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My Apartment Caught Fire. My Renters Insurance Paid Me $23,485

Here’s what happens when your home goes up in flames.

Illustration by Liza Corsillo

In 2015, my two-story Brooklyn apartment building caught fire in the middle of the night. My roommate and I woke up to a neighbor banging on our door. Smoke filled the shared hallway. We fled the building and discovered a two-alarm blaze raging inside the hardware store directly underneath our apartment.

We watched the madness unfold from inside a deli across the street. A firefighter hitched a ladder up to my bedroom window, climbed inside, tossed my bed across the room, and started hacking through my wall to get to the electrical wiring inside. The building was still standing when I departed for a friend’s place hours later, but I didn’t know if it would be when I returned in the morning. And though I was lucky to have survived, toxic smoke made my apartment uninhabitable and destroyed the majority of my furniture and belongings.

Obviously, this was devastating. All my belongings were infused with smoke and my apartment was in shambles. But I had renters insurance. And while the fire’s emotional toll was substantial, the financial one was not.

Renters insurance covered replacing all my destroyed clothes, electronics, dishware, and furniture. The policy covered my dry-cleaning and moving expenses. It even covered the difference in rent between my old apartment and the new one I eventually found for the duration of my old lease.

The fire cost me about $26,000 in damage—nearly all of which I recouped in my claim.

Yet only 41 percent of renters have renters insurance, according to a 2016 Insurance Information Institute poll. If you don’t have renters insurance, get it now. Here’s how it helped me when my apartment caught fire.

So your home catches fire. What do you do next? A claims specialist from Chubb, my insurance company, showed up at my building two days after the fire. Though my landlord had tried to clean the apartment in our brief absence, the walls were still shattered, the windows boarded up, and everything still reeked of acrid smoke. The specialist suggested I get rid of anything soft (furniture, clothing, books) and noted that my electronics were likely damaged, too. I had already retrieved some of my more expensive shoes (which I saved by sticking dryer sheets inside and airing them out) and dresses, which I had dry-cleaned (your insurance policy should cover this).

You’re going to have to get rid of stuff Unless something was particularly expensive or sentimental, the claims specialist pointed out, it wasn’t worth spending money to save.

Initially, I panicked when they told me to toss my stuff. I didn’t own anything of much financial worth, but I did have a number of things I was very attached to, including an old trunk my mother had given me, my beloved Frye boots, and a painting my grandmother had made. But at the time I cared a lot about all material things—and I didn’t even want to let my cheap Urban Outfitters dresses go. Right after I met with the specialist at my apartment, I met a friend at a pizza place around the corner and relayed the fate of my belongings.

“I’m going to have to throw everything out,” I said, bursting into tears.

“But you can get new stuff!” he reminded me. “You can start a whole new life!”

It wasn’t comforting in the moment, but later, when I had money to help replace what was gone, I realized he was right.

Tallying up the damage Some companies send the claims specialist to assess the damage, but they suggested I take inventory myself to speed up the process. I spent an entire day inside my smoky, ruined apartment—wearing a face mask to spare my lungs some of the toxic fumes—writing down and photographing Every. Single. Thing. I owned, down to the box of cereal I bought before the fire. Don’t leave anything out. Even small things like toiletries add up after a while.

I made an insanely detailed spreadsheet, down to the penny. But one mistake I made is claiming the actual cost of my belongings when I bought them, not the replacement cost. Turns out the mattress I bought in 2011 had gone up $400 in the four years since I’d bought it.

Miraculously, the check arrives Less than a month after the fire, Chubb sent me a check for $23,485. All my claims minus my $500 deductible. When I found a new apartment a month later, I sent my claims specialist a copy of my old lease—which my landlord let us break—and written confirmation from the woman whose room I was subletting that my new rent would be $133/month more than my charred apartment. They sent me an additional check covering the difference until April, when my old lease was due to expire, and then a sworn statement in proof of loss, which I signed and had notarized. That was it.

Turning a new leaf I moved to my new apartment in January 2016, a little over two months after the apartment fire. I had two new roommates, a new mattress that I’d purchased with my fire money, and only one drawer of clothing. I bought a bookshelf off the woman whose room I’d taken, but at the time I moved in, I only had one book. It was a little weird.

I’d given my old roommate a few thousand dollars to cover the burned couch and other shared furniture, but I still had quite a bit of money left over from insurance. A chunk of it went to necessary items, like my new mattress, bedding, computer (ruined by smoke), and some winter clothing, but I didn’t end up fully replacing much of what I lost. Instead, I accumulated items slowly and with more purpose. Once I realized how much money I’d spent on cheap stuff from Urban Outfitters and H&M—and how little I cared about or even remembered it once it was gone—I focused instead on buying fewer, but more expensive items, preferably from companies with good labor practices. I also used the money I saved living rent free for two months to visit a friend in Argentina.

I had to get rid of my mother’s trunk and my grandmother’s painting, and though I was bummed about a lot of the stuff I lost for a few months (mostly my books, which I’d been collecting since high school), in the end those are the only things I still think about occasionally today.

I don’t think about the fire much now, but one night a neighbor in my new building set off a smoke detector in the middle of the night. I panicked. I grabbed my Frye boots because I didn’t want to lose them again, and made my roommates stand outside on a street corner until firefighters came to check the building. We were fine, but I spent the rest of the night hearing phantom sirens outside.

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