LAFAYETTE, Colo. — It’s unimaginable, the loss of a home and all your possessions inside. It’s the type of loss you simply can’t understand unless you’ve been through it yourself.
Marjorie Cranston knows a lot about loss; her house was one of the more than 300 homes destroyed in the East Troublesome fire last year.
That fire was considered the costliest Colorado wildfire in state history for insurance companies until last week when the Marshall fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes.
For 13 months, Cranston has been in the process of rebuilding her home. She’s been going through the insurance process and working with builders to keep things moving forward.
It’s been a long, emotional journey; she’s gone through five insurance adjusters in 13 months and says each time it’s like starting over from scratch.
“You find yourself falling apart at different times. Anger comes up. I can remember throwing things because I got so frustrated with the process of insurance That they were times that I thought, ‘I can’t do this, I just can’t do this,’” Cranston said.
Eventually, she was able to get help navigating the insurance world through an attorney and her house is in the process of being rebuilt. The structure of the home is finally up along with the roof and they are now working on the interior.
When the Marshall fires broke in Boulder County last week, Cranston found herself reliving her own experience, saying she couldn’t even watch the video of the fires because of the bad memories it brought up for her.
“You relive that whole experience, and your heart is just breaking for the people who are losing everything in their lives and unless you’ve been through that you don’t know the trauma that it creates,” she said.
Outside a disaster assistance center in Lafayette, a makeshift insurance village has been set up to help with mobile units from some of the biggest insurance companies ready to help families who lost their homes in Colorado’s most recent fire.
“We wanted to make sure we were giving all the resources necessary for these impacted homeowners,” said Carole Walker, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.
When all the home and business owners are helped and everything is said and done, this will be the most destructive wildfire in state history. Fortunately and unfortunately, these insurance companies have a lot of experience with total losses, particularly in Colorado.
An informational session is also being hosted Tuesday night to help families. Walker says the biggest question they are getting from families is what’s next and where do they start.
“We know insurance is confusing and these people have never had to go through this. They're going to start rebuilding their lives,” Walker said.
She says it’s important for people to know that there is help out there and the sooner they can file a claim the better off they will be.
Over at the USAA mobile unit, communications director Rebekah Nelson says they’ve already seen about 450 claims from this fire alone and they expect many more to come in.
In the short-term, she says people they’ve worked with are worried about having their immediate needs met with things like clothes, food, shelter and basic necessities.
In the long-term, the questions become, should they rebuild or move somewhere else and how can they find trusted contractors to work with.
“The biggest mistake I would say that we see is jumping the gun on repairs. So, make sure that if you are going to make repairs, they're only temporary because you want to make sure that we can review those damages before you start making permanent repairs,” Nelson said.
She also warns families to beware of fraudulent contractors and to work with their insurance company or check with local authorities or even the Better Business Bureau before signing a contract for work.
She also warns people to look out for red flags like companies asking for large sums of money upfront or deals that seem too good to be true.
“It's always your choice on who you use to repair your home. But by using some of those direct repair programs with insurance companies, it might be able to help you move along a little bit faster,” Nelson said.
Cranston, meanwhile, has learned her own lessons on how insurance works in a total loss and also has some advice for other homeowners who are about to face the same difficult journey she did.
First, she wants people to know that if their insurance companies offer them money right away, it’s a good idea to ask whether you will have to pay it back but then accept it to start buying things to get back on your feet. Insurance companies will also help with things like rent while the home is being rebuilt.
Second, she wants homeowners to know that even though your house was destroyed, you are still responsible for the mortgage.
“If you want to rebuild you need to know that first of all you have to pay off your mortgage,” she said. “That doesn’t leave you with a ton of money to rebuild.”
She had to rely on content money or the costs of the things inside her home that her insurance covered to rebuild.
It took days for Cranston to put together the spreadsheets of everything she and her husband owned that were destroyed in the fire for the insurance company.
Cranston described it as nearly a full-time job, which is why her next piece of advice is to accept help if it is offered because one day hopefully you’ll be in a position to pay it forward.
Other pieces of advice: be careful when committing yourself to work with out-of-state contractors because it causes its own set of headaches, ask for references from anyone you’re working on the rebuild with and follow through on calling them.
Finally, she tells homeowners not to give up and not to settle but to push for everything they need.
“Don’t give up. If you start to feel like you can’t handle it anymore, go handle it more,” Cranston said. “I’d like to offer hope because as bad as everything looks in 13 months it starts to look better and you try to rebuild your life.”