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What to do when disaster strikes your home

There are things these families think you should know.

Matt Roberts and his wife, Vicky, along with their daughter, Guenevere, and dog, Lucas, at their renovated home in Essex. The Roberts house burned down after they bought it but before they moved in.
Matt Roberts and his wife, Vicky, along with their daughter, Guenevere, and dog, Lucas, at their renovated home in Essex. The Roberts house burned down after they bought it but before they moved in.Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

On Sept. 14, 2012, Matt and Vicky Roberts were enjoying dinner with Matt’s parents to celebrate their new purchase, a 1920s bungalow in Essex. The house was a foreclosure and needed repairs, but no matter. They were delighted to find a cozy place to start a family, something they had hoped to do for some time.

The Robertses’ home amid renovations after the fire.
The Robertses’ home amid renovations after the fire.

“Be sure the electrician pulls every wire,” Matt’s father, an electrical engineer, cautioned over dinner. He had been to the house earlier that day and worried that the wiring was faulty.

It was one of the last conversations Matt and Vicky would have with Carl Roberts. He died unexpectedly two days later. On Sept. 21, the couple was at Matt’s mother’s house in Topsfield, still reeling, when the phone rang. It was a new neighbor, a friend in Essex. Their house, the home in which they had yet to spend one night, was engulfed in flames.

“My uncle who used to be a race car driver in Canada got us there on two wheels,” Matt recalled. They arrived to a grim scene: fire, smoke, a gaggle of neighbors watching in horror — and people apparently looking to profit from the tragedy.

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A man waded through the crowd and found the shocked couple. “Our house was smoldering in ruins, and a guy came up to me and said: ‘Hey, I can help you with this. I’m a public adjuster,’ ” Matt recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I’m sitting there in shock being comforted by a neighbor I’d met once, and this guy is bothering me. I told him to get lost.”

In the end, the home was still standing, but it took at least 30,000 gallons of water to squelch the blaze, Matt said. The fire marshal told Matt and Vicky that the house had burned due to faulty splicing concealed behind sheetrock, that it had just been a matter of time. The damage was extensive, but overall they lucked out. “It could have happened with us in it,” Vicky said. “With the thickness of the black smoke upstairs, nobody would have gotten out.”

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“The house was not only a money pit,” Matt said, “it was a death trap.”

In the following weeks, the couple found themselves spending endless hours negotiating with a private adjuster sent by their insurance company. “Our adjuster was walking through the house looking at things we could salvage, but it was a complete wreck. Our contractor was there, saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” recalled Matt. “At that point, we knew we needed a public adjuster who could negotiate for us.”

The Robertses discovered that the man who had approached them when the fire hit was actually a well-respected public adjuster, someone who could advocate on their behalf with their insurance company. Sheepishly, Matt called him. “He told me that everybody tells him to go away at first,” Matt said with a laugh. “He ended up about quadrupling what we got. I cried when we got the claim.”

After the fire, bedroom in Matt and Vicky Robertses’ home in Essex.
After the fire, bedroom in Matt and Vicky Robertses’ home in Essex.

Navigating the administrative hassles of homeownership can be time-consuming under good circumstances; amid the emotional shock of losing a house, it can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

How much does a public adjuster charge? Rates may vary anywhere from as little as $250 to $750 an hour or more, according to PublicAdjusters.com. The most common form of payment is a contingency fee in which the adjuster gets a percentage, typically 10 to 12.5 percent or more of the claim.

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Fires were especially common this past brutal winter, said Tim Pitoniak, chief disaster officer for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. “We’ve been responding to as many as seven fires per day,” he estimated, up from the typical three or four. “The heavy snow has caused people to be inside more,” Pitoniak said, upping the chances for common fire instigators like space heater mishaps and unattended cigarettes or candles.

A tornado in Revere

The roof of Joel Miranda and Mellie Sanchez’s home blew off in a tornado.
The roof of Joel Miranda and Mellie Sanchez’s home blew off in a tornado.handout

In July, Massachusetts experienced a rare twister. Revere was one of the hardest-hit communities. Joel Miranda was at his Somerville office when his wife, Mellie Sanchez, called his phone. He was in a meeting, so he ignored it. “When my wife called [back repeatedly], I knew something was up,” he said.

The roof on their Revere Beach Parkway duplex had been ripped off. He rushed home to chaos.

“My wife was sobbing, the electric company was checking for downed wires, city officials and inspectors were walking through houses deciding whether they were condemned or safe to enter,” he recalled. Their home, including their renter’s half, was deemed uninhabitable. Miranda was able to grab only essentials like clothing and his two dogs.

“It was so surreal,” he said. “Handymen were approaching me with business cards, saying that I needed to put on a tarp or otherwise insurance wouldn’t cover me. There were news crews wanting a story. At some point I had to say, ‘Stop. Stay off my property.’ ” Neighbors eventually put signs on their doors telling contractors to leave them alone.

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The recovery process has been sluggish, something Miranda wants other victims to realize. Three months after the tornado, he received an insurance payment to address the roof damage, but the cost of some of the other repairs will be out of pocket. Like the Robertses, he and his wife hired a public insurance adjuster as an intermediary. The work started earlier this month. He is still paying the mortgage on the Revere house but is living in Brockton with his wife and in-laws. He doesn’t expect to move home for another 2½ to 3 months.

Joel Miranda’s Revere house was damaged in the tornado that struck last year. Since then, thieves and the elements have continued to wreck havoc on the property.
Joel Miranda’s Revere house was damaged in the tornado that struck last year. Since then, thieves and the elements have continued to wreck havoc on the property. Sean Proctor/Globe Staff

There have been additional woes for the couple, including the unexpected expense of a long commute and vandalism. Thieves broke into their vacant home in late November to steal copper piping. “It’s been very disruptive to our lives,” Miranda said of the recovery and repairs. “It’s like a full-time job.”

If there is a silver lining, it’s the support that the family has received. Miranda, who works for a youth leadership program called YouthBuild, was immediately contacted by former students who wanted to help. “They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Miranda said. “Folks donated pizza, water, soda, snacks. We went around the neighborhood and cleaned up four other homes for elderly people who couldn’t lift [things]. The mayor stopped by. I felt good about it despite everything that was going on.”

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So in light of all this, Miranda remains thankful. “I want to tell people that, at a time like this, take a look around and remember to be very grateful for what you do have and realize that everything can be replaced,” he said.

Well, almost everything.

Flooding in Bedford

Mara Briere and her husband, Rodney, learned this lesson the hard way. Their Bedford home, a quarter-mile from the Concord River, was condemned after two floods, one right after the other, in 2010. After the first flood, they called in a restoration company to remove the water. Days later, disaster struck again.

“We tried to salvage what we could, but [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] came and said anything porous is history — if it’s porous, it has mold” after 48 hours, Briere said she was told.

They moved to a pet-friendly hotel nearby. Meanwhile Briere, a home-based social serv-ices clinician, could no longer work. “We were isolated, frustrated, jaded, and homeless,” she said. “Ours was one of only two homes in Bedford that were condemned.”

Ultimately, they built a 1,200-square-foot modular home elsewhere on their property, financed through a 30-year federal disaster loan at a low interest rate. The loan was compartmentalized, with set amounts allotted for landscaping, infrastructure, and furnishings. They now pay two mortgages rolled into one large payment — one on their old home, one on the new.

In total, the flood cost them about $267,000, $167,000 of which was covered by loans and their flood insurance, which was required because their property falls within a 100-year floodplain. “The rest was savings, our income, and credit cards,” she said.

In light of these losses, Briere now has a game plan: redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. “Stuff is just stuff, [but] when you lose your house and all those memories, it’s like somebody died. We lost pictures, books, and mementos. Now I take a photo of anything I care about and save it digitally” offsite. Then she backs that up.

Briere finds insurance companies to be “bullies,” but takes solace in the kindness others showed during the crisis. For instance, employees at the hotel would fetch her old dog so it could sleep behind the front desk and wouldn’t be lonely when the family went out.

“At times I felt like I was very blessed,” Briere said.

Going home

The The Robertses’ home after renovations.
The The Robertses’ home after renovations.Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Back in Essex, work continued on the Roberts home into spring 2013. Unlike the Miranda and Briere families, the couple lost no possessions in the blaze because they had not moved in. The ensuing months were difficult, though. They lived in a small Hamilton rental, keeping tabs on construction, waiting for claims money to trickle in, anxious for their new lives to start.

One April day, Matt decided to check on the progress. His contractor was busily working on the kitchen when he arrived at the house.

“Do you think we can move in soon?” Matt asked, looking around. “It doesn’t feel like my house.”

“It’ll seem more like home when you have a little baby running around here,” the contractor replied, assuring him that the work would be done soon.

Matt drove back to Hamilton, still dazed; in a matter of months, he had lost his dad and his house. But he also had something to gain.

Turns out the contractor was more than just handy; he was psychic. “I’m pregnant,” Vicky told Matt when he walked in the door.

The pair moved in on Mother’s Day weekend in 2013. Today, the couple live in the newly restored — and safely wired — home with their 15-month-old daughter, Guenevere. Life has returned to normal, more or less, Matt said. “We really had nowhere to go but up.”

Kara Baskin is a regular contributor to
The Boston Globe. Send comments to kcbaskin@gmail.com.