Residential fires cause billions in property damage every year. Each year, there are some 400,000 or more residential home fires, many of them quite devastating.

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
Over the years, members of our Building and Maintaining a Home discussion board have shared ways to reduce the chances of home fires, and, if a fire does happen, how to minimize the heartache.

Jeanwa said: "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 explained 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 related 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
One important takeaway from our members' posts: 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 costs.

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This article, written by Selena Maranjian, was originally published in April 2004. It has been updated by Dayana Yochim. The Fool has a disclosure policy.