What Being in a House Fire Taught Me About Renters Insurance

After losing 80 percent of her possessions in a fire, our guest writer rethinks renters coverage.

Almost exactly one year ago today, at 2:35 p.m. on Monday, August 27, my apartment caught on fire. In the space of approximately 35 seconds, I gathered a few possessions in a laundry hamper as reddish-orange smoke curled through the window, and ran.

The fire had started spontaneously in the next-door neighbor’s electrical system. Since buildings are packed tight in San Francisco, it became a 2-alarm blaze (requiring a second set of fire department vehicles) within minutes. It was out in less than an hour. During that time, the fire, smoke, and asbestos contamination had damaged or ruined 80 percent of my possessions.

This experience taught me a lot about renters insurance, some of which I didn’t expect. Here are 5 things to consider before you buy.

1. Renters insurance seems like a waste of money … until it’s not

Depending on your policy, you’re usually covered for water damage, theft, and fire. (My policy included 17 additional coverages, including damage from falling aircraft debris and volcanic eruption, because you just never know.)

For a monthly premium that averages in the low double digits, you’ll likely get coverage for the contents of your rental apartment or house, assistance with a place to stay after the fire, and the guidance of someone well versed in helping people who’ve just been through house fires. You won’t know exactly what you’ll need help with, and I can’t tell you either, because each person’s situation will be radically different. But what you will want most in the entire world is someone who helps people cope with house fires for a living.

2. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Looking back, I went into a state of almost Nirvana-like calm over the week after the fire. Why? Because I’d already prepared. Granted, it was by accident, but I can still pass on my lesson.

A few months before the fire, a minor gas leak on our street forced us into a more leisurely evacuation. We slowly went through each room, debating what we might take in a “real” emergency. Family heirlooms? Photos? Jewelry? High on our list: favorite childhood stuffed animals and computer equipment.

My advice is to spend an hour walking through your house with a notebook. Write down everything you’d want to take, and back up or protect what you can now. Then, rewrite your list 5 times in order. Read it through a few times before you go to sleep one night.

I didn’t even consciously think about the list when I was evacuating for real, but I grabbed 8 out of my top 10 items. I happened to have a pop-up laundry hamper nearby, which became my repository for my laptop, jewelry boxes, and purse. In addition, the laundry hamper was half-full, and I now cherish those clothes that just happened to be in there. Know your escape route, what you’d take, and how you’d get your children and pets to safety. If you physically practice, even once, before a real emergency happens, your body will remember what to do.

3. Update your policy

I got my renters coverage when I first moved into my apartment in 2006 and owned almost nothing. By the time the fire happened in 2012, I’d accumulated 6 years’ worth of furniture, clothing, organic mattresses and linens, etc. If you have renters coverage, remember to update your policy every 1 to 2 years or after you make a large purchase. My policy coverage levels ended up being about $10,000 short. (Also, think through everything. I lost about $1,000 worth of just food and alcohol … which renters will usually cover.)

4. Ask questions

Even among the 8 of us affected, our policies differed dramatically. My policy gave me replacement value up to the limit I’d requested 6 years earlier (back when it would have cost about half to replace everything). But my insurance company never showed up at the house to help with the assessment and they only covered 2 weeks in a hotel.

In contrast, one woman in our building hardly received a replacement value for anything, but her insurance company showed up in hazmat suits, got everything cleaned (we were “hot” for asbestos contamination), and put her up in a gorgeous $5,000-a-month apartment in downtown San Francisco for 6 months. Another resident had no insurance and had to pay out of pocket for everything to be cleaned and stored. Ask yourself what’s most important to you (housing, replacement value, or both) and then make sure your policy takes care of those things.

5. What matters most may surprise you

It’s true what they say: as long as you’re safe, that’s what matters. For me, one of the least stressful aspects of the fire was losing my possessions. (I’m sure people who lose everything might sing a very different tune.) Homelessness, bureaucracy, safety, having to depend on the kindness of friends and strangers — these were the parts of my experience that affected me the most. But, with some forethought, preparation, and an understanding of what you can expect from your renters insurance, you can get through this. Trust me.

Today’s post comes to us from travel writer Alex Leviton. You can read more about her experience at her blog, Like a House.

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5 Responses to “What Being in a House Fire Taught Me About Renters Insurance”

  1. Laurie
    August 24, 2013 #

    Very insightful article. As a renter in San Francisco I do realize I need to take renters insurance seriously. Thank you Alex for writing this.

  2. Robert Register
    August 25, 2013 #

    So true, great summary.

  3. Laurie McAndish King
    August 30, 2013 #

    Thanks, Alex, for the useful information, well written. Since we're in fire season (there was one near my house last week) I've been thinking a lot about what I'd take. Now I'm going to write it down.

    • likeahouse
      August 31, 2013 #

      You're welcome! Write it down once while on a walkthrough, and that's all it'll take for your brain to remember it and encode it into body memory. Even if the unthinkable never happens, that one hour will mean you can rest easier for life.

  4. blair
    September 17, 2013 #

    16 years ago i was living in twin peaks, SF, and a car went out of control and drove through my apartment, destroying everything. i had just gotten renter's coverage a year or so prior and it totally saved me. covered all my stuff and even put me up in a comparable apartment during the time it took them to repair the building (time i used to find a different apartment, obviously). since then i've also used it to replace a stolen bicycle. best 13 bucks a month i spend.

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