A kitchen fire that damaged the main and upper floors of one house posed a dilemma for one client of top-selling Birmingham, AL, real estate agent Gene Darden: restore the house fully, or sell the house with fire damage?
A significant number of homeowners face that question. The nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says there were 357,000 home structure fires nationwide in 2017, causing $7.7 billion in property damage.
Darden, who has a decade of experience and sells homes with an average price point of $209,000, has helped homeowners on both sides of this issue. He’s handled transactions for investors who buy damaged property to restore as well as homeowners looking to sell to new residents.
“The biggest thing is removing the stigma by getting the house back to the state where it was,” he said.
“If you’re selling it at the investor level, then it’s a lot less to deal with, but if you’re fixing the home and selling it again at a repaired move-in-ready level, it’s going to be a totally different process.”
From dealing with the fire’s initial aftermath to signing the final signatures on your home sale, here’s how the experts recommend you proceed.
What to do immediately after a house fire
A fire to a home or business can be emotionally and financially devastating, leaving people unsure of what to do next. Rainbow International, a company with more than 400 locations worldwide offering mold removal and restoration services remediating fire damage, water damage, and smoke damage, has a checklist to guide you through the aftermath. Ensuring the safety of you and your loved ones is your top priority.
Some of the first steps to take include:
- Obtain permission from a fire department official before re-entering the damaged structure.
- Contact utility providers to inform them of the fire and request emergency shutoff service.
- Call your homeowners insurance company to begin the claims process.
- Hire a fire restoration contractor to assess the damage, provide an estimate on cots, and start the cleanup process.
- Document all property damage with photographs and detailed notes.
- Obtain a copy of the official report from the fire marshal’s office or fire investigator about the blaze for insurance purposes.
- Open all the windows to vent smoke from the rooms.
- Empty the refrigerator and freezer once the power is disconnected.
The American Red Cross specializes in providing disaster assistance, including after house fires. The nonprofit agency has a detailed guide here that covers you and your family’s emotional recovery, vital documents for your financial recovery, and an overview of checking your home for structural and system damage, as well as advice on making safe repairs.
5 steps to selling a house with fire damage
You can sell a fire-damaged house “as is” with little-to-no restoration or repairs if you’re willing to work with an investor or other buyer who will expect a discount, or you’ll accept cash. (HomeLight’s Simple Sale marketplace streamlines this process. After answering a few questions about the state of your home and your timeline, you’ll get to review competitive offers from a network of interested cash buyers in as little as 48 hours.)
This might be an attractive option if you don’t have adequate homeowners insurance coverage or the upfront money to make repairs.
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Find out what cash buyers are willing to pay for your fire-damaged home right now.
Otherwise, follow this five-step guide to selling a house with fire damage on the open market.
1. Restore the home to its original state (call up your homeowners insurance agent!)
For your best return on investment, experts advise doing full restoration of the house if possible. Keep in mind…
Fire damage can be costly
Note that fire cleanup is costly as well as difficult because exposure to soot can cause respiratory problems and other medical issues, according to Resolve, a partnership with Lowe’s and Alacrity Services.
Prolonged smoke damage can stain walls and ceilings, leave behind odors in crawl spaces, and impact the attic, roof, and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. (Cleanup companies recommend wearing disposable gloves when handling contaminated items; thicker, leather gloves for sharper items and construction debris; and two-soled shoes and dust particulate masks.)
Fire remediation also can lead to water damage restoration and mold removal because of the water used to fight the fire.
As such, the cost of recovering from just a small fire costs on average between $3,000 to $5,000, but adding in repairs such as a roof or kitchen cabinet replacements can easily raise the cost to $50,000 and beyond.
The good news: Most homeowners insurance policies do cover fire damage by any cause except arson where the property owner deliberately set the fire, or a fire in a house that’s been vacant for more than 30 days.
You’ll need to know what your homeowners insurance covers
Depending on the extent and type of policy, most of your fire damage costs could be covered by either cash value or replacement value insurance. Cash value means you’ll be reimbursed for your possessions at their depreciated value at the time of loss; while replacement value policies cover the costs to replace the item at comparable material and quality (a higher level of insurance than you would have paid higher premiums for).
Such policies also help pay for damage to structures not attached to the main home (sheds, garages, fences), as well as some landscaping. In addition, homeowners insurance typically helps pay for related costs of living away from your home during such damage, for instance, restaurant bills and hotel fees.
You should expect delays
Your homeowners insurance agent or online service directories such as HomeAdvisor.com and Thumbtack can help you find restoration companies in your area. They often offer free estimates, but be prepared for delays. Darden’s client, who owned the home as an investment property, wanted to restore and repair it to be move-in ready, which took longer than anticipated.
“Smoke damage pretty much radiates through the entire house. So in that particular situation, the investor thought he could save more than he could actually save,” Darden said. “Your duct work, your Sheetrock… If it’s a decent fire, it’s pretty much gutting the house because you can restore and you can dry … but you can’t get the fire smell out of the house without gutting it.
“Unless it’s just a real quick fire, it’s hard to not have to [re]do the majority of the house again, with the exception of the foundation and the studs and those types of things.”
Even after becoming unlivable, some homes destroyed after fires can fetch a high sales price because of the location. The shell of a 1,066-square-foot house in San Jose, Calif., sold in April 2018 for more than $900,000. The house had been vacant since a fire two years earlier and sits on a 5,850-square-foot lot about a mile from where Google plans to build a new campus, according to The Mercury News.
2. Disclose previous fire damage to buyers.
Many states’ disclosure laws will mandate that you disclose previously known fire damage, but even in caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) states, real estate agents like Darden recommend that you be upfront about it.
“Most people are going to find out or know that the home has been on fire,” he said. “So the only way to alleviate that and actually be able to sell that home and get a fair market value for it is to be extremely extensive with the details and what you did to put that home back together, and how you made sure it met codes and standards that would apply to any home.”
3. Hang onto every piece of documentation from the restoration.
“A buyer is going to be looking at the house through a microscope. So you just got to be prepared for that, even more so than your standard inspection and purchase,” Darden said. “Really dot your i’s and cross your t’s in reference to documenting everything that was done to bring that house back up to speed, all the way down to photos and paid invoices.”
4. Be prepared to answer any questions buyers may have.
Potential buyers will be interested in the cause of the fire, as well as what you’ve done to remedy any problem. Cooking equipment (cooktop, oven, microwave oven, grill) was the top cause of home structure fires from 2012 to 2016, starting 48 percent of them, the NFPA says. Other leading causes include:
- heating equipment (fireplace, chimney, space heater, furnace, water heater) – 15%
- electrical distribution and lighting equipment (wiring, lamps, bulbs, cords, plugs, transformers) – 10%)
- intentional causes (arson) – 8%
- smoking materials – 5%
- clothes washer or dryer – 4%
- fan or air conditioner – 2%
- candles – 2%
- playing with a heat source – 2%
“People are going to ask, just wanting to know, like anything else that would happen in the house that would stigmatize it. Then they make their assessment based off that,” Darden said. “If it’s your standard kitchen fire or electrical fire or vent hood, it goes right back to the documentation of showing them that, ‘Hey, this is what happened, and this is what we’ve done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’”
5. Don’t try to rush the process.
Although selling a house after a fire may be stressful, Darden notes that any real estate transaction can present questions for potential buyers. Anticipating those questions and addressing them properly will put everyone at ease; leaving things unturned will present challenges.
“You don’t want to get laser-focused on ‘I got to sell this house in 20 days.’ Let’s talk about point A to point B and all things in between, and get a plan for each of those things. That’s going to make your processes a lot easier,” he said. “If you do all those things correctly, then you’re going to turn around and get market value for the home.”
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