Homeowners and commercial building owners throughout Colorado are on high alert after the Marshall Fire. Tragically, over 1,000 properties were destroyed, and those owners are now faced with what to do next. As people confronted the reality of the devastation and destruction, everyone is asking: “What now?”
If you’re beginning down that path, intending to rebuild, some critical steps need to be taken as soon as possible:
Call your insurance agent soon to ensure you have all of your policy information and understand your coverages. This will get you into the queue and get your adjuster involved in your claim.
Request or demand (if necessary) an actual and official copy of your policy. The Declarations page is rarely comprehensive enough to give you the best idea of your coverage.
If you have coverage for “code upgrades” and decide to rebuild, these upgrades will bring the new structure into compliance with current codes regarding energy, electrical, mechanical systems, and structural design. The coverage should be comprehensive for replacement. (Note, some upgrades can cost tens of thousands of dollars). Call the county building department for more information.
Understand what you are allowed to rebuild if a fire sweeps the area. Sometimes municipalities are overwhelmed and have regulations about unpermitted structures, sheds, garages, outbuildings, and decks. This can drastically affect the design of your new structure or replacing what you had at your property.
Know your local regulations and rules regarding the size of new structures. Sometimes you cannot rebuild exactly what you have due to the land-use and planning codes/rules/regs.
Understand whether you have coverage for debris removal apart from the rebuild cost of the new structure. The debris from your existing house, contents, and materials needs to be removed and trucked away. At times, this is factored into the new build, and the coverages need to be explicit for the removal of the burned debris and cleanup. These debris cleanups can sometimes be labeled as hazardous waste or contain contaminants such as asbestos. If your municipality requires you to certify the debris-removal process, proceed with caution and verify that the debris goes to the correct (state-mandated) landfill. This added cost can be part of the code upgrade coverage. Check with your agent or adjuster.
Foundations that experience scorching house fires become unstable and should be inspected by an engineer. It should not be assumed that they can be reused and should be factored into the debris-removal cost if necessary. If you had a big basement or complete concrete foundation, this needs large machines and heavy-rated trucks for removal, which can be very expensive.
When a fire has destroyed huge volumes of structures, there are sometimes Environmental Protection Agency restrictions placed on the debris to be removed. After the Four Mile fire, regulations were changed regarding debris removal after the first month and required all debris (including concrete) to be taken to landfills and wrapped and tagged for proper disposal due to the possibility of asbestos. This change alone tripled the costs.
There are numerous resources available to assist with debris removal and provide you with the proper cost analysis and permits. For example, general contractors can fill this role and help coordinate the debris removal and planning process for rebuilding. They can also help navigate the insurance requirements for pricing and rebuild cost estimates. Look for someone who can provide an honest assessment of the situation you face.
Homeowners associations are sometimes covered under separate insurance policies. Make sure that you understand the coverages of the common areas and common amenities of your HOA. If the HOA can coordinate the cleanup efforts for the entire neighborhood, it may serve the group well to have a single point of contact.
HOA common areas and shared systems, if covered by separate insurance, may not move at the same pace as the residents rebuilding. Make sure to coordinate efforts with your HOA or neighborhood associations. Get everyone pulling for the same goal.
In a fire of such troubling magnitude, we are looking at replacing whole neighborhoods at the same time. When first developed, these neighborhoods were part of planned communities approved by the city and most likely built by a single builder. If there are multiple models of homes that the builder initially provided, it makes sense that these neighborhoods would either be built by a single large builder or adhere to the previous designs for ease of reconstruction.
If groups of residents can work together to take advantage of economies of scale, the biggest impact on overall cost will not be in the designs being simplified but buying materials in bulk. If the group can specify windows, siding, stone, doors, etc. that can be bought for all of the projects in the group, the discounting will be significant. This approach will also lessen the strain created by current supply chain issues.
Make sure that your streets, curbs, driveways, and infrastructure do not suffer any more damage. Control the access of heavy machinery and trucks to where it is most beneficial. Insurance rarely covers damage to existing hardscapes and walkways that were not damaged in the fire. Once those contractors are gone, it can be quite expensive to rebuild the neighborhood amenities.
Utilities and infrastructure can be damaged but not visible for the actual inspection. Septic systems, cleanouts, sprinkler systems, internet, and phone cabling, gas and electrical service meters, wellheads, and service wiring all need to be inspected for potential damage and certified for reuse.
Make sure that you research where you can take concrete and steel for recycling. Sometimes you can offset some of the costs of disposal if these items have a path to a recycler.
Be aware that the logistics of building after a large fire can be tricky and expensive. Lots of out-of-town contractors and claim chasers come out of the woodwork and begin to sell services after a devastating fire. Do your research on the qualifications, licensing, and business history of whom you engage to help. Support your local community and keep everyone working toward the goal of rebuilding the neighborhoods and communities they live in. Choose local providers whenever possible.