When Disaster Strikes: A Rebuilding Guide

Last weekend I got a call from my cousin. “There’s been a fire.”

As someone who once walked into her house to find a waterfall flowing from the second floor bath through the kitchen to the basement, I know what that feels like. To stand in the middle of a wreck that used to be your house smelling smoke, or listening to the incessant drip of water, and thinking…

What the hell do I do now?

I sincerely hope that if you don’t know what that feels like, you don’t ever find out.

But the truth is, shit happens.

And after the disaster you have to do something. I know when it happened to me I didn’t know the first thing about permits or demolition, or rebuilding half a house. What I was responsible for, what someone else was supposed to do, and really, most importantly, how not to get screwed.

Some lessons (and yes I’m still a little bitter that my water meter was installed backwards and ran that way for a year) you have to learn the hard way.

Since I’m so far over my head with my own life right now that I couldn’t jump right in and help my cousin rebuild the fire damaged wall of her house, I put some information together to help the process of rebuilding make more sense and give her a little insight into what she might not know she doesn’t know.

I thought it might be useful to share, to use as a framework for anyone who might be interested what the hell you do next.

Here is what my cousins house looks like:

There was a fire (of as yet undetermined origin) in the wall around the gas fireplace. The wall, studs, and electrical wires were damaged by the fire, and the carpet was destroyed by smoke and water from the firefighters. This could have been a lot worse, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to get the house straightened up.

Here’s what the insurance company determined should be replaced:

  • The entire wall that the fireplace is on, including any fire damaged studs and adding insulation
  • The wiring in the damaged wall
  • All carpet in that room
  • Tile/finish work around the fireplace
  • Repainting the room, cleaning all upholstery,

Things You Should Know About Builders (aka General Contractors)

General contractors are also usually called “builders”. You can hire them to manage the entire project, or you can act as your own GC and just hire them to do specific parts of the labor, similar to what we’re doing on the house. If you hire them to take care of the entire project, here’s what a builder will do: He’ll probably do the demolition, repairing the studs, and hanging the drywall. He may or may not lay tile for around your fireplace. He should also pull the necessary permits from the city for construction and inspections.

For the things he won’t/can’t do, he will probably recommend people to use and coordinate with them. You can either use his recommendations or use other people, but you should always more than one quote for any services outside the original contract.

When you get a price from a contractor or builder it will probably be a lump sum (ie, it will cost $10,000 to do these parts of the work including labor and materials) and it may or may include things like carpet and tile, so make sure you have a detailed list of what quote covers.

Things You Should Know About the Rebuilding Process

Permits – Any time you’re touching a load-bearing wall or working with any of the utilities, the work will require a permit.

Things your builder should do: Your builder/GC should pull the permits and schedule the inspections at the appropriate times.

Things you should do: Check to see if the cost of the permit is included in the GC quote.

Demolition –  It’s a necessary evil of the re-building process. Things are going to get messier and a heck of a lot dustier before they start looking better.

Things your builder should do: They should take care of demolition and providing a dumpster. They should also “protect” the area, which in my experience usually only includes the immediate area (they won’t cover your furniture two rooms over, even though it may get dusty, unless you explicitly tell them to.)

Things you should do: Discuss the plan for containing dust, etc. You may want them to hang sheet plastic between that room and the hallway to the bedrooms or the Family room and kitchen to keep dust contained. Also specify how you want your floors protected or do it yourself… they sell rolls of builders paper or thin cardboard that is a bit thicker that I would roll out and tape down. As far as moving the furniture… again, I would do that myself to make sure it doesn’t get dinged or damaged. It just depends on how much you trust the guys. For sure you want all furniture out of the rooms where that wall is being torn out. There will be tools and materials all over in there. Also, be very clear about what goes and what stays so no trim etc is damaged

Re-framing – It looked like there were only 2-3 studs that needed to be replaced. Your builder/GC will take care of this

Things your builder should do: Provide the lumber,  including anything needed to temporarily brace the walls while new studs are installed.

Things you should do: Make sure they do this instead of just trying to cover the charred studs up with new drywall.

Electric – If you’re re-framing a wall, it’s likely that that some new electric will need to be run. This will have to be done by a licensed electrician and inspected before the insulation/drywall goes back in. The electrician should be responsible for pulling the permit and getting the inspection. Unless your GC is a license electrician (unlikely) either he will recommend someone he has worked with or you will need to find someone for this… if it’s a small area it may be easiest to go with whomever the builder recommends, but get a price from them first.

Things you should do: Get a quote before agreeing to any work. I would also check the placement of all my switches or plugs on that wall. If there was anything inconvenient before now is the time to change it, add an additional outlet, etc. Also, the electric is something that can add in delays since it is another person and requires permits and inspections… unavoidable but just something to keep in mind.

Insulation – With regular bat insulation (the pink rolls) your builder/GC should be able to install it after the wiring has been approved. It basically just gets rolled out and stapled in.

Drywall – For small areas of drywall a builder may do it himself, or may hire a drywall crew to do larger areas.

Things your builder should do: Coordinate the drywall after the proper inspections have been done. Provide scaffolding if necessary. Again, this is something that slows things down since taping and mudding the seams requires a day or so between coats for everything to be dried and sanded.

Things you should do: Decide what you want your fireplace to look like. If there are large areas that will be tiled they should use a tile board instead of drywall in those areas.

Paint – Again, your builder may do this or may hire someone to paint. It also may not be included in the quote and you may need to hire someone else for this, you just need to check with the builder.

Things you should do: Have paint colors/finishes picked out or matched to your current paint if you don’t know the color ahead of time. Also if you’re hiring the painter independent of the builder you’ll need to coordinate with him when he’ll be ready for paint.

Tile– Ideally the room would be painted first so the tile doesn’t need to be masked off. A builder may do the tile, or may hire a tradesman.

Things you should do: Verify whether or not this is included in your quote. Pick out your tile and know where you want it or the specific design you’re looking for ahead of time. (If you want it to look just like the old one, a picture will help.)

Carpet – Likely the carpet installation will come from whoever you buy the carpet from. You can coordinate this or your builder can, you’ll just have to talk to them about it.

Things you should do: Pick this out and order it ahead of time so that you don’t have to wait for it when you’re ready to have it installed.

Trim – Your builder/GC should take care of the finish trim work which is the last thing before you can move all of your stuff back in!

3 Responses

  1. My sympathy to your cousin as she deals with this. Kudos to you for helping her figure it all out. Where were you 20 years ago when our house burned? (Wait, don’t answer that! I don’t want to think about the fact that you were probably in preschool when I was buying my first house!) It burned the day after we moved in after six weeks of diy remodeling work. Suffice to say we are still dealing with the aftermath all these years later because we were too young (or too stupid) to know what we didn’t know.

    1. Hey, it was totally middle school. Also, I cannot imagine what you went through with your house fire just six months after you bought the place. It’s devastating to think about.

      1. Ha – the worst part (not counting the insurance company appointed alcoholic contractor) was when we figured out what started the fire – dryer vent combusting Watco oil rags from out diy refinished wood floor. Talk about depressing! I set my own house on fire! (Of course it wasn’t as straightforward as that, but still). Glad to hear you were in middle school when I was playing at being an adult! I don’t feel quite so old now.

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