Home Suite Home: The House Fire Chronicles Part I
It was Tuesday June 12th at 5 p.m. and I was just walking out of my office. I was walking over to the sports field to begin the all-important ultimate Frisbee tournament. As usual my phone was on silent but I just happen to look at my phone at the same time my landlord was calling. I also noticed he had already called twice. I almost didn’t answer. I quickly assumed it must be important because he wouldn’t have normally called me early in the day on my cell because he knows my office doesn’t allow electronics and I’m never near my phone until later in the day.
I answer and he’s frantic. “Justin, you need to come home now, it’s an emergency….There’s been a fire” – My landlord Sal. My kneejerk reaction was… dang I was excited to play ultimate Frisbee today. Then I quickly came to my senses and realized I needed to get home and get what I could but in reality I had no idea if there was anything to get. The conversation went so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to ask how bad it was. So I shot my buddy George a text: “I’ve gotta go home. Apparently my house had a fire and I have to go get somethings because I can’t stay there tonight. May have to ask a favor and crash with you”.
It’s Bad & It’s Not
I get to the house and the first thing I noticed are water bottles everywhere from the fire fighters and broken glass everywhere. I was confused though because I could smell the fire but I didn’t see any damage. Then I walked around back and it made much more sense.
Much like most of the homes surrounding Boston, I lived in an old multi-family home building. I actually lived on the 2nd floor. Luckily, for me, the fire took place on the floor above me and on the opposite side of my bedroom. My separation from the fire meant most of my things suffered from primarily smoke damage and little was actually destroyed. I actually thought I’d be back into the house in no time.
I realized I was wrong about that because what I couldn’t see was the roof had large sections missing now, the power was going to be out for quite some time and there would need to be several walls replaced on my floor due to water damage. This was going to be a situation of months not days… but what do I do now…like tonight?
Thanks God for Renter’s Insurance…Hotels Are Expensive
I knew I had renter’s insurance but I honestly didn’t know what I was entitled to. I thought it was simply for my possessions, but I called them anyways. I call up USAA to some great customer service as always and the lady starts stepping me through my allowances. She reminded me I had a $10k limit which is one of their lower policies. I actually only pay $9 per month for it. She told me on top of my possessions I was entitled to hotel stays. I naturally try to ask what kind of hotel I should get and she responds with simply “something reasonable”. I was expecting her to look up my zip code and give me a specific rate I had to stay under but no…just something reasonable.
That made me very nervous about booking something that I’d later get stuck with after it was deemed “not reasonable”. A lot of hotels were booked up for the night but I found an older extended stay for the first night and had a reservation at the Homewood Suites for the week following. I later found out that all these type hotels are indeed reasonable and even preferred by the insurance company because you are more likely to cook at a hotel with a kitchen. Why do they care about me cooking though?
The Entitlements Keep Coming
The reason they care about you cooking is because of the other entitlements you have under renter’s insurance. They cover any food expenses above and beyond what you would normally spend. I could hear the confusion through the phone when I told my adjuster that on average I spend $60/month on groceries but also stated I had more proof of that than anyone he’ll ever meet and he didn’t push the issue.
This all leads back to that $10k limit my policy had. I assumed that limit included these things like hotels and food expenses. Nope. The way it actually works is you have a $10k limit for anything involving the contents but there is no monetary limit on the hotel and food expenses. You simply reimburse you for all of that minus what you would normally spend. As an example, my rent is $775 per month but the hotel costs closer to $6,500 to live in per month. I submit my receipts for the month and I’ll be reimbursed for $5,725 which is the total ($6,500) minus my normal rent ($775). Food works the same way. I submit my receipts and they pay me back all but $60 per month. The only limit on these things revolves around time. So how long does the coverage last? Until the home is fixed or 12 months, whichever comes first.
When Life Hands You Lemons
Things where becoming a little clearer. I was going to be living in a hotel for potentially months and my food expenses were going to be capped. So how do I make the most of this. First, I made sure to choose a hotel that was part of a worldwide chain, Hilton in my case, so that the points I earned there would be usable regardless of where I was in the future or where I went on vacation. I chose to book the hotels myself instead of a 3rd party company the insurance company offered. This allows me to earn the credit card points and I only have to float the money 1-2 weeks at a time so there’s no real financial concern. Then I applied for the Amex Hilton Aspire card.
This card gives you 14 points per dollar you spend at Hilton. It also automatically gives you diamond status which gives you another 20 points per dollar. The card also comes with a slew of other benefits and a normal steep annual membership of $450. Fortunately for me, Amex refunds the annual membership costs to active military so I didn’t actually pay anything for it. With the base cost the hotel in my area coming out to ~240 per night, I will be earning ~60k points per week. To put that in context, 60k points is enough to stay one night at a nice resort in Hawaii, 2 nights near London, 3 nights at a place with free breakfast/evening social in many U.S. cities, or 6 nights at some lower end locations. It’s actually even better when you factor all the diamond status perks. If you book a 5 night stay with points, it actually only charges you for 5 days’ worth of points and you’re very likely to get a room upgrade for free plus free passes for breakfast and other normally premium amenities at many locations.
How Things Are Going So Far
The first two weeks were a little rough. Me and my adjuster had some learning curves to get over as far as getting reimbursed and what was/wasn’t allowed. We’re on a pretty smooth weekly cycle. I also was in 4 different hotels so I never really got unpacked. I’m finally settled now.
PRO TIP: Book as many one week stays as possible back to back at the same hotel. This allows you to cancel the later ones when it comes time without penalty but also ensures the hotel doesn’t overbook and have you scrambling to pack back up. Just talk with the manager and they’ll keep you in the same room.
Serve Pro came out and packed all my belongings except for a few things I felt like I needed. They’ll clean everything and store it until I’m ready for it. That took about $3,200 of my $10,000 insurance cap. The dry cleaners came and got all my clothes and treated them for the smoke damage. They’ll also hold everything until I’m ready to get it out. That took another $1,600 of my $10,000 limit. So currently I have $5,200 left. Some of that will be used by items that couldn’t be cleaned such as my mattress but that’s still in the works.
Because I was going between hotel and hotel I wasn’t really cooking at first. I got to experience the lifestyle of those that I don’t understand. The lifestyle of never cooking and just grabbing prepared food every day. I won’t lie, it was really nice for a couple weeks and I was able to eat healthy by making lunches off the local grocery store hot bar. Again, my food expenses are capped at $60 and Wegmans had some great salmon on their $9.99/lb. food bar.
I really did miss cooking though. So after I finally got settled in, I bought a Chef Knife and some seasoning to go along with the other kitchenware that already came with the room and got back to prepping my own meals. The hotel has two giant high-end propane grills. So I’ve been cooking up some good chicken, pork chops, veggies, and burgers. The hotel normally has some salad or something I can use for a side and a really good breakfast.
What I’ve Learned So Far
1. GET RENTER’S INSURANCE!!!!
On top of this house fire, I was also robbed for several thousand dollars in personal items when I lived in Colorado Springs. If you use it even once, It will pay for a lifetime of premiums.
2. I’ll Never Be Fancy
Even with my food expenses being capped, I just can’t go crazy at the grocery store. My idea of an over the top purchase is ground beef that’s already pattied out for me ($2.98/lb.) and that one pint of halo top ($6).
3. I Could Be Very Minimalist
As part of the process they had Serve Pro come in, pack-up all my items and put them in storage. The only things I didn’t put in storage were a small amount of clothes that all fit in a small hotel dresser, A backpack full of electronics, and a large storage tote with my camping gear. It was nice because I didn’t actually have to give up much but I can see how I don’t miss any of it. This will make my dream of spending a year on the road in a bus camper much easier.
4. If You Want It Done The Right Way – Do It Yourself
USAA has really nice people working there and pretty solid customer service but this stuff can get messy really quick. When you start to rack up a lot of individual receipts it can be hard to keep track of what has been paid and what is still owed to you. I started making consolidated PDFs of a week’s worth of receipts and accompanied it by an itemized spreadsheet that listed amounts, categories, and payment status. This really helped both me and the adjuster. Also, take pictures of every receipt the minute you get it so you don’t have to worry about losing them.
5. Be Friendly With The Hotel Staff
The receptionists know me by name now and really help me out with incoming/outgoing mail and making sure I continue to keep the same room through all my stays so I don’t have to unpack. The maintenance guy makes sure the grill always has propane and lets me borrow tools for things like messing with my bicycle or putting together a little project.
Until Next Time
I expect to do a few parts to this series. I have no idea how long it may go but I wouldn’t be shocked if it is 6 months before I’m back in my old stomping grounds. I hope this will help someone someday if they ever experience a house fire. It’s inconvenient for sure but there are ways to make the most of it! If you have any questions please reach out and subscribe below so you can keep up with the future Chronicles.