The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: Last winter, we had a house fire. The burn damage inside was relatively small, but the smoke damage was extreme. It was so bad that we had to move out for several months, and the drywall, insulation, and floor coverings had to be removed from every room. While the house was unoccupied, the winter was unusually harsh, with ice on the inside and outside of the building. During this time, most of the windowpanes cracked, and the window frames no longer slide normally. The insurance company does not consider this to be part of the fire damage and are unwilling to pay for new windows. How can we convince them that the windows would not have broken if there hadn’t been a fire? Rebecca
Dear Rebecca: The insurance company is avoiding payment for window damage on the basis of a slim technicality. They claim that the fire did not directly damage the windows. That may be true, but the window damage is an outcome of the overall situation.
While the house was stripped and unoccupied, the heating system was apparently not in use. Exposure to extreme cold and moisture altered the shape of the window frames and sash. The glass cracked due to stresses at the edges of the panes, and the frames became warped so that they no longer function properly.
When a home is occupied, the winter cold on the exterior of the building is offset by heat on the interior. The internal warmth prevents damage to the window glass and frames. While your home was unoccupied, the heat was turned off, as evidenced by ice on the interior. If a heat source had been maintained in the building, the window damage might have been avoided. Therefore, the window damage was an indirect consequence of the fire and should be covered by the insurance company. In fact, the insurance company should have known from experience that winter exposure to an abandoned building can cause further damage.