Legally Speaking


By Karen MacNutt,
Contributing Editor

So there you stand, looking into the cavity that was at one time your home. Perhaps it was a fire, or a flood, an earthquake, a hurricane, or mudslide. Your feeling of helplessness is all the same. You think back to the moments before disaster struck and say, “What else could I have done?” No matter what else, if you are standing there with those thoughts, you saved one of the most important things in your home, yourself.
Disasters strike suddenly. If you run around trying to save items of personal property, you might not get out alive. If you wake up to smoke in the house, get you and your family out immediately. Do not try to save anything else. Fire moves quickly. Have a pre-arranged rally point outside of the house so that you know everyone is out safely and no one goes back into a burning building looking for someone who is not there.
Propane tanks, butane lighters, and pressurized cans become explosive devices when in a fire. Black gun powder, which is an explosive, is only a problem if it is confined and able to build up pressure; otherwise, it merely flashes. Black powder should not be stored in a military style ammo can or any other container that might provide the compression black powder needs to explode. Black powder should not be stored in a damp area. If black powder gets wet, it becomes unstable and can spontaneously combust as it starts to dry out. If it is only damp, small amounts of black powder can be spread out to dry, outside, away from buildings in an area that is safe. If the powder is clumping or has changed its granular appearance, it should probably be disposed of in a burn pit. If it ignites, it will do so with a big flash so ignite it from a safe distance. If any significant amount of the powder gets wet, the best thing to do is to keep it wet until it can be disposed of properly. How to dispose of it will depend upon whether it is real black gun powder or one of the modern substitutes.
Smokeless powder and ammunition will “pop off” but will not explode in a fire. The ammo, when not confined to a gun barrel, does not have enough energy to cause serious injury. The risk is that someone not wearing safety glasses could suffer an eye injury from small flying debris. Ammo stored in a military-style ammo can may “pop off” due to the heat of the fire even if the fire does not reach the can. The rounds, however, will not escape the can. Firearms caught in the heat of a fire, even if they do not appear to be damaged, may have been sufficiently heated to cause the metal barrel to lose its temper. If that occurs, the gun is not safe to shoot.
With the exception of storing modern ammunition in government ammo cans, keeping anything in a metal box that is not fire rated simply insures that the item will be incinerated if there is a fire. Although a fire might not burn though a metal box, the temperature inside the box will become hot enough for paper, such as currency, to spontaneously combust. On the other hand, the ammo cans are waterproof and almost indestructible. They will protect valuables in case of a flood or non-fire related disaster.
You can obtain fire rated safes or file cabinets for valuables; however, they generally will not protect items from water, be it from a flood or a fire hose. After a fire, it is important to retrieve items from such safes as soon as possible to determine if they need conservation. Quick action will make the difference between saving an item and having an item damaged beyond repair. Before buying a fireproof storage container, read and understand the rating system used. Not all fire rated containers are equal.
If you live in an area prone to flooding, severe weather, wildfires or mudslides, you may want to think about having a backpack or bag, called by some a “go bag,” set up to take with you if you have to evacuate quickly. Have a check list of things that should be in the bag in the order of their importance. To the extent that some things can be left in the bag, they should be pre-packed. Medicines should all be in one place so they can be quickly added if you have to suddenly leave your home. You should have identification, money, a credit card, and a cell phone handy. A first aid kit, a flashlight, a boy scout-type folding knife, a box cutter, important phone numbers and a copy of your pet’s rabies certificate can all be pre-packed. Even though you have a cell phone, it may not work in a disaster. A radio is still a good thing to have. A pencil, paper, safety pins, a sewing kit, something to light a fire with and extra batteries are all handy. Batteries will go stale so probably should be on the list of things to add at the last minute. The so called “space blanket” that folds into a small package, a compact towel, a compact poncho and work gloves are also useful. If you have a little more time, warm clothing, blankets, bottled water, dried fruit, and power bars should be considered. If you think you might have to shelter in or near your home for some time after a disaster, you should plan on having at least two weeks of non-perishable food, such as dried or canned food. If a storm is on the way and you fear that you will not have drinking water, fill your bath tub or other containers with tap water before there is a loss of power or city water. If you lose water unexpectedly, remember, there is drinkable water in the freshwater pipes in your home which can be drained into containers. The water in the tank at the back of your toilet is also good, clean water. Avoid drinking water from your hot water tank as that may have a high concentration of chemicals.
If you are forced to evacuate and have time, leave a dated message on your front door saying where you have gone. This will help people looking for you later and will save rescue workers from having to force their way into your home to see if anyone is there. Crayon or lipstick on the door or in some conspicuous spot would work well. Do not use water soluble markers as they will wash off.
As there may be no civil law enforcement available if you have to shelter in place, having a gun and ammunition for self-defense is also a good idea.
Lawyers use estate planning lists which contain critical information such as a list of your bank accounts or brokerage houses, your various insurance policies, your social security number, date of birth, next of kin, who to contact in an emergency and the location of important documents. Having such a list on file with your lawyer or with a close relative may help you reconstruct your finances in the event of a disaster. You may want to keep a copy of your home insurance policy in someplace other than your home so that if your home is destroyed, the policy is not. Have a friend or family member that lives at a distance designated as a contact person so that if your family gets separated, there is someone who can help pass information along. Let your family know as soon as possible that you are ok and how they can contact you.
Once a situation stabilizes, and you can get back onto your property or into your home, salvage efforts should begin immediately. Bring a camera. Take pictures of everything. Take pictures of broken glass, water logged clothing or walls, charred furniture, destroyed appliances, the contents of closets, drawers and cabinets. The pictures of the destroyed items may be the only proof you have that they ever existed. If the house is still standing and safe to enter, go through each room methodically taking pictures of everything. Bring a notebook to write down everything that was in the house, even including the number of rolls of toilet paper. If your loss is covered by insurance, the itemization will help you recover the maximum amount under the policy. If there is nothing left of your home, sit down in a quiet place and methodically go through each room in your mind writing down everything that was in each room. You can then “value” the item using on-line catalogues. Keep track of where you found the price of each item.
Most insurance companies require you to take steps to protect property that is capable of being salvaged or to stabilize damaged property. Any expense you make to protect or clean up the damaged property may be compensable under your insurance policy. KEEP ALL RECEIPTS.
Do not pay for labor or repairs in cash if you can avoid it. You will have to prove what you spent.
Write checks or use your credit card.
Other than fire, most other types of disasters will generally not render guns or ammunition unsafe so long as they can be recovered and cleaned before rust or oxidation causes damage. Once you get back onto your property, you want to look for your guns and ammunition as well as any other valuables that might be attractive to looters. Even when waterlogged, if the guns are taken apart, the metal is cleaned and any wood is allowed to dry, they should be alright.
Water soaked important documents can be frozen to stop further damage until they can be properly conserved. Traditional photographs are not harmed by water. They should be carefully removed from any album, rinsed in distilled water and allowed to dry flat and individually so that they do not stick together. If they are already stuck together, try soaking them in distilled water before carefully separating them.
Most people who own homes have home owners insurance. Many people who live in apartments have similar insurance. Before you have a loss, look carefully at your policy.
The best homeowner’s policies are what are called “HO 3” policies. These policies cover all losses except for those specifically excluded. If some fast talking insurance company representative asks you to point out where the policy says the damage to your home is covered, you will not be able to do so because of the way the policy is written. Your answer to that question is, “Everything is covered unless you can show me the exception that says it is not.”
Certain things are generally excluded from homeowner’s policies unless you obtain a special rider. A “rider” is additional coverage for which you will pay an added premium. Things generally excluded include, but are not limited to, intentional acts (you cannot burn your house down and expect the insurance company to pay and you cannot get a rider to cover such acts); acts of war; earthquake; general deterioration, “collapse” or flood. Policies often have other exclusions that you need to be familiar with. The words used in your policy may have specialized meanings so look at the definitions section of your policy. Often “collapse” is not covered if it is caused by deterioration. But, if you have an old house with some deterioration which is hit by a falling tree which causes a collapse, the damage is covered. The term “flood” can be deceiving. If water enters from along the ground, including from things such as a broken water main, it is considered a “flood.” On the other hand, if that same water main puts a geyser 30 feet into the air and the same water enters from the sky, it is not a flood and is covered.
Your house is generally insured for its replacement value. If you do not insure for the full amount of the replacement value, the insurance company will say you are a partial self-insurer. For example, if the replacement value were $200,000, and you only insured for $150,000, then you had a $2,000 loss, the company will only pay you $1,500 assuming you had a zero deductible. Generally you should not insure for 100% of the fair market value of the house as the rule of thumb is that 20% of the value of your property is in the land, not the building.
Unless you have a rider that covers required building code upgrades, your insurance will only pay to put your home back to the way it was prior to the loss. If the building codes have changed, and a more expensive method of construction is needed to rebuild, then the insurance company will not pay for the added cost unless you have a rider for the additional coverage.
Insurance companies will also subtract “recoverable depreciation” from the check they send you for your loss. Basically this is a hold back to insure you do the repairs. Once the repairs are completed, if you send the insurance company proof of the repairs, they will pay you the hold back.
The contents of your home are generally insured for not more than an amount which is determined by a percentage of the value of the home. This is where the itemization of lost items is important. Certain types of high value items will not be covered to their full value unless they have been itemized in the policy before the loss. In most cases, a special rider would have to be placed on the items. Those items include works of art, jewelry, and guns which come under a fine arts rider; and, camera equipment, music equipment, and computers which come under an electronics rider. You should consult with your agent about such items to determine if the value of such items in your home is high enough to require a rider. The cost of a fine arts rider is very high and many people opt not to purchase it. The NRA has a limited coverage for guns owned by members.
Your insurance policy also protects you from liability if someone sues you. A common exclusion to that coverage is for intentional acts committed by you. If you punch someone in the nose, your insurance company will probably not pay for the damage. Another exclusion is for injury caused by animals. Your dog is the most likely source of concern although other animals can be a problem. You may get a rider to cover you for damage done by your dog. Certain dogs, however, are considered higher risks than other dogs. It may be difficult to get liability insurance if your dog falls into one of the high risk breeds.
Hopefully you will never have to worry about a large disaster. No matter how bad it seems, as long as you and your family are safe, you can always replace property.