After a Fire: Common Homeowner Mistakes

In the aftermath of a house fire, most homeowners are too distraught to think clearly about what to do next such as secure the property, remove important documents and notify the mortgage company.

Hiring a licensed general contractor, ideally one with experience in fire, water and smoke damage, is often the most crucial step toward being able to return home and regain a sense of normalcy.

“One big mistake is not choosing a general contractor quickly enough,” says Wesley Phillips, President of Bryant-Phillips Associates, a North Carolina-based licensed general contractor specializing in fire, water and smoke damages restoration.

"A general contractor should be able to assist you with securing your home, generating an estimate and doing all the repairs on the home," he continues. "The faster the homeowner selects a qualified contractor, the faster repairs can be made and the family can return home.”

Another error is trying to cut costs by doing the repairs themselves or with a friend or relative without the necessary expertise or experience which can lead to problems down the road, Phillips cautions.

Also, once the fire department has deemed the premises safe to enter, don’t delay in removing valuables and furnishings.

“The faster you get an item out, the better chance you have of repairing and salvaging it. Even though the fire is out, water and smoke will continue to damage items left inside,” Phillips says.

As for food, err on the side of caution and toss it all. Keep a running list of what you discard—frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable items— since the insurance company needs to reimburse you for everything you lose in a fire, including food (see WHN's Food Safety Guide for more).

Phillips talks about three common misconceptions people have about the aftermath of home fires:

  • Overestimating the damage.

    Homeowners often assess damages at 100 percent when they are really only 25 percent. And it's easy to overestimate the severity of a fire because in some cases, it looks worse than it is. For example, sheet rock is designed to keep fire out and once the black and charred material is removed, it is often undamaged underneath. Almost anything can be repaired.

  • Settling for the smoke smell.

    It is possible to get rid of the smoke smell! Homeowners think they will never get rid of the smoke smell, but a good company will guarantee that they can permanently eliminate the odor. If the smoke smell remains, request additional treatment.

  • Unrealistic expectations.

    It takes time to repair a house. Homeowners need to prepare themselves for the fact that restoration can be time consuming. Since restoration can involve stripping the house to the studs and rebuilding, homeowners need to think in terms of months, not days or weeks.

  • Last Updated: 5/2009