a man walking down the street

What to Do After an Apartment Fire

Updated October 22, 2020 . AmFam Team

When Helen Feest, a 25-year-old living in Madison, Wisconsin, received a call from her insurance carrier asking if she wanted to renew her renters insurance, she didn’t think much about it. She said yes and asked to add her live-in boyfriend to her policy. After renewing her policy with her added roommate, she went about her day without giving it much more thought. It wasn’t until a couple months later she realized the magnitude of that phone call.

Helen and her boyfriend

It was an early June morning when Helen made her way home from the gym and found the road home was completely blocked off. She maneuvered through backroads to get close enough to discover her apartment building was engulfed in flames. Helen waited anxiously for six hours before she could return to her apartment to see if anything remained. Through the rubble, she was able to retrieve some family heirlooms and jewelry — but nothing else.

The apartment building was considered a total loss and displaced over 20 people in her building, including Helen and her boyfriend. It was then that Helen realized how essential it was to be protected with renters insurance, and the lesson will live with her forever.

We asked Helen and her supportive American Family Insurance agent and agency team, The Lea Agency, LLC (Opens in a new tab), to share the experience with us to help other renters learn about the importance of insurance and how it can help protect you from the unexpected — like an apartment fire.

What should you do if your apartment is on fire?

Kasandra (Kacy) Nelson, a personal lines account specialist at The Lea Agency, LLC, said the first thing you should do during an apartment fire is get out safely and call 911. Then, after you’ve taken a moment to breathe, call your insurance agent to get support right away.

Merlane Keller, also a personal lines account specialist at the agency, told us why getting in touch with your agent is so important. She said, “People often think renters insurance just protects their things, but there's a lot more to a renters policy. One of the things that I like to explain to them is the loss of use coverage. This coverage allows us the ability to find you a place to stay and reimburse you for food if your rental is a total loss.”

Kaitlin (Katy) Lea, Helen’s American Family Insurance agent, added, “You should always call because the sooner we can get American Family involved, the sooner we can start working on the solution.”

If you prefer to skip the phone calls, customers can also seamlessly file a claim online or use the MyAmFam mobile app to start the process of restoring your dreams right away.

MyAmFam App

Download the MyAmFam mobile app to report and track your claim, set up AutoPay, view your policies and more all in one, easy-to-use location.

What happens after you file an insurance claim?

You’ve filed your claim — good job! But now what? At this stage, Helen received a call from an adjuster to distinguish whether the claim was at-fault or not. An at-fault claim is when the insured person caused or is otherwise responsible for the accident.

Helen walked us through her phone call with the adjuster. She said, “The first guy who called me back was so respectful. He was like, ‘Now, I hope you don't take this the wrong way. But were you home cooking when the fire happened?’ I told him I totally understood why he was asking and said that no one was home at the time the fire happened, and a different unit started the fire. After that, we just got the ball rolling. Things moved pretty quickly from there.”

Many renters fire claims occur this way — unexpectedly and completely outside of the insured person’s control — when individuals in a separate unit leave cooking or candles unattended, improperly store chemicals, use electronics with damaged cords or don’t follow safety guidelines when using extension cords.

The Lea Agency warned that at-fault claims can take longer due to their need to investigate the accident and decide how much of the accident you may be responsible for. If the apartment fire is not your fault, your insurance covers the cost of damages up to your policy limits. If you caused the apartment fire, your protection comes from your renters personal liability coverage, which can help cover things like property damage, first aid, medical and court costs up to your policy limits.

Merlane said, “There’s just more investigation steps that we have to go through, because we want to make sure we cover everything. We're here to represent you and we want to do our due diligence to research all aspects of the case.”

debris after an apartment fire


What happens after the insurance investigation ends?

Helen said after they established it wasn’t an at-fault accident, things moved swiftly and communication was consistent. “Once I called to file a claim, I never had to worry about what I should do next. I was in the claim’s process, and American Family was always reaching out to me.”

Next, Helen needed to itemize the personal property she lost. This means she had to think back to what she once owned and research how much it cost. Since she didn’t do so prior to the accident, it was a rather lengthy process and itemizing took her roughly eight hours.

Katy advises renters to keep an inventory of their things to save time and stress in the case of a loss, especially a traumatic one. “I think having some sort of inventory, whether it's mental or on paper is recommended. You can take some pictures of your personal belongings around and tags. You don't need to be super in depth counting out every single thing you have in your drawers, but you can imagine how stressful itemizing things can be when you’re in that situation. There's just a lot going on when something devastating like this happens. So, any baseline inventory you can have on record is a recommendation from us. I think that's something very simple people can do in the event they ever have a large loss.”

After Helen itemized her and her boyfriend’s belongings and sent an estimation of what they lost in total, she was informed she would receive the maximum amount from her policy.

Start a Home Inventory Sheet

Save yourself time and gain peace of mind with this printable, easy-to-use home inventory checklist to track your belongings and get an estimate of what your coverage limits should be in case the unexpected occurs. 

How does insurance help restore what you’ve lost?

Now that you’ve filed a claim and itemized your belongings, it’s time to begin restoring what you’ve lost. It’s vital to know, you need to keep any and all receipts when you purchase things to replace your lost items. With American Family, you can submit these receipts to a portal to show that the items purchased replace what you lost.

Helen mentioned this process was surprisingly simple, saying, “Everything was super straightforward and efficient. They basically set up a portal to submit receipts and get reimbursed for what I bought to replace my things. The money would show up in my bank account within the day of me sending my receipt.”

While covering what she lost is one of the biggest ways Helen’s renters insurance supported her after the fire, she also acknowledged she felt cared for above and beyond being reimbursed.

“I felt like my agency was in my corner and wanted to make sure I could get the most out of my policy and resources available through my coverage,” said Helen.

What happens when an insurance claim is closed?

While it might seem anticlimactic, there isn’t necessarily a big closing when it comes to a claim. Not every insurance carrier and agency have the same protocol, but some places will go the extra mile to confirm your case is closed and you don’t have any additional questions.

Merlane said they try to ensure their customer is up to speed on their claim and feels secure where they’re at, saying, “We try to monitor and call claims to confirm our customer’s claim is completed. Then, we’ll make final contact to make sure they’re okay and don’t have any questions or concerns.”

Kacy also said that the claims team and the agency will keep up regular communication with their customers during the claim’s process, as well as afterwards. She said, “Obviously, the claims team do their own thing with the customer, but we actually track things with claims so if anything happens, we know what's going on. We can monitor and keep a close eye on it. We’ll also make sure our customer has all the information they need and answer any questions they might have.”

American Family customers can check on the status of a claim in seconds by using the MyAmFam app, logging in to My Account or calling 1-800-MYAMFAM (1-800-692-6326).

How long does it take for a claim to close?

According to Katy, the timeline can vary. She said, “We're aiming for claims to be closed as quickly as possible, right? But the variation can be between different claims. For example, with an apartment fire, they're going to try to do some smoke mitigation or attempt to restore couches or furniture or anything like that before deeming it as something that needs to be replaced. So, I would say for a fire, we're probably looking at two weeks to a month depending on if it's a smaller apartment fire. At the end of the day, we're trying to get people back to whole as quickly as possible.”

American Family agent Katy Lea

What additional insurance advice do you have for renters?

We’ve already learned a lot about renters insurance, but our agent and her team have a lot of tips and advice regarding getting customers the coverage they deserve.

Katy recognizes that renters protection is typically a customer’s first experience with insurance. She advised, “Look for an agency or carrier that will grow with you. A local agency will continue to talk to you about coverages and what you need as you go through life.”

Kacy encouraged renters to ask questions to fully understand your policy. “Know your policy and get to a point where you understand it. Ask questions when you get renters insurance and make sure you’re fully covered.” To get you started, here’s a list of some questions you can ask your renters agent.

And, like Katy said earlier, once you create a home inventory of your belongings, compare it to the coverage you have and decide if you need to adjust your policy. “Do you think you need to bump up your coverage? Call us if you do! It can really save you in the long run.”

Merlane’s advice for those who don’t have renters insurance is to take a look at what they have. She said, “I'm a huge advocate of renters insurance. You know, a lot of people will tell me, ‘Oh, I don't have much, I don’t need it.’ I'll look them in the eyes and ask, ‘What are you wearing today? Just think if you lost it all.’”

As for our customer? Helen said this experience has made her a huge believer in renters insurance and advises anyone renting to get it.

“Get it. Just get it,” said Helen. “It’s insanely affordable and you won’t regret it.” In fact, American Family has a renters insurance calculator tool you can use to determine how much your things are worth and provide an estimate of how much it’d cost to cover it all with renters insurance. Try it out!

Helen went on to say how important it is to keep your policy up to date. Remember in the beginning of this story we mentioned that she added her live-in-boyfriend to her policy? It might sound like it would be a hassle but keeping your protection up to date with new coverage maximums and your roommates is quick and easy — and oftentimes saves you bigtime. Adding her boyfriend to her policy meant protecting his stuff as well!

Helen said, “I didn't realize how easy and straightforward it would be to add an unmarried live-in partner to a policy. I just sort of told them to do it and then was bracing for blowback or an increase in price or something like that. And they were like, ‘You’re all good, that's fine.’ It saved us because he lives with me and all his possessions are here too. So that's definitely something that everybody should know is easy to do.”

Hopefully you have a better understanding of just how important renters insurance is! It’s an affordable coverage that grows with you and protects you whether you’re at home or on the go. Plus, renters insurance can protect you in so many ways. Not only does it cover you for fires, but you’ll be covered for things like theft, water damage from burst pipes or a forgetful neighbor’s flooded bathtub and so much more! Like Helen, you work hard for the things that make your place uniquely yours, and having renters insurance in place can give you peace of mind you’re protected from the unexpected.

Ready to protect yourself as a renter? Get a quote and purchase your protection online today or find a friendly local agent to help you get customizable coverage perfect for your unique needs.

This information represents only a brief description of coverages, is not part of your policy, and is not a promise or guarantee of coverage. If there is any conflict between this information and your policy, the provisions of the policy will prevail. Insurance policy terms and conditions may apply. Exclusions may apply to policies, endorsements, or riders. Coverage may vary by state and may be subject to change. Some products are not available in every state. Please read your policy and contact your agent for assistance.

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