Carlye's Apartment FireI've been nagged by my mom a thousand times about things I "never expected to happen to me": the fearful outcomes of a drink left unattended at a bar, crossing the street carelessly, texting while driving, or any number of those evening news scenarios that could potentially hit (your) home.

But no matter how careful you are, how few drinks you bring to the bathroom or how many candles you blow out, there are some things you just can't be prepared for -- like when a fire starts in your neighbor's apartment across the hall. That's our actual building burning you see above: Someone caught it on videotape.

I, meanwhile, had snoozed my way through catching that Friday morning's exercise class and was still in bed when I first heard my neighbor screaming. Half-asleep and confused, I threw on whatever clothes I could find -- no bra and my Band of Horses T-shirt -- and shuffled into the living room, where my live-in boyfriend Donald had just put down his breakfast, opened the front door and found a wall of smoke.

There was a padlock on the window leading out to the fire escape with a key nearby, but after rearranging the kitchen a few months prior, the key wasn't where we left it. Scrambling to get out in time, Donald finally spotted it, opened the window and helped me out. I slid past the outside of my neighbor's apartment as I watched fire overtake their kitchen, the blinds melting out of the window as I gripped the rails of the rickety metal ladder.

The Surprising Silver Linings
Had the fire happened a few minutes later, I would have been alone and likely unable to find the window key. If we took even moments longer to open the window, the blaze would have been too intense for us to use the fire escape. By planning an exit route and a backup, as elementary as it seems, we managed to leave a burning building much more quickly and safely.

I waited in the street as I watched the building become engulfed in flames. The entire neighborhood was pouring out of their homes to gawk. It wasn't surreal nor out-of-body -- everything felt very matter of fact. It was scary and it was serious, but it was happening ... to us. After four hours of standing outside, thinking over and over about what sentimental (vintage jewelry collection) and professional (every negative my photographer boyfriend had) belongings might still be inside our burning building, we were finally let back in to assess the damage.

At this point, if we hadn't had insurance, we would have been legitimately homeless, financially destroyed and, if all of our belongings were gone, without furniture, clothing or food. $200 is a lot of money -- so much money that I stupidly complained to Donald when he first purchased renter's insurance.

"That would be money better spent on a couple of nice dinners together," I protested at the time.

Now I know: Buying renter's insurance is absolutely worth it. $20,000 in coverage will likely cost you between $100 and $300 annually, and that money will cover everything, from a fire to someone breaking in and stealing all of your electronics to personal injury and personal liability, like, say, if a friend does something foolhardy at your roof party. It's absolutely necessary, since you'll likely need it when you least expect it.

Case in point: After the fire, our kitchen table, chairs, towels, papers and other belongings were soaked in a gigantic puddle in the middle of my apartment, but thankfully, the extent of the damage was mostly smoke-related, or structural. As I began to throw anything soggy away, piece by piece, Donald came to the rescue again, reminding me to take photos of the entire apartment before touching or moving anything, since we needed a record to gauge the extent of the damages.

When the insurance adjuster came over the next week to do an assessment, the puddle had dried and the floor looked normal, but because we took detailed photos, we were able to get money back for everything that had been ruined, including groceries we had to abandon in the fridge, a suitcase the firefighters had trampled, and our now-dry rugs that had been drenched with murky water.

Since the building had a vacate order and was deemed unlivable, we either needed to find a temporary home until we could move back in, or choose to move out altogether. Renter's insurance covered all of our temporary housing, so I ended up breaking my lease, fought to get the security deposit back and found a loft in a different area of Brooklyn that was available four weeks later.

The Secret to Your Relocation Strategy
By researching housing options myself, asking to be moved to an extended stay hotel with an in-room stove and requesting specific neighborhoods, I avoided being placed in a hotel inconveniently far from both my office and our former neighborhood. Or living in a room that was kitchen-less and surviving on a diet of granola bars and deli salads.

If ever you find yourself in a similar situation, my advice is to call around: Find out what's in your area, and choose a place you'd be comfortable living in -- the insurance company still has to approve it, but if it matches your quality of life before the disaster, it should get a green light. It's a good thing we ended up moving, too -- our old building is still padlocked after seven weeks, even though the landlord estimated the damages would take under one month to fix.

Our month-long hotel stay turned out fine, and we got so used to it that my boyfriend and I stopped worrying about insurance-related matters. A good opportunity to learn our next fire-related lesson.

Two weeks into our stay, after being assured that all temporary housing paperwork had been approved, my credit card got hit with a $1,700 charge -- the night before my bill payment was due. What had happened? The insurance agent wound up not submitting a necessary document to the hotel, and my card, which was on the account for incidentals, was charged instead.

Thankfully, I had enough emergency money in my savings account to cover the cost until I could be reimbursed, but I mindlessly assumed everything was going to be taken care of, and it wasn't. Be sure to be a pest when it comes to getting approvals, and keep track of every conversation you have with insurance representatives. Also, throughout the entire process, keep every receipt you get from every single thing you buy. I'm still organizing mine from the entire time I was displaced, but insurance will likely cover toiletries I had to purchase, the storage units my belongings were moved into and a fair amount of the food I bought while living in the hotel. Pretend like you're scrapbooking a really crappy vacation -- keep every charge, check, invoice, receipt and paper in a big plastic bag, and it'll be easy to file your claim once the entire mess is done.


Donald and I are in a new home now, living out of cardboard boxes instead of suitcases, and thankfully, things are almost back to normal. We run a web series out of our apartment, and are going to start our acoustic sessions up again next week. If we didn't have Renter's insurance, though, we may have never been able to restore the website, and would have been totally broke. Take the following as a personal recommendation from us.

To Get Covered: Most insurance companies will offer some type of policy, and if you already have auto insurance, you might get a discount if you get your renter's insurance through the same company. Some companies have different limits in different categories -- for example, you might have a specific limit for jewelry, antiques or computer equipment, so be sure to inquire about how the policy is broken down. The cost of your premium will vary on circumstances like where you live, the kind of building you live in and what kind of crime deterrent you have. For example, someone who lives in an urban area on a first floor apartment with no bars on the windows is going to pay more than someone in a home in the suburbs with a dog.

To Assess Your Belongings: Make sure you are not underestimating the value of your personal property. "Most young people tend to think that they do not have a lot of stuff that is valuable," says Alexis Myers, a licensed property & casualty agent in Illinois. "However, when taking into account that you would have to go and buy everything new in the event of a loss, the 'value' adds up." The Personal Property Limit should equal the replacement cost of all of the personal property. It's a good idea to make a video of all your property and create a spreadsheet that includes items, model numbers, cost, date purchased, etc--and then be sure to keep copies of both of these in different locations (think home, work and your parent's house).

To Make Sure You're Set in Case of an Emergency:
Look into how the policy pays out: do you get replacement cost (how much it would cost to buy a new one) or actual cost (which is the replacement cost minus some for deprecation)? "It is key to obtain a policy that pays out on a replacement cost basis," adds Ms. Myers. And don't be afraid to ask questions--it's your stuff, after all.


Carlye Wisel is a freelance writer who runs an acoustic music session website called Big Ugly Yellow Couch, and is insanely glad all of her tchotchkes weren't destroyed in the fire. You can find her daily ramblings -- from her new home inside a converted knitting factory -- at Awkward City, Population 1.