwhelmed and despondent. Realistically, you will have these feelings regardless but in that case, know you are not alone.

    I highly recommend speaking to a therapist, but not in the beginning. You have too much to deal with in the immediate aftermath. Once things have settled down a bit, it’s a great thing to do for yourself and you may find there are free resources to help you.
  1. Short-term housing.
    Whether your insurance helps with this or not, anticipate that it’s going to be annoyingly expensive and yes, it really sucks that you have to pay out the nose for housing because of this terrible thing that happened to you. But don’t be a martyr. For your own dignity and sanity, allow yourself to stay somewhere comfortable and just accept that it’s going to be expensive. Don’t be a houseguest with friends or family for too long. It will wear on you too much.
  1. Dealing with insurance.
    In my experience, dealing with my insurance company (Travelers) was not THAT bad. It was reassuring to realize they deal with this kind of thing all the time and have a pretty thorough and relatively fair process. Just remember, they’re not your friends and acquaint yourself with their tricks of the trade so you know what you’re up against, United Policyholders is the best resource for this, or an attorney. Be careful about what you share with them but don’t lie or exaggerate too much either. They’re highly trained in how to spot this and it undermines your case in the long run.

    Also know that the insurance process is likely to take 6 months to a year and while this is frustrating, it also gives you ample time to make sure you don’t lose sight of the true cost of this financial loss for you. In the beginning, the sums of money we were discussing with our insurance company felt huge, like a windfall. But once we better realized the true cost of the fires — beyond the loss of our home and personal possessions, there were also many thousands spent on tree and debris clearance and other clean-up — it became clear that at best, we were made whole, at worst, somewhat short of that. Had we closed out the claim earlier, we would have overlooked a lot. For your own sake, absolutely do not rush to close out your insurance claim. You need to make sure not a single stone goes unturned first.

    You got this!

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