The continuing nightmare saga that started with my son lighting my house on fire is coming to a close, and has allowed me to come up with a few tips for potential disaster victims that I would like to share. Hopefully most of you will never have any need of these little tips, because hopefully none of you will have something terrible happen to your house that forces you to live in a crappy rent house owned by an Armenian immigrant who thinks 'slumlord' is a term of endearment.
Tip Number One: Hire good people. Your homeowners policy is almost certain to let you pick the people you want to use to handle all the tasks associated with getting you back on your feet, but the odds are that your disaster preparedness kit does not include the phone number for a large-scale emergency dry-cleaner. Therefore, your insurance company may be able to recommend someone. Keep in mind that you do not have to use the people they like. You can use whoever you want. Choose your own emergency dry-cleaner, and if you don't know one, use one associated with the contractors fixing your house. Do not use Bibbentuckers or anyone associated with FRSTeam unless you would like to lose your wife's wedding dress, your daughter's confirmation dress, the dress your wife was wearing when you asked her to marry you, and your dress white uniform from the Navy that they don't even make any more because everyone in the military wears digital camo now.
Tip Number Two: Be there every day. I'm serious. Walk through the house on a daily basis. If you see something you don't like, mention it to your contractor immediately. Do not wait until the job is finished, assuming that the contractor is a sharp guy who is on top of the task, or you may wind up with spackling mud stuck on the insides of all your cupboards that you will have to chip out with a bread knife because all of your tools are in storage. You may also have a light switch in the bathroom that doesn't actually turn on anything, or half-painted walls behind your kitchen cupboards, or a built-in bookshelf with nails sticking up out of the boards that will tear the hell out of anything you put on it. Those are only some of my examples. If you try, you can probably think of some of your own. In fact, if you have had a disaster that forced you to file a homeowner's claim, you probably already have some wonderful examples. Feel free to share. There's nothing as entertaining as a tale of an improperly installed toilet that sends human waste to puddle around your bare feet in the middle of the night. (That is not true. I can think of many things more entertaining. But feel free to share anyway.)
Tip Number Three: Do not adopt the animals you find at your rent house. Your rental home may come with stray animals in the back yard. Do not put them in traps and bring them back to your real house. You may wind up with a home that smells vaguely like cat urine. And when I use the word 'vaguely,' I mean 'intensely.' By leaving those stray animals to their natural habitat (that habitat being the crawl space under the neighbor's shed), you not only save yourself the problem of spraying your new carpet with a can of Febreeze, but you save countless dollars on veterinarian bills when you discover that the lovable little scamp you rescued from a life of deprivation has worms, fleas, and some very oddly colored mites in one ear. On the other hand, should you decide to adopt that crazy cross-eyed cat that has kittens in the neighbor's yard, you may find yourself falling in love with the cat, especially if she sits in your lap and purrs contentedly while you watch reruns of Simon & Simon. OK, never mind this tip. I really do like that cat, though I am obviously insane for adopting yet another animal.
Tip Number Four: Do not schedule all your deliveries on the same day. When your home is ravaged by fire, or when a tornado rips off your roof, or when a drunken teenager crashes through your home and parks his mom's used minivan in your fireplace, people will come and take all your belongings. This is fine, as long as you hired them and they are not bums who just want to take your clothes to make a fort. Those professionals will clean your belongings and store them until you can get back in your house (unless you are using the crappy service we used, which charged us for cleaning and brought everything back dirty). The problem is, eventually they will bring back your things, and then you will have a house full of cardboard boxes. And you did not pack these boxes, so stuff that belongs in the attic will be in a box with stuff that belongs in the kitchen. It will take you a considerable amount of time to unpack those things, and if another person brings more things at the same time, you will become so overwhelmed that you might end up calling your spouse at work every twenty minutes to complain about the horribleness of the task you must now accomplish. You might wind up with the final delivery sitting in your driveway, and unless you are lucky enough to have a strapping 17-year-old son who caused the problem in the first place by lighting your house on fire, you will have to carry all that crap in the house yourself. In my case, of course, I will not be carrying anything. I threw my back out carrying boxes at the rent house, so now my kids have to do it all.
Tip Number Five: Fill your home with booby traps. I cannot overemphasize the importance of protecting your house when it is obviously uninhabited. We had wandering neighborhood kids smoking cigarettes in our bedroom. We had someone break down the fence to steal our 15-year-old swingset. We boarded up the shed, but someone very industrious yanked all the boards off the shed and stole every last power tool we owned. And the insurance will not replace these things, even though you have delivered the house into their hands, unless you file another claim. This claim will, of course, come with another deductible, meaning that unless several thousand dollars of tools were stolen, you would be better off simply buying them all again. And the swingset was so old that it cut your hands when you were swinging unless you were wearing gloves, so that's obviously not worth replacing. Plus my kids are teenagers, and don't really use swingsets any more. They want cars.
Tip Number Six: Save your money. Your contents claim may come in months before your house is ready, and then you will be sitting on a very large sum of money. Your first impulse might be to start spending it. Do not do this. Because if the city inspector finds that your home is badly out of code, possibly because the two-bit lying shyster who sold it to you bribed the home inspector you hired and never actually put sheathing on the walls, so that the plastic siding was nailed directly to the studs and every time it rained, water got inside the insulation, your insurance will not pay to fix everything. They will have some money for code upgrades, but there's a woefully good chance that it will take more than that to fix your house. It could cost you another, say, sixteen-thousand dollars to get back into your home, and if you spend all of your contents claim rebuying your toys and games, you will have to store them in the back of the van in which you are forced to live because you can't afford to move back home. This is one tip we actually did follow, thank God, or we would be living in a van.
Tip Number Seven: Do not have a fire. Or a tornado. Or a drunk crash into your living room. If you don't listen to any of these other tips, listen to this one. Unless you have lived through the prolonged waking nightmare of a disaster in your home, you cannot possibly imagine how much it should be avoided. We had very good homeowner's insurance - I mean, you would be hard-pressed to find someone better in the entire nation - and we were still amazed at how much could go wrong. Things that you would never expect will be completely screwed up. Like, my bedroom door doesn't close any more. The plumbers almost killed my kids with a gas-leaking dryer install. My backyard looks like a street scene from Fallout 3.
Tip Number Eight: Count your blessings. In the entire fiasco of burning and hotel staying and moving back in, we lost three goldfish. All the people were fine. All the pets made it (outside the fish, and one of those was unrelated to the accident). My house is better insulated than it has ever been, and we can keep it cool without breaking the bank. The paint is beautiful, with different colors for every room that make it a pleasure to walk from the kitchen to the bathroom, especially if you have to pee. My new water heater delivers hot water almost instantly. And my insurance company (Liberty Mutual, in case you're wondering) was fantastic, and when they heard how much money we were out, refunded our deductible - and then didn't raise our rates. We were expecting to get cancelled, or at the very least half to pay a lot more, and our rates didn't go up at all. All things considered, we did OK. Sure, there's still a lot of work to do, and this weekend is going to suck like a hungry streetwalker, but we're all as healthy as can be expected, the house is mostly great, and we even have a new pet cat that sits in my lap and purrs contentedly while I watch reruns of Simon & Simon.
Matt Drake is a regular contributer to Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his crassly opinionated reviews.