About a year ago, I got a part-time job I didn’t want: dealing with the aftermath of a tree smashing through the top two stories of our Bala Cynwyd house.
No one in my family of five was hurt in what could have been a horrific tragedy. As I replayed the catastrophic possibilities, I realized just how lucky we were and even got a tree of life tattoo on my wrist as a symbol of our family’s fortune and fortitude.
Over time, however, the tattoo also became a continuous reminder of just how much work it would take to get us back home.
The scope of restoring the house, built around 1900, was immense: reframing and replacing the entire roof; replacing the front siding; taking the top two floors down to the studs because every room had structural damage; installing new windows; replacing walls; and renovating three bathrooms.
We spent the first several months wrangling with our insurer, Safeco, a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual Group, with the help of a private adjuster, Rick Reigner of Young Adjustment Co. in Blue Bell, whom we hired to navigate the bureaucracy. During that time, my family got used to apartment living and impatiently waited for reconstruction to begin.
It took about three months for Reigner and the company to agree on about $250,000 as the rebuild price. In addition, we have the possibility of retrieving up to $300,000 in depreciation — the difference between the value of an item and the cost of replacement.
“Your policy covers you for the cost to repair with like kind and quality that existed prior the loss,” Reigner explained. “It provides new for old. The depreciation accounts for wear and tear.” Walls crack, floors scuff, plumbing fixtures wear out. But “that depreciation becomes recoverable once you complete the repairs to your home and incur the cost as agreed,” he said.
In other words, each dollar incurred in excess of the actual cash value becomes recoverable by the policyholder up to the agreed-upon replacement cost.
In mid-summer, we received our first insurance check. Our mortgage company kept the settlement in escrow to ensure that the property would be restored to the value it had when the company lent us the money to purchase and later refinance our home (and to make sure we didn’t use the funds for a trip to Bermuda).
Even with the first payout, we found ourselves at a standstill. As a favor not long after the March 2, 2018, storm, our contractor, EGM Construction of Glen Mills — which had renovated our kitchen about two years earlier — secured the roof and demolished the top two floors. He needed to be paid. We also owed Reigner for his work to date. The first check, in essence, already had been spent. We were at a stasis. Our contractor couldn’t continue labor for free, and we had no way of retrieving more money from the insurance company at that point.
We were fortunate to be able to turn to my parents for a loan, which we’d repay with the final insurance check. I have no idea what other families without that resource would do. I realized, yet again, how fortunate we were, even while temporarily losing our home.
As the actual reconstruction began, my husband and I faced myriad decisions and quickly became overwhelmed. We turned to designer, artist, and friend Samantha Kreindler, owner of Skip Home in Merion, who had helped us renovate our kitchen and two bathrooms before the tree fell. Kreindler not only helped us decide on everything from whether to move walls to what bathroom fixtures to choose, but she also supported and reassured us during the nearly yearlong process.
Ultimately, we decided to extend the scope of the work beyond what the insurance company had determined was necessary. Instead of continuing to live with subfloors, we had EGM install hardwood on the second and third stories. Instead of simply replacing the smashed windows upstairs, we had EGM put in all new ones. Instead of settling for contractor-grade tile and fixtures, we selected materials and finishes we could enjoy for as long as we remained in our house.
The insurance company had determined that the master bath could be saved, but we thought it made sense to upgrade when we had the opportunity. We created separate shower and toilet rooms across a narrow hall from each other, with vanities in each.
We ended up turning the third floor into our older daughter’s lair, with a cozy attic bedroom on one side, a bathroom in the middle, and a library/homework room on the other side. We opted for built-ins in my younger daughter’s room and in our master bedroom, replacing dysfunctional closet space with contemporary shelving and hanging.
Moving our daughter to the third floor freed up a small bedroom at the back of the master, which became a hybrid closet, laundry room, and office — a room of my own to work in as a freelance journalist, a space I had been dreaming about for years.
Our decisions added about $30,000 to the cost of reconstruction, but we believed strongly that we were making a sound investment. We are still hopeful we might retrieve some of the money as part of the final settlement, which is still under negotiation.
When EGM finished construction in mid-February, my husband and I made an epic push to get back into our new/old home within a week. We were claustrophobic from living on top of one another in the apartment. At the same time, we realized how lucky we were to have been housed at the new Maybrook apartment complex in Wynnewood during the rebuild.
I struggle to find words to describe our joy upon returning home. We were astounded at how gorgeous, bright, and airy it felt. My kids were particularly thrilled to have our yard back in time for spring.
My husband and I have decided that we are never leaving, that we will have to be carted out of our house, when the time comes, on stretchers.
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