Losing your house to a wildfire is “disorienting” for homeowners, who need to be prepared to confront a number of concerns over the next several months, a Cal Western School of Law professor said Friday.

The biggest one? That they are in shock and may not be thinking clearly for a while.

Ken Klein, who rebuilt his Scripps Ranch residence following the 2003 Cedar Fire, said he became an “involuntary expert” on the subject and now teaches a seminar on natural disaster law and policy. Some of his neighbors, however, gave up and abandoned their lots.

Ken Klein. Photo credit: Cal Western School of Law.

He said it was amazing to discover how grounded his life was in his house.

“You think you’re making good decisions but you’re not,” Klein said. He suggested keeping a written journal of who you talk to, what they say, and what you do.

About a dozen houses were destroyed or significantly damaged in two of the 11 fires that raced through San Diego County this week, along with two apartment complexes and two commercial buildings. The cities of Carlsbad and San Marcos were in the midst of conducting damage assessments, which could change the tally.

The major issue is making sure homeowner’s insurance policies are enough to pay for rebuilding, Klein said. Nationwide, 80 percent of homeowners are underinsured by 20 percent, he said. That means, for example, if your house is worth $500,000, you would only be insured for $400,000.

The value of a residence that’s written into a homeowner’s policy is the owner’s responsibility, not the insurance company’s, according to Klein.

A homeowner should email his agent or broker stating that he or she is relying on them to write the policy with a value high enough to rebuild, and then get a written response, Klein said. He said the documents should be stored in a safe place other than their house.

Discussing the value of the policy is not good enough, he said, instructing homeowners to get the details in writing.

After he lost his house, he said he ran into a large number of issues that people might not ordinarily think about.

Among them:

  • The leftover debris is toxic because of chemicals used to manufacture various products, and disposing of them will raise environmental concerns and require the payment of fees. County officials are warning of this as well.
  • Evacuees who left on short notice might not have enough clothes or other necessary personal items;
  • Owners will have to work out with banks and lenders how to pay the mortgage;
  • Insurance reimbursements might have to be distributed through the housing lender, which might have a different schedule than the rebuilding contractor;
  • Listing inventory becomes extremely difficult when you can no longer see the items that were destroyed, and replacement values are impacted by depreciation;
  • Rebuilding on a different floor plan will mean using a new foundation slab, which could be opposed by the insurance company or local government; and
  • Homeowner’s associations will have authority over the design of a rebuilt home, which could cause a conflict if the owner is underinsured.

Klein said that in the Cedar Fire, his house was destroyed when a nearby house exploded, throwing flaming debris through his roof. The landscaping survived but he had to figure out how to water it when he had no access to utilities, he said.

His house was the 12th to be rebuilt, which was “considered ripping fast,” he said.

“My experience was fine,” Klein said. “In fact, in my list of hassles, this was not high on the list. It is very specific to the insurance company, the adjuster and what your policy says.”

He said he moved into his rebuilt home 13 months after the fire. Now, 11 years after the horrific blaze, some lots where houses once stood remain empty, he said.

– City News Service