Fire, Smoke and Water in my apartment
December 30, 2010 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Crappy New Year! What to salvage when returning to an apartment that has post-fire water damage? Give me some tips!

I'm away with family for the holidays and just received word that my apartment in Vancouver BC was two floors directly below an apartment that had a major fire two days ago. I'm flying back tomorrow and have to have everything out of the apartment by Saturday so that they can start 'ripping up floors/walls'. The manager told me over the phone that: "Your place has lots of damage but your stuff didn't look too bad". The apartment above me has major water and smoke damage. The building is concrete, which is why the fire didn't spread.

I have no renters insurance of course. *slaps forehead*

I've seen this thread , but I'm more concerned about water damage than smoke, and there's not really any money available for cleaning/restoration services.

So my question is:

With limited time, what should I keep and what should I toss? I have not seen the apartment yet, but how do I assess what will mold, what can be cleaned, what tips and tricks are there for managing water damage? Any must have products that will help with this? Assume that there are books, clothes, furniture, electronics (including a Korg piano keyboard that I'm super crossing my fingers about), and other standard household stuff.

We'll be getting a uhaul and putting most of it in storage for a month while they reconstruct the place.

Also if you have any legal (or common sense) advice for an uninsured tenant in BC, I'd love to hear it.

Anything I'm not thinking of, also welcome. Bit shellshocked still.
posted by stray to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I should add that I was told I should pay my Jan. rent on time, but that I would then received it all back from the company's insurance company. They're a pretty above board management company, but is there any reason I shouldn't do that?
posted by stray at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2010

Abso-fucking-lutely do not pay rent for a month when you will not get to inhabit the apartment! What are they going to do -- evict you? Let them have their cash tied up until the insurance company pays up. I'm not a lawyer, but I would really like to see a jurisdiction that requires you to pay rent on your way out.

On a less ranty note, here is guidance related to 24-48 hours of water impact. 48 hours of contact with water is a threshold you'll often hear for when mold might have started (e.g., insurance companies will only secure you against water damage if you notify them within 48 hours, that sort of thing -- if I'm remembering my mold studies correctly). Hope this helps. This happened to my brother, so I know that it is extremely inconvenient. I'd also take pictures and good notes about all of your damages. Renter's insurance or no, it might turn out to be possible to be compensated by the landlord's insurance.
posted by slidell at 8:59 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

From personal experience, I would assume anything with any kind of fabric or material is a lost cause. Even if it didn't sustain water damage, it often has been exposed to chemicals (either from items that burned or substances used to help contain the fire--are you sure that they used only water), soot, or so much smoke that cleaning them and getting the smell out is impossible.

Save the photographs. Important papers. If nothing else, these can be scanned.

Please be safe, wear a mask when going in to check your place, and bring thick rubber gloves. Seriously.
posted by jenesaiswhat at 9:19 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, been there done that. If your place is anything like mine was, you're going to find what used to be your ceiling is now covering your belongings like a couple inches of new-fallen snow. Soggy, toxic-smoke-infused cardboard snow.

First thing you need to determine is how much smoke got into your stuff (or carried there by water). From my all-too-recent experience, apartment fire smoke is nasty stuff, full of awful smelling hydrocarbons that are the result of plastic in furniture, carpets & appliances burning, that will pretty much never come out of anything porous like fabric, fiber, paper or the plastic in your own appliances. If that smoke got in your furniture, clothes or books, you'll have to leave them behind or else get used to smelling like you just came from a tire burning ceremony. I'd concentrate on hard things like ceramic & metal kitchenware that won't be as infused with eau-de-burning couch. Next comes sentimental things & important papers.

As for supplies, if you have a lot of salvagable stuff I'd be sure to bring loads of trash bags to put things in to keep the undamaged stuff separate from the rest. And a complete change of clothes to use for salvaging & rummaging. Also, kitchen gloves.

I'm describing the worst-case scenario here, you could be a lot luckier than I was. But better prepared than not.
posted by scalefree at 9:36 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

In my unfortunate experience, "save what's dry still." Wet fabric and your furniture that has fabric is gonna be a dead loss (and smell awful). But really, anything that stinks and can't be de-stunk is gonna have to go. Don't waste the storage space trying to save your couch. This ended up not being something I uh, debated about a lot, it's pretty clear what can't be saved when your apartment has been drowned.

And when I had to clear everything out of my drowned apartment (the apartment above me had professional cleaners who left the water on all night), my complex just let me not pay rent for the 2 months I was out of the place. I stayed at a friend's house, who let me park on her futon for free. My roommate had pets and had to stay at a hotel, and they (supposedly) were to reimburse her for her hotel bill during that time. See if you can do one of those options. Do not pay the rent if you can at all help it if you can't use the place.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:14 AM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

CDs and DVDs should generally be recoverable, but liner notes may not be. Is there a local tenants org who can advise on paying the rent during the repair period? Do you really want to live there afterwards?
posted by ZeusHumms at 4:53 AM on December 31, 2010

I suspected, and lawyer wife affirms, that you can sue the insurance company of the renter above. Document your losses. Present the renters above with a bill. It may not be successful, but not presenting will definitely not be successful. Frankly, I'd pay the rent, too, but make them credit any unlivable days without fail, absolutely as soon as possible.

As for goods, my experience with fire damage is that papers and documents suffer a lot. Frankly, it doesn't matter if your granny's picture smells or not, or your high school annuals. Save that kind of thing.

Electronics are a mixed bag. I have spent the last two years recovering a lot of elaborate test equipment that was in a fire (some that originally cost 75k), and with patience, a lot of the internal crap can be cleaned and restored. Stains, not easy to remove. I am an engineer, though, and comfortable on the insides of electronics and appliances.

Furniture.... depends on what and where and how much water. Mostly, if saturated, it's history, IME.

FWIW, replacement value renter's insurance is FAIRLY cheap, but it's easy for other people to spend your money.

Sorry, friend... this sux and I feel for you. Good luck. Remember, it's just a bump in the road and a big ass inconvenience, but not the end of the world.
posted by FauxScot at 5:43 AM on December 31, 2010

Oh, this is my nightmare and I do feel for you. I'm sorry you have to go through this.

A good friend went through something similar (although from flooding, not fire damage) and she says the best thing she did was to bring two good friends with her. Often, she was just overcome, but her friends did not have the same emotional attachment to her stuff that she did, and were able to be more objective.

Frankly, it doesn't matter if your granny's picture smells or not, or your high school annuals. Save that kind of thing.

This. Even if badly damaged, if its an irreplaceable heirloom, save it. But for other stuff try to be objective about what can be reasonably saved and what cannot. Clothing is likely a total loss. Dishes - probably fine. Furniture? Hard to say for sure.

But without fail save everything that is actually irreplaceable. Even if badly damaged now, if you can get it dried out it may be salvageable in the future.
posted by anastasiav at 7:38 AM on December 31, 2010

On a saner note I'd like to apologize for my bad language up there. It was meant as kinda funny but came off poorly. Forgive me. How's the apartment?
posted by slidell at 11:03 PM on January 3, 2011

Response by poster: Hahah, slidell, no worries.

So, late update, in case anyone's curious.

Our stuff was FINE. Which was a huge relief. We tossed my wet smell mattress, which was old and crappy anyway, and a few small items. Otherwise, the damage was restricted to in the walls/cabinets/floors.

We moved out on NYE/NYD, which was chaotic, and I've mostly blanked it out, but it went fine.

The nasty bit of the story is that we were informed that if we wanted to keep the lease, we would have to pay rent for however long the rebuild takes (and they informed us they anticipate completion in JUNE!), but "don't worry, you'll get it all back once it's done". Which is stupid, of course, but ultimately backed up by the B.C. Tenancy Act.

So, we labeled our lease 'frustrated', terminated it, and walked away. Amazingly the day we went back to terminate the lease, we did a 'walk through' of what was left of the walls, no floors, no fixtures...except in the bathroom. Which is where they discovered that I hadn't replaced two lightbulbs, and they proceeded to knock $10 off my damage deposit. Amazing!

But it wasn't worth fussing boyfriend and I ended up finding a cheaper place in a nice part of town, with a lovely friendly landlord who only manages a few, all in all, it ended well.

Thanks for the help y'all, even though the situation ended up being a bit different than I expected, I really appreciate the advice and words of support.
posted by stray at 8:10 PM on January 25, 2011

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