Fire in the apartment next door
September 26, 2010 5:02 PM   Subscribe

There was a fire in the next door apartment, and as a result many of our things were damaged. What should we be doing?

We are renting in a highrise in New Jersey. There was a pretty heavy fire in the apartment next door, and while we were evacuated, many of our items were damaged. We're glad to be alive but now we have to clean our apartment and deal with the consequences. I've never had anything like this happen, and am not sure what to do!

Apparently the neighbor's oven caught on fire, and the doorman says there was some plastic left in there too which made the fumes especially terrible.

While we were gone, the firefighters came in since the windows were all open when we returned. The floor was all wet with some kind of dirty water, the rugs were all drenched, and many of the items in our living room have some kind of water damage, including some boxed electronics equipment (now unboxed), a lot of my girlfriend's clothes, and a laptop that was unfortunately left on the floor. :(

Some maintenance workers came in and immediately mopped up the floor to prevent water damage, but the place still stunk afterwards and the floors were very dirty. We have been cleaning for the last hour. We've had the windows wide open but the apartment still smells very smoky, like burnt plastic.

I don't think we have an insurance policy for this-- we're certainly not paying extra for anything at moment-- but would it be something we should look into? Should we talk to the building's management office, or to our neighbor? Any advice?
posted by gushn to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have renters insurance? If you have USAA accounts of any kind, call them and ask. That burnt plastic smell never goes away, I'm afraid. Call the management office and see if they have any advice. Without insurance you're options might be very limited. Good luck.
posted by vincele at 5:06 PM on September 26, 2010

Also, if you can afford it, stay in a hotel tonight and figure things out.

Actually, call a hotel and tell them you are a victim of a fire. They will give you-- I can't remember what it's called precisely-- a catastrophe rate. In suburban Philadelphia at a Hampton Inn it was $99. They will not tell you the rate over the phone, they tell you when you show up in person.

Fire damage cleaning companies can treat your clothing, shoes (don't forget all leather items) and throw pillows, etc. It will be expensive but cheaper than buying a new wardrobe. The items that were water damaged might be gone.

You can get a renter's insurance policy that has a special endorsement for electronics. It doesn't cost that much extra.

I'll post more if I think of anything. Feel free to memail me if you have questions. I'll check either later tonight or tomorrow a.m.
posted by vincele at 5:13 PM on September 26, 2010

The more pertinent question is whether the neighbor who caused the fire had renter's insurance, which would include liability insurance. You may have a legal claim against the neighbor. You may have some recourse as to the landlord, including a right to cancel the lease if your apartment is not reasonably habitable. See a lawyer ASAP.
posted by megatherium at 5:14 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh yes, along the lines of what megatherium just said, save every single receipt starting from this moment onward. Someone will surely organize a class action lawsuit, or you can do it yourself. You want proof of every thing or service you buy from here on out.

Ok, I will bow out now.
posted by vincele at 5:18 PM on September 26, 2010

I had a house fire about a year ago. I own my house and have homeowner's insurance, so my experience isn't quite analogous. What I can tell you though is that your apartment will have to be cleaned by specialist post-fire/post-accident cleaners (e.g., Service Master, a national chain) to be habitable in the future. I'm not using "habitable" as a legal term, only as a "no one should reasonably be expected to rent from an apartment management company that lets their property smell like/look like/feel like that." There's likely smoke and/or water in the walls and floors, on the light fixtures, even inside the stove--and all of that needs to be cleaned because as you're well aware, there's soot on everything. Soot usually has acid in it that corrodes things like wood furniture and silver jewelry, not to mention electronics like your tv. It will also corrode the building owner's walls, floors, and appliances if not cleaned correctly.

If you do not have renter's insurance, call the building management company and ask what if any provisions they make for adjacent apartments when there's a fire. If you broke your lease tomorrow and moved out because of this, they'd have to clean it to rent it. And you and I both know that they'd call their own insurance company and file a claim to get it done. So it's not like they're unaware (or wouldn't be, if you told them) that the conditions are unacceptable.

My advice is to call the management company and ask what they intend to do about it. Be honest and tell them you don't have insurance if you don't have it. Remind them that they're the owners of the property, not you. Ask what they intend to do about preserving the value of their structure, which includes the walls, floors, and appliances in the apartment that you're only temporarily renting. Don't be a hardass, but if they're receptive, then ask them if they intend to do anything about the contents in your apartment--that is, all your belongings. "Contents" is what the insurance company will call everything that's not part of the structure--all the furniture, rugs, electronics, etc. You might get lucky! You never know.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:28 PM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh damn, I forgot: If the apartment management company tries to half-ass it with saying they'll pay for cleaning and do a bad job of it (like say hiring somebody's Uncle Ray to do it), insist on their using a cleaning/restoration company that is certified/uses techniques endorsed by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration. There are special techniques and chemicals one must use to get rid of soot and smoke smells.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:31 PM on September 26, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, I spoke with the friendly handyman, and he suggested talking to the management office tomorrow. I don't know what I should say or bring though. I took some photos of some of my damaged things too.

We're finding soot on all our things, and some of the wedding invitations that we left out are starting to stain with them too. :( I am pretty sure I left the bedroom door closed before we ran out, but they were wide open when we returned; I think the fire department came in and opened all the doors and windows as additional ventilation for the smoky apartment next door.

The air still smells horrible, and I feel like I'm getting nauseous just breathing in here. I don't know if we want to spend $ to rent an apartment for the night if we won't be reimbursed for it somehow... we will likely just sleep with the windows wide open.
posted by gushn at 5:42 PM on September 26, 2010

just to correct something said above, there will not be a "class action" filed by anyone over this. A class action is a "representational" suit. Although the rules vary from state to state and between state and federal class actions, generally, to have a class action, you must have a class of litigants such that the costs and abilities of the parties to litigate their claims in individual law suits is more or less impractical to the point of impossibility. That is, either the number of people with a claim substantial similar to the named "lead" plaintiff in the class is so large that they cannot all be identified nor joined in the case or the amount of recovery per person is so small, that it's not worth the suit. It's quite possible someone will sue the people who "caused" the fire and it's quite likely that if you also decide to sue, your suits will be joined together on a motion of the defendant. This will not be a class action. It's also unlikely that if one of your other neighbors decides to sue, their attorney will request you join in the suit, but this is already a derail.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:47 PM on September 26, 2010

If you have renters insurance, call them first. In a world where it's generally impossible to talk to a knowledgable (or English-fluent) person on the phone, I've found insurance agents to generally be surprisingly helpful and knowledgable people.*

My policy has provisions for temporary lodgings, and somesuch. When it comes to filing a claim with your insurer, it usually doesn't matter who caused the damage. If your neighbors are liable, the insurance company will take the necessary legal actions to recover the money that they just paid you.
posted by schmod at 6:17 PM on September 26, 2010

gushn: The air still smells horrible, and I feel like I'm getting nauseous just breathing in here. I don't know if we want to spend $ to rent an apartment for the night if we won't be reimbursed for it somehow... we will likely just sleep with the windows wide open

I am so sorry this has happened to you.

Honestly that's not a good idea on several counts. If the smell is making you nauseous:

1/ Leave. Go to the nearest inexpensive hotel. Save the receipt.
2/ Call the management company tomorrow and raise HOLY HELL. If you can't breathe, the apartment is not currently reasonably habitable.
3/ In order to at the very least get out of your lease, you need to make the argument the apartment is not habitable by not inhabiting it.
4/ Insist the management company make immediate arrangements to clean the apartment and make suitable accommodation arrangements for you while they do because the apartment is not habitable and you are obviously, not inhabiting it (see hotel bill).
5/ Note that they have no obligation to preserve, replace or repair your personal goods in this process and very likely won't. Return to remove anything you can't live without.
6/ Locate the neighbour. Determine if they have renters insurance. Pray that they do.

Mostly though, don't compromise your health on top of everything else this catastrophe will cause. If you can only do one thing to make this better right now, and that thing is getting out, do that.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:19 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

1) Take pictures of EVERYTHING, especially damaged things. Document for yourself all actions taken; dates/times of various occurrences; and all conversations with your landlord, firefighters, and other relevant authorities. You'll be so glad you did if there are any disputes later.

2) Here's a Google search for you (based on the stated location in your profile. It sounds like your apartment is not habitable in its current state; there are laws that cover what your landlord's obligations are in that case. See the footnotes on the New York section of the Wikipedia entry on habitability for some applicable statutes.

3) If you can find your next-door neighbor, first get his/her contact information (cellphone number, where they're planning to stay, etc.), then find out whether s/he has renter's insurance. If so, just like when you're in a car accident, make sure you get the insurance information. Do it as soon as you can, because if your apartment isn't exactly habitable, theirs definitely won't be, and if neither of you are in the building very much after this point, it may be difficult to reach them.

4) See whether your landlord has anywhere else s/he could put you up for the time being, and/or whether they have a fund for temporary housing at a hotel in the case of disasters. Probably not, but it never hurts to ask. Your landlord also may have insurance that covers this. Also—and this is hugely important—I would guess your rent's coming due for next month in a few days; talk to your landlord ASAP about this. If you're not living there starting basically now, as the property's not habitable, there are legal clauses that kick in—I don't know what those clauses say in NYC, but you may well be able to get out of your lease (or at very least not pay rent for the time that the property's uninhabitable), given the situation.

5) You might consider renting a storage unit now and getting whatever you can out of the apartment. A lot of your stuff is probably already damaged beyond salvaging due to smoke and water damage; depending on how reputable the repairmen are that your landlord hires to fix up the damage, you may end up with a lot more damaged and/or broken stuff before this is over. I would salvage what you can now and start looking for somewhere else to live.

And I'm so sorry to hear that this has happened; the very same thing happened to someone very close to me a few years back, so I've been through this before, and it sucks. I just hope you have a landlord who's willing to work with you; that can make all the difference in a situation like this!
posted by limeonaire at 6:43 PM on September 26, 2010

Also, 6) If you have any lawyer friends (or can get a recommendation for one), you might get in touch with them ASAP, just so they can help you track down the relevant facts and statutes re: habitability in your jurisdiction.
posted by limeonaire at 6:47 PM on September 26, 2010

If you end up having to clean (or pay to clean) your own stuff, it can be done. I had a big house fire and all of the clothes that I washed myself came out just as clean as the ones that the professional dry cleaners washed. Also, the wood furniture was fine, but some metal things corroded. (Like my makeup mirror, the toaster and all of the ceiling fans corroded. Silverware and pots, etc. were fine.) My leather sofa and some fabric sofas were all fine after sitting in storage for a while. (They told me they would stink forever if I didn't have them professionally done; I said I'd throw them away if they still did and not to bother but they are fine.) All of my books (that weren't burned or seriously dirty) smelled fine once we got them out of the boxes and wiped the covers off. As for dishes and things, putting them through the dishwasher didn't seem to do a thing, I had to hand wash everything. Basically, if the thing wasn't ruined right away, leaving a crapload of soot all over it and letting it rot in storage for 6 months while we rebuilt the house didn't seem to hurt it more. I even have books that I took out of the most burned and hosed areas and left open until they dried that don't smell or look bad. Don't think things you love can't be salvaged until you try.

We had sucky professional cleaners who didn't really clean much. I had to re-clean everything after the insurance company paid the "Cleaners" $16,000 to barely wipe things off and put them in storage. They did gut the house and got all the smell out of the house well, but not so good with the contents. Also, if you have cleaners who say that they are going to take pictures of your items for insurance as they clean them or throw them away if too damaged. do NOT believe them. If they forget things and throw them away it will be too late. (They threw away every single pair of my shoes by mistake.) Take your own pictures and make your own lists of damaged items.
posted by artychoke at 6:49 PM on September 26, 2010

Here, there's invariably a mention of "And the Red Cross arrived with blankets, and took the newly homeless to a downtown hotel etc etc" in newspaper stories about residential fires. Has anyone contacted the Red Cross yet? Even if it's only you who needs help, it is the sort of thing they are there for.
posted by kmennie at 7:03 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, you might look through your bank/credit card statements to see whether any of the electronics or other items with a warranty that were damaged in the fire (e.g., those boxed electronics and/or the laptop on the floor) were purchased with a Visa, MasterCard, or AmEx; if so, you might be eligible for extended warranty protections.
posted by limeonaire at 7:09 PM on September 26, 2010

Yeah, my comment about class action lawsuit was misleading. There was one after my fire, but that was an unusual case that got a lot of publicity. Still, keeping receipts is just as important as taking pictures.

I second the idea of contacting your local branch of the Red Cross. This is what they do. After my fire, they set up an emergency base in the neighborhood and gave out prescription meds, supplies and debit cards of several hundred dollars (depending on household size) to everyone affected. I believe they also arranged housing for people without insurance. You should definitely call them and see if they can help you out, or direct you to people who can.
posted by vincele at 6:41 AM on September 27, 2010

Thirding getting in touch with your local Red Cross branch. I am a disaster services volunteer with the Red Cross, and this is like 98% of what we do. I don't know how it is done in NYC, but here in Central MA we are usually notified of fire displacements by the fire department. We travel to the location as soon as possible, sit down with the clients and determine their needs, and do a damage assessment within the home if it is safe to do so.

I cannot make any promises, obviously, but some of the things that the Red Cross may provide assistance with are: Food, clothing, meds/medical supplies, temporary shelter, and transitional housing. Did you lose power, and therefore everything in your fridge/freezer? Make sure they know that. Same with your girlfriend's clothing damage, and any loss of bedding/towels/other essentials. They'll also have bundles of information about how to get the smell out of your home, your clothes, and your furniture, and how to deal with the hundred or so things you haven't thought of or had to deal with yet.

The Red Cross of Greater New York's website is here. You can contact them by phone at 877-733-2767. Seriously, call them. They will help you.

If there's anything else you would like to know from the volunteer's perspective, don't hesitate to shoot me a MeMail...
posted by rollbiz at 8:13 AM on September 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

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