Anne Whyte is a Berkeleyan who lost her home to fire. She offers some advice to the people who suffered in Thursday’s San Luis Road fire:

To the owners of homes that recently burned on San Luis Road (right):

Like your family, our family has the unfortunate history of having our home burn.

In the summer of 2007, we left a large fan on to help air out our home after we finished refinishing the hundred-year-old beautiful redwood walls of our home. When that fan overheated, it started a fire which destroyed our home.

We send our heartfelt condolences to you and to your families.

We hope our bit of advice might help you see this through:

First: Based on our experience, the next few months and years will be discouraging and frustrating. Some neighbours will be supportive, but others will be annoyed that the loss of your home and all of your personal property will bring noise and traffic to their quiet neighbourhood.

Second: Vultures are hovering! Those vultures started hovering as soon as Berkeley’s fire department was notified of the fire that destroyed your home. Our suggestion: do not sign anything for a week. Call or write to Amy Bach of United Policyholders. United Policyholders  is a not-for-profit 501c3 that started to address wildly illegal insurance company conduct after the Oakland Hills firestorm in 1991.

Third: Know that your insurance company adjuster will tell you, again and again, “We’re here to help you recover.” Do not believe insurance company fables. Interview several public claims adjusters and choose one you can trust: ask Amy for help with this very important decision. From now to the end of this process is a long road, so your relation with your public claims adjuster is, by far, the most important relationship you will have for these next few years.

Fourth: As soon as you can, get yourselves a safe place to live, long term. (The Claremont was very kind to us. We stayed a few months until we could get more settled.)

Fifth: Call Belfor Restoration ( or call 510-887-9106) for restoration of personal property. The very few of our eighteenth and nineteenth century books and documents (photos of my family going back to the 1800s and my great-grandmother’s school books, for example) that survived were amazingly restored by Belfor. (Belfor seems to have magical potions in a lab somewhere in Texas.) We don’t know if Belfor can do anything other than personal property but Belfor did a great job with our personal property. (For a variety of reasons, we really, really do not recommend ServiceMaster.)

Then, long term: Know that, most likely, you’ll have to build a new home.

If your home is 50%-or-more damaged, as ours was, you’ll need to build on a new building-code-compliant foundation. To  somehow build a new building-code-compliant foundation under the existing structure of your home and rebuild your home will, most likely, cost more than your home is insured for.*

Simple reality: most likely you will not be able to get a building permit to do any repairs without a fully engineered plan for a new building-code-compliant foundation. (We recommend our local structural engineers: Joshua B. Kardon & Co.   Josh & Co did a great job for us — and, by now, Josh & Co are hip to most all insurance company tricks. With help, we found good surveyors, soils engineers, architects, contractors, and all of that. More about that, if you like, later on.)

Because it is likely that your insurance company will try to convince you, “You don’t need a new foundation,” we strongly recommend that you contact a local knowledgeable structural engineer, ASAP, to put that insurance company contention out of the picture right away. (Our “friends” at our insurance company continued to contend that we “didn’t need a new foundation” for 21 months.)

If you have questions, we’d be glad to tell you what we know.

Anne Whyte has no commercial relationships with any of the companies or people she recommends.

*Evidently, most of our older Berkeley homes are under-insured because insurance companies do not want policyholders to face the reality that antique homes have antique foundations that will have to be replaced if there is major damage to that home.

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