By Erin Huffstetler | 01/07/2018 | 13 Comments
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Back in June of 2011, we were standing in our tree house, looking down on our backyard, and celebrating the fact that we’d FINALLY finished landscaping our yard after several years of work. The last plant had gone in the ground just minutes before.
Since a storm was moving in, my husband and oldest daughter went in to close the windows, and that’s the moment everything changed for us.
At first, I didn’t realize a tree had fallen on our house. It took a minute to make sense of the tree limbs that were now hanging over the back of our house. But once I processed what had happened, my thoughts immediately jumped to my husband and daughter who were inside. Thankfully it didn’t take long to find out they were okay. But our house definitely wasn’t okay.
This is what I found when I ran to the front of our house.
Our neighbor’s tree had snapped off at the base, and was now being supported by our house!
The fact that our house had originally been built to support a slate roof is the only thing that prevented the tree from going straight through.
But the tree had still pierced holes in the roof over the porch and our oldest daughter’s room. And soon after, the storm got here to fill those holes with rain.
It didn’t take long for all the water entering our daughter’s room to find it’s way down to the living room, where it started pouring out of our ceiling fan. That meant a mad dash to cut the power to the house.
And then we were left scratching our heads. Because who do you call for help when a tree falls on your house on a Sunday afternoon? Certainly not your insurance company. There’s no one there to okay the start of any mitigation and repair work that needs to be done. You just have to wing it, and hope you’re doing the right thing.
So, we got help from our neighbor who happened to work for a mitigation and home renovation company. He was at our house in minutes, and had a crew there soon after.
Since the house on the other side of us was currently empty (and on the market), we got permission from the owner to stay there temporarily.
So, we moved a few things over, and the next day a tree company arrived bright and early to remove the tree. That was a whole day ordeal, but once it was off the house, the roof could finally be tarped, and we started to feel like things were going to be okay.
Things were definitely not going to be okay.
Our first battle was with the mitigation company. They weren’t doing enough to dry up the water (we later lost an entire ceiling to mold), and I also caught the owner in several lies. So, I fired him, and hired contractors that I’d worked with before. Interestingly, one of those was the renter who lived next door in the house with the now-treeless front yard.
By this time, our insurance company was very much a part of the process. And we now knew that in Tennessee, when your neighbor’s tree falls on your house, it’s considered an act of God (and therefore your problem), unless you can prove negligence.
It was absolutely negligence, but the owner of the house was (still is) an insurance agent, and he had no interest in helping us, or claiming responsibility.
So, it ran on our insurance, and that meant we were responsible for paying the $1,000 deductible. In a normal year, our insurance company probably would have pursued the negligence angle pretty hard, but this wasn’t a normal year. This was a year when storm after storm had ravaged our area. The insurance companies were just doing their best to keep up with claims, and in hindsight, there were things we should have done to document the negligence before it became a problem.
But our insurance company, Farm Bureau, was great. Truly great. They paid for absolutely everything that they should have, including our rent while we stayed next door. But the thing about an old house? You can’t tear into walls and ceilings without finding other problems. And we found lots of other problems.
Live wires buried in walls, undersized floor joists, old termite damage – everyday was a new problem that we had no choice but to address. We had done our due diligence when we bought this house; we’d had had every recommended inspection, but all of this was lurking beneath the surface, just waiting to be found.
Every time a contractor came to get me, I knew they’d uncovered a new misery. And it really was misery.
Because, by this point, I’d also learned something else interesting, and that’s that the minute that tree hit our house, it was considered under construction, and no one will lend you money when your house is under construction. You can’t get a home equity loan. You can’t get a construction loan. You’re pretty much out of luck. We had credit scores in the 800s, no debt beside the remaining nine years on our mortgage and a small student loan, and nobody would loan us money.
Day after day I drug the kids around to banks, and retold our story to any banker who would listen, hoping that someone would bend the rules for us.
When that failed, we had to find other means. I was making a good income at the time, so we paid for as much as we could with cash; we borrowed money from friends and family; and we ran up our credit cards. So many “financial experts” tell you not to let the banks keep upping your credit limits, but I’m glad we’d always ignored that because we had huge limits at our disposal when we needed it most, and I was all too happy to take them up on their 0% and low-interest offers.
But that still wasn’t enough. By this point we were essentially dealing with a total home renovation. The entire upstairs floor had to be reframed. The kitchen floor had to be reframed. And nearly every wall and ceiling had to be gutted for one reason or another. Things had spiraled hopelessly out of control. And we didn’t have the money to fix it. Especially now that we were paying both our mortgage and rent for the house next door.
Each month, our contractors worked until the money ran out, and we did as much as we could ourselves. We’re not good at asking for help, but we forced ourselves to ask for help. We called family and friends, and I sent out an email on the neighborhood listserv, sharing all the raw details of our situation, and asking everyone to come help out at the workdays that we started scheduling.
We were shocked by who showed up to help (neighbors we’d never met), and just as shocked by who didn’t (people we considered to be good friends).
That was a whole other layer to our misery, seeing people take pleasure in the fact that something bad had “finally” happened to us, and listening to all the mean comments that people sent our way.
My husband’s then boss told him we just needed to “get over our champagne tastes.”
This was at a time when you could stand in our upstairs bathroom, see through to the kitchen and all the way down to the basement. We were just struggling to figure out how we were going to get our roof, walls and floor back. There was nothing “champagne” about the work we were doing.
Our only “sin” was that we took care to put good materials back in the house. We were already paying for the labor, so we selected materials that we were going to be happy with for the long haul. We knew it would cost us more later to redo cheap repairs, so we focused on doing things right.
In some cases, we put off repairs that weren’t essential to getting us back in our house.
So, the mean comments didn’t help, but those workdays certainly did. With the help of our friends, we reframed the kitchen floor ourselves and insulated the entire house. Those things saved us money and pushed us closer to completion.
But we were still struggling to cover the cost of the renovation, and we had a huge plaster bill coming due that I didn’t know how we were going to pay. That problem was answered with an unexpected phone call from our bank.
The man on the line explained that he was calling to see how our recent trip to his branch had gone. The interesting thing: we’d never been to this particular branch. I quickly explained that, but not willing to let an opportunity pass, I told him just what he could do to help us. This was the same story I’d told umpteen other uncaring bankers, but this one actually listened, and said he would help us.
So, we drove to his branch, several towns over, and he got us approved for a $19,200 personal loan. That was the most he could get us, and it happened to be what we needed to pay for the plaster work. We were one step closer to getting back in our house, but still a long way from the finish line.
As the renovation continued to drag on, we started to do drastic things to cover the work, selling one of our cars, trading work on the house next door for rent, leaving projects unfinished. Eventually we were down to paying the bill to our alarm company, and I had to split that one between three credit cards to pay it. Interestingly, the payment was never processed. To this day, I don’t know whether someone took pity on us, or whether they just didn’t know what to make of our three-card payment.
But after 17-months out of our house, we were finally able to move back in, and that felt really good. What didn’t feel good, was all the debt that we were now saddled with. Because despite paying for a ton of the work in cash, when we added it up in January of 2013, we now had $110,179.68 in non-mortgage debt! That included a car loan and a small student loan, but a full $96,796.77 of that was debt from the tree!
With the renovations behind us, we began to pay our debt down aggressively, starting with the money that our friends and family had loaned us. It was important to us that we pay them back first, and by November of that year, we had paid them all back. With that accomplished, we started to go after our credit cards in the same manner. But the rug was pulled out from under us yet again, when I suddenly lost two-thirds of my income. By then I was the only wage earner in the family, so it was a big blow, and at the worst possible time.
But, we managed to keep our bills paid, and we even continued to make progress on our debt. Today we’re down to $27,036.14, and if you’re keeping up with my long-term goals, you already know we have a plan in place to pay that off by May of 2020. The finish line is finally in sight, but having that tree fall on our house definitely changed everything for us.
It’s been a part of every decision that we’ve made in the past six and a half years, and will probably always be a part of every decision that we make. Because we’ve seen what can go wrong, and it’s made us incredibly cautious. But we’re also moving on from it a bit more each day, remaining hopeful for our future, planning big things for ourselves and making them happen. Because living through this has shown us how resilient we are, and how strong we are as a couple and as a family. It has strengthened us more than it has broken us.
Looking back over our experience, there are few things I wish we had done long before the tree ever fell on our house.
For starters, we should have sent a certified letter to the city when their sidewalk crew cut through the roots on one side of the tree, setting the problem in motion. And we should have sent a certified letter to the homeowner when he continued to ignore the condition of the tree. No one was surprised when that tree fell. It was just a surprise that it fell in our direction. And a further surprise that we had to file a claim with our insurance company.
Find out what the laws says about this in your state, and if you’re concerned about one of your neighbor’s trees, have a conversation about it. Even if it feels really awkward. Even if it makes things tense. If they blow you off, follow up with a certified letter, so you’ll have proof that you brought the problem to their attention. You’ll need that to prove negligence.
And, if you don’t already have one, consider getting a home equity line of credit (HELOC). If we’d had that in place, we would have been back in our house sooner. A lot sooner. But we didn’t have a HELOC because we both hated the idea of a HELOC. I always said there was nothing I wanted bad enough to risk my house. Turns out I was wrong about that. And while I still hate the idea of borrowing against a house, I will say that having a HELOC doesn’t mean you have to use it. It just gives you the option of using it. If you wait until something bad happens, that option may not be there. We now have a HELOC, just in case.
Mistakes aside, I will say I don’t regret financing our renovation with credit cards. Not one bit. It was our best option at the time, despite what any “financial expert” may say. And perhaps the biggest lesson in all this is that personal finance is personal. No one can tell you what’s right or wrong for you because they aren’t you and they aren’t in your situation. So, be leery of anyone who tells you there’s only one way to handle a financial situation. They obviously haven’t been knocked down enough to know what they’re talking about. Make the best decision that you can make in any situation, and keep moving forward.
Want to see our house now that it’s (mostly) fixed?