Ben Johnson guides people through the memories of their hallways and dresser drawers. He walks with them through their imaginations to the bathroom and through the closets and basements of the homes they’ve lost to fire.
“Usually, it’s not something people want to do right away,” said Johnson, a general insurance adjuster for Farmers Insurance.
But that’s when the memories are freshest, when he is in town to help and when they will get their insurance settlements fastest.
Johnson has been working five years with people who have lost their houses to fire, and he’s processed hundreds of claims. No one has ever had a detailed inventory list of the contents of their homes, he said.
A handful of times, he’s had good videos to work from. But most insurance companies require homeowners to provide an inventory list before they can be paid for their lost possessions. And saying they owned sterling-silver flatware doesn’t always cut it.
In most cases, homeowners need evidence of the more expensive items they claim. Most people don’t keep receipts of everything they’ve purchased. Even if they did, those likely would have burned with the home.
Insurance industry leaders are encouraging people to take this catastrophe as a wake-up call for homeowners to make inventory lists, along with photos or video, and store them somewhere safe.
“If people didn’t have their home inventory already complete, we have some pretty creative ways of helping people recreate that,” said Angela Thorpe, Colorado spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance.
Adjusters can help homeowners reach out to friends and family who have photos from inside and outside their homes. Sometimes relatives or others even have video from a special visit.
The process of remembering everything usually takes homeowners the better part of a day to start, Thorpe said.
“It’s a hard day, an emotional day,” she said. “They usually think about certain things that will make them cry — a wedding dress or something handed down from an aunt.”
Johnson usually tries to go somewhere comfortable with homeowners. It could be the lobby of their hotel or a booth in a Denny’s. He opens a spreadsheet on his laptop.
“Close your eyes,” he says. “Walk through the door. What’s there? What do you see?”
If there’s a table in the room, he’ll ask if there’s a clock or a box of tissue on it.
He goes room by room with clients through the house, he said. He spends four to six hours with them and then leaves them to come up with the rest and send it to him.
People always remember more things as time goes by and they have a year with most insurance companies to submit those forgotten items.
Things that everyone has — silverware and a couch — need no proof, he said.
“And everyone has that Waterford pitcher they got for their wedding 25 years ago,” he said.
Some of those things are just accepted. High-priced art and jewelry along with major electronics need some proof. He said he can usually find an expert who appraised a painting or a Facebook photo of the homeowner wearing an expensive necklace.
Johnson said he suspected Farmers had about 30 clients who lost their homes in the Waldo Canyon fire. More than 70 of State Farm’s clients lost their homes, Thorpe said.
USAA represented 75 clients whose homes were destroyed, said USAA spokeswoman Nicole Ally.
“We do things a little differently,” she said.
USAA pays content claims based on a percentage of the client’s policy and doesn’t require homeowners to compile a detailed home inventory list unless the contents’ value exceeds the amount they would otherwise get.
“It expedites payments,” Ally said, “and streamlines the process.”
Most homeowners already have received initial payments or will soon from all three major insurance providers. In most cases, homeowners get a check for the depreciated value of their belongings and will be reimbursed up to the replacement cost once they buy items.
“Our rule is that it has to be items that would be covered under their homeowners policy,” Johnson said. “So they can’t go out and buy a car.”
Initial checks tend to be between $100,000 and $150,000 with final payments approaching $200,000. It can be a big boon to the economy when people begin spending it.
That process has really started yet. People might be buying some furniture for rented homes or apartments.
Jake Jabs, who owns American Furniture Warehouse, says sales have been up 25 percent statewide in July.
“The fires could have something to do with that,” he said.
But people are probably just buying basics like box springs and a place to store clothing right now. The Colorado-based furniture chain is offering special discounts, along with vendors, to fire victims.
Jabs said his company has a 70 percent market share of furniture sales in Colorado Springs and figures he could see $6 million in sales from fire victims between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. That won’t be huge, but it will be a spike, he said.
The process of replacing items is tough.
“Most people say it’s not fun to go out and buy $200,000 of stuff,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty stressful.”
But they feel better once they’re settled into a new home with new belongings, he said, except for one painful reality.
“Some things will always be lost, though.”