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When Your House Burns Down

I'm a recent first-time homebuyer and also a worrywart. Combine those two and you may not be surprised to learn that I've worried about my new home burning down. Fortunately, I'm able to sleep at night -- because I have insurance (and a bubble night light). Still, some recent posts on our Building and Maintaining a Home discussion board opened my eyes to how I can reduce the chances of my home burning down and, if a fire does happen, how to minimize the heartache.

First, though, permit me to back up a bit, and offer an introductory statistic. According to one report, residential fires caused more than $5.6 billion in property damage in 2001. Each year there are some 400,000 or more residential home fires, many of them quite devastating.

Note that $5.6 billion is in the same neighborhood as the market capitalizations of firms such as Tiffany (NYSE: TIF  ) , Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) , Office Depot (NYSE: ODP  ) , and R.J. Reynolds (NYSE: RJR  ) . Imagine one of those firms disappearing each year. That's the magnitude of home fires.

Causes
Where and why do home fires commonly start?

  • Some 30% of home fires start in kitchens. Cooking fires are the top causes of home fires.

  • Cigarettes and other smoking-related items are the top causes of home fire deaths. Upholstered furniture is an accomplice in many of these cases.

  • Heating equipment is also a major cause of home fires. Think space heaters, fireplaces, and chimneys.

  • The growing popularity of candles in recent years has led to many more candle-caused home fires.

Cautionary posts
But back to our discussion board and things I learned there. Here are a bunch of insights from fellow Fools:

Jeanwa says: "If you have an older house, be sure your insurance company has taken into consideration the 'character' of your house in determining the replacement value. Ours just took the square footage and multiplied it by the cost to rebuild an 'average' house of that size." She goes on to point out that if your home is old or has some hard-to-find or expensive features, such as trim work or mouldings, that will cost extra to replace, if it's replaceable at all. You might want to see about insuring your home for more than a simple replacement value.

When a neighbor's home was destroyed by fire, Goofyhoofy saw how tough it was for them to remember and report all they owned within 90 days. "I immediately took out my video camera, went to the center of each room in the house, and did a slow 360-degree pan, then walked to each drawer and opened it, opened closet doors and poked around, and so on.... The tape is in a safe deposit box at a bank, of course. If the house goes up, you don't want the tape to go with it!" You can also record your belongings on digital photos or regular film. Just keep it current and in a safe place. And if you have lots of very valuable family photos, make copies and give a set to some relatives.

NoIDAtAll noted that he used some insurance estimation software to come up with a value for his home's belongings.

Ajvillas explains that after losing a home to fire, he's now got a home alarm system that includes fire monitoring: "We were woken up not too long ago by the fire alarm in the new house, and before we could even call the security company to tell them it was a false alarm we heard sirens in the distance -- the fire department arrived about three minutes after the alarm. I think an alarm with central monitoring is worth the price." These kinds of alarms are also good because they can summon the fire department if a fire starts while you're away from home.

Goofyhoofy later offered even more fire prevention tips, such as having working smoke detectors (especially in the garage), working hydrants, and emergency escape plans. He also pointed out that fire extinguishers need to be kept in places where you can access them during a fire -- not, for example, above the stove or next to the barbecue. Being the helpful guy that he is, he later recommended not storing gasoline in garages, due to accumulated fumes.

Robertoluna urged everyone to vacuum the inside of dryers, as lint and dust can accumulate and burst into flames.

Firefighter surfphoto added that it's important to make sure your home is well-marked with easy-to-spot numbers, so that the fire department can find it.

When the worst happens
Stockbuyer2 relates his experience: "Our home was completely destroyed by fire on Thanksgiving night 1996. Many people have no idea just how much it cost to replace everything. It also felt very strange to us for a long time. It felt like we were living in someone else's home, wearing someone else's clothes. The only thing I might suggest is that if you haven't already bought the new home you might want to wait and just rent in the meantime. We bought a couple of months after the fire and wish we had waited. It's kind of like people telling you to not make any major decisions after losing a loved one. When it first happens you're still somewhat in shock for several months."

The bottom line
I noted with interest that among the handful of fire stories related by people on our boards were fires that started in kitchens and fires started by candles. Those statistics on the causes of fires are borne out in Fooldom. Also important, many fires in Fool homes were prevented or stopped by working alarms.

So take a little time to reflect on your preparedness for a home fire. A little preparation and planning can minimize the cost.

What do you say?
Have you had any experiences with home fires? Please consider yourself invited to share them or any advice with fellow Fools on our discussion boards. Or just drop in to see what others are saying. (We're offering a free 30-day trial of our entire discussion board Community -- give it a whirl and see what tens of thousands of Fools are saying on thousands of topics.)

Selena Maranjian produces the Fool's syndicated newspaper feature --check it out. She owns no shares of companies mentioned in this article. For more about Selena, viewher bio andher profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money Guide andThe Motley fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool isFools writing for Fools.


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Selena Maranjian
TMFSelena

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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