I have been back in Chicago for over four weeks. We had a frozen pipe in our condo building that has caused >100k of damages to our home. Our insurance provider has denied us because we didn’t have sewage back-up coverage. Oh, hey- it was a 3 inch sewage/drainage pipe that froze. I have learned a lot about insurance. I have also found that many are in the dark (like we were!) on what is covered and the process.
Let me start at the beginning. First, Qi, Boba and I are all healthy. That’s the most important thing. Qi is still in Hong Kong and Boba is still with the sitter. Second, I was extremely anal when I winterized our condo. I even sent details to our property manager to ensure I didn’t miss anything. She complimented me on my preparedness. Most people I’ve spoken to have expressed how thorough I was….I guess that’s nice to hear? However, shit happens! And in our case, literally “shit happened” all over our house. It’s impossible to prepare for a clog in the drain-line that caused the sewage to stand still and then freeze during the sub-zero temperatures.
What makes it worse, is I thought our coverage was above and beyond the necessary measures. If you know me, you know I always prefer to be over-prepared. Hence the extremely thorough winterization and the high liability and property damage coverage for our home.
The whole process with insurance and remediation has been eye-opening. I found there’s not much info online which is a big part of why I’m sharing my experiences and what I’ve learned. Probably the biggest mistake I made was thinking that our insurance company was on our side. In hindsight, I realize how naïve that sounds. I truly thought “if you followed all the proper procedures and did nothing wrong, that it would all work out”. Unfortunately, so far, that’s not the case. To be fair, I do feel like our agent has been a diligent advocate, but she is in sales and it’s her job to make me feel that way.
I’ve spoken to so many people over these weeks. No one says the same thing on the proper procedure to follow. I’ve talked to our insurance agent, our claim’s adjuster, at least 9 lawyers, general contractors, remediation companies, appliance restoration and disposal companies, realtors, our HOA insurance adjuster, property management team, etc.
Here are some things I’ve learned:
- Check your home insurance policy- Like us, most of the people I’ve spoken to did not realize that sewage back-up was excluded from their policy. Sewage coverage is an add-on. This pertains to both condos and single family homes. I cannot speak for town homes. Even our agent was unaware we were lacking sewage coverage as part of our policy. There’s a possibility that could help us.
- It might be beneficial to hire a public adjuster- Our insurance company adjuster spent less than 5 minutes in the house before denying us. Our HOA adjuster was more thorough but also represents our building, not us. Having an unbiased adjuster has been very helpful so far. And it’s really nice to have someone on your side! It adds cost, but the info they’ve shared with me is by far more than I received from either my insurance or the HOA policy adjuster.
- Hire a remediation company- They will perform the cleaning and demo. In our case (sewage-which is category 3 water or black water) they had to remove 2 feet outside the affected area. I asked our property manager for referrals. A public adjuster could also give recommendations. I received so many conflicting opinions on when remediation should start. Our policy adjuster said to wait, our HOA adjuster said start immediately, but the remediation team did not want to start without insurance. We had the worry of mold (and insurance doesn’t cover mold on a standard policy) so we needed to get started right away. Keep in mind, “right away” was still over three weeks after the initial damage was reported. I still have no idea if that was correct or not. Guess I’ll find out….. It takes mold less than 72 hours to grow in optimal conditions.
- Consider legal counsel- Although I’ve found lawyers to be slow to respond, I still have hope in receiving their aid and insight. I’m not being dramatic when I say slow. One lawyer returned my call after 19 days.
- Remediation companies do not handle appliances- We had appliances filled with sewage just sitting in the house for several weeks because I was not aware that remediation does not also handle electronics. A separate company needs to be contacted for their assessment and disposal. Our remediation team gave us referrals. If you hire a public adjuster, they can give you referrals and walk you through the process. I was late to hire a public adjuster.
- Other damage- For damage to other personal property such as rugs and clothes, there are separate companies who handle this type of cleaning. For example, if the sewage came in contact with a rug, it will need to be discarded per proper handling of category 3 water (sewage). The remediation team will take care of that. However, everything in our house smells like poop and especially the porous items like fabrics. I am waiting to take care of these things with aid of insurance.
- Get several estimates for General Contractors- We’ve had a couple GCs come to give estimates. If we get insurance coverage, this will be important. Not to mention, for such a huge job, you’ll want to shop around and feel comfortable with your GC.
- Contact your Realtor- I don’t think this is absolutely necessary. I contacted two realtors we’ve worked with in the past for their advice and for GC referrals. Network, network, network. I also wanted to be certain we were following protocol for disclosures. Down the road, when we go to sell our home, we want to ensure all procedures were followed properly and we have the documentation to prove it. Luckily we didn’t have mold…..which is such a blessing!
- Consider recording phone conversations with your insurance company- I’ve found that for most of the insurance correspondence, no one wants to respond in writing. If you have a phone conversation and want to record it, just make sure you tell them they are being recorded prior to recording them. It might come in handy down the road. In lieu of this, I followed-up with an email summary of what they said and asked them to respond if it was incorrect.
- Take pictures of EVERYTHING- Be certain to take pictures of the damage, the damaged items (and their model #s and other identifying #s if applicable) and document it all thoroughly. I have a digital folder with text messages, emails, pictures, policy info, etc.
- Don’t start rebuilding without insurance- Unfortunately, it makes it challenging to get insurance coverage when you begin work prior to settling insurance disputes. We’ve had to stall our restoration in hopes that insurance will pull through.
Some things that I’m thankful for:
-I had such an amazing time in Hong Kong, China and Japan. I will always cherish that time! It was an experience of a lifetime. I loved it and will be forever thankful for such an amazing opportunity.
-Qi’s parents were handling things at the condo for the first couple days while I was still in Hong Kong. Qi’s Dad even fell on ice near our condo and had to go to the hospital. Thank goodness he was ok! I am super grateful to them for all their help in our absence.
-For 2 weeks I squatted at varying homes. Thanks Alistair Templeton, Bijou Hunt and Stacey Hill.
-Boba is well-loved and healthy at the sitter’s house. Our house is such a mess with ripped up floors, exposed pipes, etc. As much as I was looking forward to seeing him, I’m being a responsible pet owner and keeping him in his safe and happy environment.
-Julian Dibbell reached out to his network for lawyer referrals.
-I experienced the biggest and prettiest snowfall in Chicago since 2015….and I didn’t have to drive in it.
-My family and friends have been very understanding and respectful about my request for solitude.
-Qi, my parents, sisters and friends still made my birthday very special even though I was feeling sorry for myself.
-My parents, sisters and Qi have endured countless texts (at all hours) and have been extremely supportive.
-I’ve been developing much needed patience skills. It’s long overdue!
Originally, Qi and I were hoping I could return to Hong Kong in time for Chinese New Year. We have tickets to go to Shanghai to celebrate with his family. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work out. I know I’ll make it for CNY someday though. Luckily, I hadn’t yet purchased tickets for Singapore, Australia and Vietnam.
I’m not looking for sympathy–please refrain. Unless you can provide me with a hug from Qi Qi, I don’t need anything. I would not normally share such detail about something so personal. My aim is to educate-but I admit, writing this has been cathartic. Already an owner in our building added sewage coverage to their policy. There’s some satisfaction in that- that our crappy (pun intended!) situation has potentially helped someone else avoid this scenario….although it only added $9/month which makes me ill.
Other than patience, there’s personal growth here for me. I am stronger and smarter today than I was yesterday. The only way to build this type of character and strength is through adversity. I’m not saying I’m happy about our situation. Nor have I forgiven myself for not realizing we didn’t have sewage coverage. I have gained knowledge though. I am still hopeful our adjuster or lawyer finds a loop-hole and insurance picks-up coverage. I’m holding onto that. Hope is an extremely powerful thing!
Dum Spiro Spero– While I breathe, I hope.