What We’ve Learned – Edition 1:
Smoldering Embers

Most of our blog posts relate to questions from our clients, or convey information our readers should know about buying or selling a home.  With this post we’re mixing things up a bit by also sharing our stories as professionals in the real estate industry. These are essentially the things we’ve learned. We hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as we’ve grown by living them.

The narratives run the gamut. You’ll find humor, poignancy, sadness, quirkiness and everything in between—it’s all a matter of course when the job is to serve others. The overriding theme is that virtually all of these vignettes are educational. Stay with the narrative and it’s quite likely you’ll learn something valuable. So let’s get started. With no further delay, here’s the lesson of the Smoldering Embers …

About 15 years ago one of our clients owned and occupied a condominium in mid-city San Diego. This condominium complex is a series of buildings and each building has four units—two units upstairs and two downstairs. My client’s condo is a downstairs unit facing north and the balcony/patios are on the east side of the building.

On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon the upstairs neighbor was barbecuing on the balcony. Like millions of Americans the neighbor owned a charcoal grill. As the neighbor removed the last items from the grill and placed them in a pan he heard the phone ringing. He hurried inside—forgetting to close both the cover on the charcoal grill and the sliding glass balcony doors—sat down the pan, and answered the phone. After talking for a few moments he grabbed his car keys and went to Albertson’s to pick up a couple of items needed to complete the meal.

There was a nice westerly breeze that day. As the wind blew, smoldering embers from the charcoal grill became airborne and made contact with the cloth curtains that hung inside the sliding glass balcony doors (remember, the same sliding glass balcony doors that were left open). The curtains ignited and the flame spread to the kitchen cabinets inside the unit and the balcony outside. The flames were accelerated with help from household chemicals beneath the sink and charcoal starter on the balcony. Soon the entire unit was engulfed in flames and so was almost half of my client’s unit directly below.

My client was out of town, the grill master had gone to the market, and apparently none of the neighbors noticed this building was aflame. Luckily, a local news helicopter crew was en route to cover another story and decided to circle back because the fire was more compelling. Of course the news crew notified the fire and police department. Otherwise it’s likely much more damage would have occurred.

As a property owner, would-be property owner, or tenant, there are several takeaways:

1) Stuff Happens! Always make sure you’re adequately insured.

2) This incident helps to explain why many landlords prohibit charcoal grilling on the balcony. If grilling of any kind is allowed it’s typically restricted to propane, methane, natural gas or electricity.

3) Flame retardant curtains may be a good idea in the kitchen/balcony/patio area.

4) When purchasing a home always ask if there have ever been any insurance claims. If so, there are additional questions you should ask:

>What was the nature of the claim?
> When did the claim arise?
> What was the extent of the damage?
> What was replaced or repaired?
> Who was the contractor?
> Were there permits required? (If so, request copies).
> Are there any receipts or warranties? (If so, request copies).
> Are the warranties transferable? (Read them and find out).
> What was the Date of Loss?
> How much did the insurance company pay?
> In dollars, what was the owner’s responsibility?
> In dollars, what was the Homeowner’s Association responsibility?
> Is there a Fire Incident Report?

Please note that Fire Incident Reports in some areas can take a week or so to obtain, and may not be free. In addition, payment may be required in advance.  (Depending on your locale it may not be called a Fire Incident Report. Regardless of the name, just remember it’s the equivalent of a police report, but from the fire department). Once the Fire Incident Report is received read it thoroughly! You’ll want to make sure any circumstances that lead to the previous fire no longer exist. For example, if a fire started because of a build-up of brush in the canyon behind the home, putting out the flames and repairing the structure doesn’t correct the problem if the brush remains.

5) A security system that links the smoke detectors/fire alarm to the local authorities is helpful.

6) A sprinkler system may have arrested the fire before it spread.

7) If there are prior insurance claims, obtain a quote for hazard insurance before the contract cancellation period expires. If the existing owner has a series of insurance claims your ability to obtain coverage may be impaired, and if coverage is available the cost may be higher. Also note that if you have a couple of claims on the home you’re moving from and the seller has a couple of claims on the home you’re buying, you may have an even greater issue. Again, if there’s going to be a problem, you want to find out while you can still cancel the purchase contract without penalty.

8) When buying a property that’s been in a fire make sure your home inspector pays particular attention to the previously damaged areas. The quality of repairs may not be up to par. In the incident described above, all of the damaged wood and ceiling insulation was not replaced. We’re not certain if the insurance company, contractor or homeowner’s association cut corners. Unfortunately, my client did not find out until years later when they hired our firm to sell the property and we conducted a pre-listing inspection.

There you have it, some of what we’ve learned.

Until the next post . . . may health and happiness abound!