Every once in a while, a group of slightly sooty tenants will walk in and explain, dispiritedly, that they are the ones who lived in that house that just burned down. Usually, thankfully, they tell us that everyone who lived there is okay, but most of the belongings are ruined. And they want to know, what can they do? What's the first step? How do they start to unravel the mess that is their home?
Here are some ideas.
Where Do I Sleep Tonight?
- The Red Cross is a great resource for folks affected by home fires. Many times, they will help with a night or so at a motel.
- Your landlord may pay for a place to stay for a couple nights, if they know what has happened.
- Your landlord may offer to let you stay in another unit they own, for the same rent that you have paid or will pay. (This is an important agreement to get in writing - it's possible to end up on the hook for both units, so be careful about what exactly you're agreeing to.)
- Local shelters may be a resource, if the Red Cross or your landlord can't help. A list of Dane County shelters can be found on our Find Housing page, and if you're outside of Dane County, then 211 is the place to call for your local shelter information.
Who Pays For My Stuff?
This is a tough one. Once, memorably, a group full of grad students came in, all getting higher degrees in music. Their house had just burned down, with thousands of dollars of musical instruments inside. It was their livelihood, their future, and their everyday joy. They were devastated.
- Renter's Insurance: This is the reason to have renter's insurance, so if you have it, then flaunt it. Call the company and file a claim. If your insurance has recently lapsed, it's possible you could pay the dues for the lapsed time, and still have that coverage.
- Credit Cards: Sometimes, credit card companies will help replace things that were paid for with the credit card. If you regularly use a card, call and see if they have any insurance for the things that you purchased on that card.
- Homeowner's insurance: Some young-but-not-too-young children are still covered under their parents' homeowners' insurance. If your parents own a house, then they probably have insurance on that house, and might have coverage for some of the belongings ruined in the fire.
- Landlord: If the fire was because of something that the landlord could have prevented, then it's the landlord's job to pay for your lost possessions. This only works, though, if there's clear evidence that the landlord knew about the problem that started the fire BEFORE the fire began. (For example: Before the fire happened, the building inspector had come out and already cited the landlord for needing to update the electrical wiring, which caused the fire.)
Replacing My Possessions:
- The Red Cross is a good resource for replacing some basic furniture items.
- 211 should be able to direct you towards local resources, depending on exactly what you need.
- St. Vincent, Goodwill, and other non-profits that accept stuff in order to fund charitable programs, often have vouchers for people who have just experienced housing disaster.
- Freecycle is kind of like the Craigslist of free stuff. It's where people list items that they don't want anymore, and are just hoping to give away.
- You can put a "Want to Buy" ad on Craigslist. Sometimes, that's a great way to get possessions replaced - many people on Craigslist (not all, but plenty anyhow) just want to put their beloved unnecessary things into homes where folks are excited to have them.
Keep Track of These Things:
Make a list of what was damaged: When things have just happened, that's the time to write down a list of everything that was lost in the fire. Add to it as things occur to you. It will be helpful to know:
- What the item was,
- When you bought it,
- Where you bought it from, and
- How much it cost when you bought it.
- The Fire Marshall/Fire Inspector: The fire department will usually send someone out to decide how the fire started. It's important to get a copy of that report, so keep the contact information for the fire marshal or building inspector who looks through the unit. Make sure to get a copy of that report once their investigation is complete.
- All correspondence with the landlord: If your landlord estimates that it will take 3 weeks to repair, and instead it takes 4 months, then that's a problem. Keeping track of your landlord's estimates about time will allow you more wiggle room for negotiation if it's clear that those estimates haven't been followed. If the time delays are the landlord's fault (they want hard-to-get-Italian-marble instead of easy-to-get-subway-tile), then your landlord can be responsible for the costs of not providing the apartment on time. (ATCP 134.07(3))
But What About My Lease?
- Constructive Eviction: If the rental unit is so damaged by the fire, that it's unlivable, then it's a good candidate for "constructive eviction." A tenant can use "constructive eviction" as a defense in court if the landlord tries to hold them responsible under the lease for the damaged unit. Generally, if a fire makes a unit unlivable, then a tenant will need to find someplace new, which can be scary if there's the threat of an old lease hanging over their head. More at www.tenantresourcecenter.org/constructive_eviction.
- Security Deposit: I've heard of landlords coming to the scene of a fire, writing checks to displaced tenants for the amount of their security deposit, hoping to support them in their plight. I've also heard of landlords trying to charge tenants for the cost of repairs, even when the problem was obviously the landlord's fault. It seems like these situations bring out both the best and worst of folks. If you're not sure how all this is playing out for you, it's a good idea to get the list of estimates and damages that the landlord's insurance will pay for, in case the landlord tries to deduct those things from your security deposit. Otherwise, normal security deposit rules apply - more information here.
- If you move back in: If the landlord repairs the apartment after the fire, and you plan to move back in, then fill out a new check-in form as if you were moving into a brand new apartment. Take photos, make a note of what has not yet been fixed, and fill out the check-in form with very detailed descriptions. If your landlord doesn't get a check-in form, you can use one from our website.
Hi! Did you know that we aren't attorneys here at the TRC? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written doesn't sound right to you, consult with someone you trust. A list of housing attorneys is available here.