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How Good Was Your Insurance When Your House Burned Down

Updated on January 31, 2013
Our home totally engulfed in flames and smoke
Our home totally engulfed in flames and smoke
Another photo of the house on fire
Another photo of the house on fire

Our House Fire in 1985

©joaniebaby 5-15-2012

Over twenty years ago we had a house fire and our home was a total loss. There are not many things in life more devastating. Thankfully, we were not at home at the time or it might have been much worse. We were living on an acreage about five miles from our local town and the fire department had no chance of saving the house as it was completely engulfed when they arrived. All they could do was save as much as they could and keep the flames away from a small building on our lot and from our neighbor’s home just a few thousand feet away.

This was an evening when we played bridge with our monthly potluck group. We had left approximately forty-five minutes earlier when we received a call from our daughter-in-law that our house was on fire. Naturally, we could not believe what she was telling us as we had just left home and everything was fine. But she was right and we hurried back to our home which was about six miles away. There we found it completely ablaze and the firemen working frantically to save what they could. My husband asked them to try to save one area of the house that had all our personal and business financial records and they were able to save most of them. There was a new silver Mustang convertible in the garage which was a total loss. The Mustang was there because we were trying a different car that evening.

All we could do was sit in our car and watch as our house burned down, and that was quite a helpless feeling. Our son who lived in the town nearby did not know if we were in the house or not as he saw our Mustang in the garage and he was quite relieved to see us when we arrived in our other car. His wife was the one who called us about the fire as she was working in the local nursing home and they get all the fire/emergency calls over their radio. One of the residents of the nursing home knew that their son was at the same bridge game we were and informed our daughter-in-law so she knew where to contact us.

The local fire department was notified by our neighbor who lived next to us. Their son was outside playing and he heard an explosion and saw flames come out of our dryer vent. He ran and told his folks who in turn called the fire in. But when you live in the country like that, there isn’t much chance they can save the building. Our home was an older farmhouse that the owners had combined into an acreage and sold to us some five years before. It was a two-story home with an attached two-car garage.

While we were sitting in our car watching our house burn down, our youngest daughter (who was six-months pregnant) and her husband drove up. They had seen the flames and smoke from some distance as they were coming back from a trip to Minnesota, and they could tell that it was close to where we lived. Naturally the closer they came, the more they could tell that it was our house and they became very concerned about the possibility that we were in our home.

That night after the fire, we stayed with our daughter and her husband who also lived in the small town nearby. The fire was on a Saturday evening so we didn’t have to worry about going to work the next day. One of the ladies, who was about my size and who played bridge in our group, brought me some of her clothes as the only clothing I had was what I was wearing the night before. On Monday we drove to a larger city in our area and went to a second-hand store there and purchased some clothes. The lady there was so kind and gave us a 20% discount on what we bought. That was just the beginning of many thoughtful actions by friends and neighbors.

A man with whom I had worked in the office of a local factory owned a small home in our town and offered it to us rent free until we could decide what to do next. Several couples offered us some items of furniture, etc. We went to an auction in a neighboring town and purchased a bedroom outfit and other items there. The owner of the local appliance store offered to sell us a washer and dryer at cost, and set them up and move them once we knew where we were going to be living next. We have that Maytag washer and dryer over twenty years later and it still works great! Have never had a repair call for it.

Naturally, after a house fire like that the state fire marshal is called in and has to do some investigating. My husband and I were both “interrogated” and recorded for their records. Even though you know you have done nothing wrong, when you are questioned, it is scary. Luckily, some years before that our insurance agent had suggested that we take pictures of everything in our house for insurance purposes. We had done that and put the pictures in our safe deposit box at the bank. The agent had also talked my husband into taking out “replace in kind” insurance, which means that no matter how old the house or items in it were, we would be paid to rebuild a house of the same value as the one burned down, and we could replace the items in the house for their new value, and not their depreciated value. This meant lots of extra insurance dollars in our particular situation, and we are forever grateful to our agent for his advice.

Now comes the hard part--dealing with the insurance company and trying to decide what to do next. Should we look for a difference place to live, or build a new home on our old acreage? The fire was in May and it took several months to settle with the insurance company and make plans. Once the state fire marshal determined it was an accident, and not arson, we could begin. The insurance company informed us that we could do whatever we decided--rebuild or buy somewhere else. So we went around looking for places to buy and working with contractors, looking at newly built homes in the area for ideas. Finally, it was decided that we would build a new home on our acreage. The insurance company allowed us to live rent free for six months, which turned out to be just the right amount of time. They also paid us for some trees and shrubs that were destroyed by the fire. Until this happens, you don’t realize just what your insurance policy covers. We felt that our policy was a good one and our insurance agent and company dealt with us fairly. At times my husband thought they worked too slowly, but it all worked out. My husband is not a patient man.

As I stated earlier, the state fire marshal had to investigate the fire. He and the investigator for the insurance company differed on their decision about what started the fire. The insurance company said that our electric clothes dryer was the cause, but the fire marshal said it was our gas hot water heater, and the fire marshal rules. So the insurance company started a lawsuit against the hot water heater company and the local installer. Eventually the local installer was dropped from the lawsuit, but the company who made the hot water heater and the insurance company settled the day before the lawsuit was to go to trial. Since the lawsuit was settled, we received our $100 deductible back.

If anyone has ever built a new home, you are aware of how many decisions have to be made. But we also had the double, or even triple, problem of having to buy all furnishings and personal items in the home new, and making a list for the insurance company of everything that was in the home that burned down. The list for the insurance company had to have the name of the item, the cost of the item, and when purchased. Then when we bought something to replace an item we had to submit the receipts to them for payment. They did give us a certain percentage of the insurance payment to start buying replacement items. Can you just imagine how many pages of items I had? Just look at one of your rooms and see what is in it! Naturally I could not remember the exact cost of every item but I looked at catalogs to help me out. One item I could never replace was a $5 gold piece that I had as a remembrance of my father who died when I was only four years old. Other items that cannot be replaced are all of the pictures taken over the years. We have seven children and they were all grown and out of the home so imagine how many pictures that were destroyed. Also, my mother had just given me the old pictures she had of her family and they were all gone now, too. We were able to go to the photographer who took our children’s high school graduation pictures and get them all replaced, which was great. It took many years before we stopped looking for something and then realized, “Oh, it burned up in our fire!”

Two young men had a construction company nearby and we contracted with them to build us a new home. They did very good work and completed the home in approximately three months. My husband wanted to put in geo-thermal heating and cooling, but it was just a new concept and no one in the area knew too much about it yet. The home did have six-inch walls which made it very economical to heat and cool. Since we had three acres to work with, we built the house further back on the lot and more centrally located with a grove of pine trees behind it. It was situated diagonally and faced southeast with a great view of the morning sun.

At the time of the fire, I was working as the bookkeeper for a law firm in the neighboring city. They were very helpful in making sure we did everything necessary to receive the full benefits of our insurance policy. Our son, who works in an insurance office, also helped us out. So we had good advice along the way.

Two couples who are friends of our family had a “fire shower” for us in the local community center. Many, many people donated new and used items, and money, at this shower. We are still using many of the items donated at that time. This is just one of the advantages of living in a small community in Iowa. The Catholic Church that we attended took up a collection for us and when the priest from that church passed away, the housekeeper gave my husband some of Father’s clothing. To this day, he still has some handkerchiefs with Father’s initial on them. What a nice remembrance. The Catholic Church in another town nearby that we had been members of at one time also took up a collection for us. Until some disaster like this happens to you, you just don’t realize how giving people really are.

Once our house was built, we had to furnish it. To do this, we went to a large furniture store in the area and purchased living room, dining room, and bedroom furniture, carpeting and vinyl flooring for the entire home. This seemed to be the best way to handle the process. Every time we purchased something, I had to go back to my list for the insurance company and show what we had replaced, what we had paid for it and submit the documents for payment. That list is still in my files somewhere and it is “fun” just to look at it and reminisce about how much work that actually was and wonder how I ever got through it.

Luckily the area that the firemen tried to save for us contained most of our important papers in a fireproof box. That box was true to its name, and the documents in it were safe, if somewhat damp. We ran a gas station and tank wagon in our area, and the receipts for the day from our gas station were burned up in the house fire. Local people, who had purchased gas that day, came in and replaced their checks or credit card payments so it was not much of a loss. You can claim $100 in cash, but I know we had more than that in the house.

When the new house was finished and furnished, it was very comfortable. It isn’t often that everything in a home is new and coordinated. But, looking back, we still would rather have had our old house with all of the memories from past years and our children’s days at home.

The following are two suggestions for everybody: take pictures of your home and everything in it and put those pictures in a safe place; buy “replace in kind” home insurance. That kind of insurance costs just a few dollars more and is well worth the extra cost.

We hope that this never happens to anybody reading this HUB, but if it does, don’t despair, you will make it through and go on with your lives.

New home under construction
New home under construction


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    • joaniebaby profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thank you Heather. It was an awful experience. But we made it through. Your last name is the same as my maiden name!

    • HeatherWagner profile image


      6 years ago from Iowa

      Wow, that has to be one of my biggest fears. You have given a lot of people some great insights as to what one should do if they have a fire.


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