Fire Damage Assessment
Property Loss Evaluation - Assessing Damages

Table of Contents

 


The Challenge of Property Loss

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Nobody ever looks forward to a scenario where their valuables and property goes up in smoke or becomes damaged beyond recovery. Whether it's from a major wildfire, a flood caused by a hurricane or even an earthquake, piecing together and measuring the impact is always a challenge. 

The general objective or definition of property loss evaluation is to determine the cost to return the property to the pre-loss condition. Many people, even knowledgeable people in the industry, see that process as primarily an estimating process.  While estimating is certainly a task necessary in order to determine the cost, it is actually the damage assessment and the development of the scope of repair that drives the cost of repair.

Xpera Group is uniquely positioned in having a team that has both the construction expertise and cost estimation experience to create the most complete scopes of repair, and provide to clients a world class Property Loss Evaluation service.

 

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Xpera's Long History of Successful Evaluations

Xpera Group's construction experts have been involved in many of the top high profile property loss claims in California, Nevada, Texas and more in the western United States. Here are a few highlights from our long history of preparing credible, complete and accurate assessments:

 

Chateau du Triomphe Fire (Dallas, TX - 2005)

Texas Treasure Fields v. Corona, et al. is believed to be the largest single-family residence fire in U.S. history. This 73,000 sf structure was destroyed by fire approximately one week from the completion of construction. The case settled on confidential terms favorable to the client.

"When we were retained to represent the builder in a case involving the largest residential construction fire loss in U.S. history ($44.9 million), one name came up repeatedly as the best construction loss analyst in the country – Ted Bumgardner. When we retained Ted and he commenced work, it became clear why his reputation was extraordinary. In 35 years of representing clients in litigation, working with hundreds of experts in every discipline, I have never worked with a better analyst than Ted. His work was detailed, comprehensive, and unimpeachable, and became the de facto loss benchmark in court. Simply stated, Ted sets that standard by which we measure all other experts; there is no one better."

Steve Malouf
Chateau du Triomphe Fire - Dallas, Texas, 2005

 

Reno-Tahoe International Airport (Western Nevada - 1997)

Assessed and evaluated the flood damage resulting from the January 1997 flood of the Truckee River Basin. 

 

Cedar Fire (San Diego, CA - 2003)

California's 2nd largest wildfire in history (over 1M km2), provided assessments for numerous homes throughout San Diego County and for the Whispering Winds Catholic Conference Center in Julian, CA. 

“I had the pleasure of working with Ted Bumgardner as our construction costs expert in a major fire loss case.  In that case, I represented Whispering Winds Catholic Conference Center which was decimated by a wildfire.  Ted was very responsive and impressive in his work product and presentation. Due in large part to Ted’s excellent work in that case, we settled with the insurance company for the full amount we requested, including attorneys’ fees and costs.  I highly recommend Ted Bumgardner as an exceptional construction forensics expert.” 

Charles LiMandri
Cedar Fire – San Diego County, 2003

 

San Diego County Wildfires (2007)

Xpera was retained by the San Diego Fire Victim Law Lawyers Group to perform damage assessment and cost of replacement estimates for hundreds of homes lost in the fires.

“My partners and I represented more than 500 plaintiff groups who lost homes and property in the 2007 wildfires due to downed electrical power lines. We recognized right away that we needed an expert to provide reconstruction costs for homes that were destroyed or severely damaged in the fires for use in litigation. These were primarily individual custom homes, ranging from extraordinarily modest construction to some very, very expensive homes, so our task was extremely challenging. We needed to have well-documented figures to present as evidence and Xpera uniformly delivered and was indispensable in this process.

I have practiced for over 30 years and have dealt with experts in all walks of life providing expert witness and litigation service. Unfortunately, this cottage industry is routinely abused by experts who see it as a ‘gravy train’ and essentially hold attorneys hostage. Xpera absolutely did not do that. They were always conscious of working within a protocol that assured tremendous systemization and efficiency to keep the billing to a very manageable and reasonable level. I can’t emphasize enough how important that was when dealing with hundreds of people and properties. The whole system was implemented to be extraordinarily efficient. The quality of the work was outstanding and the support at mediation was terrific.

My advice to others looking for fire property loss evaluations and cost estimating? Hire Xpera.”

Mitch Wagner, Attorney (San Diego Fire Attorneys)
Witch Creek, Rice Canyon and Guejito Fires – San Diego County, 2007

 

Sayre Fire (Sylmar, CA - 2008)

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Back then the largest loss of homes to fire in Los Angeles County history. Xpera was retained on behalf of defendant Southern California Edison (SCE) to perform damage assessments and cost of replacement estimates for over 480 homes and associated infrastructure damage. 

 

Chariot Fire (Mt. Laguna, CA - 2013)

The case involved the loss of over 100 structures at Al Bahr Shrine Camp in the Cleveland National Forest. Xpera was retained by the United States Department of Justice to perform damage assessment and cost of replacement estimates.

 

Bernardo Fire and Poinsettia Fire (San Diego, CA - 2014)

Part of the first swarm of wildfires in May 2014, destroyed approximately 2,000 acres and caused over $22M in property damage.

 


 

This experience of handling claims from all sides have given us the skill set to produce accurate and credible damage evaluations. We took the lessons learned in the past decades and followed our core principle of improvement to provide efficient and reliable estimates to our clients.

 

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Xpera's Process for Property Loss Evaluation

Damage Assessment

The first step in the process of developing the scope of repair is the damage assessment. This involves a study to determine what existed before the loss event and the development of a general understanding of the extent of damage. Often there are few records that clearly show what existed prior to the loss and we have to construct an understanding of the pre-loss condition from a combination of resources like:

  • Satellite imagery
  • Prior MLS listing information
  • Building permit records
  • Tax records
  • Prior property appraisals
  • Re-finance records
  • Family photos
  • Interviews of occupants
  • Online property owner surveys
  • Available repair and renovation documentation
  • On site investigation

Drones equipped with data capture and image gathering equipment provide a relatively new tool that can be used for cost effective and accurate field measurement of the remnants of structures following a loss.

Scope Determination

Perhaps the most critical step in the process of arriving at an accurate and credible assessment of the loss is the determination of scope of work necessary to return the property to it’s pre-loss condition. Utilizing our broad knowledge of building construction, building design, building code compliance and our holistic multi-disciplined approach to understanding the inter-relationship of the systems involved in construction, we are often able to identify and understand elements of loss that evade more estimate driven consultants. A few examples of how damage scoping had a dramatic effect on the ultimate cost of repair:

  • Chateau du Triomphe Fire (Texas Treasure Fields v. Corona, et al.) - Ted Bumgardner, President of Xpera, was retained to head up a team to perform damage evaluation and prepare a cost of repair on behalf of the Owner/Builder. The fire suppression effort virtually filled a 17,000 sf basement with water. The insurance company consultants had assumed that the water could be pumped out and the basement structure salvaged virtually “as-is”. Bumgardner determined that by filling the basement with water, the vapor pressure created by having water on the inside of the structure would likely cause dis-bonding of the waterproofing membrane on the outside of the basement walls. These waterproofing membranes are designed to hold water out, not hold water in. Further investigation proved that theory correct and the ultimate repair scope was proven to substantiate the need for full excavation, removal and replacement of the basement below grade waterproofing system. 
  • Reno-Tahoe International Airport - Xpera President, Ted Bumgardner, was retained to head up the team to assess and evaluate the flood damage resulting from the 1997 flood of the Truckee River. In that flood, underground vaults housing critical runway lighting transformers and power conditioning equipment were filled with water. Consultants on behalf of insurance opined that the equipment was fully functional after pumping and cleaning was completed. Technical specialists on Bumgardner’s team determined that the water had caused micro-pitting of contactors within the equipment that would result in a substantial reduction of useful life of the equipment as well as subject the airport to potential unexpected and possibly dangerous failure and interruption to runway lighting and was able to support the replacement of the equipment.
  • Roepel v. PSIC - Xpera President, Ted Bumgardner, was retained on behalf of insurance company PSIC to opine on the damage assessment and cost of repair of a house destroyed by fire in Apple Valley. The investigation revealed that the house had been under construction for over 30 years, had an expired building permit and no certificate of occupancy. Bumgardner opined that the condition prior to the loss would have made it necessary to re-submit plans for permit under the current building code in effect prior to the loss and that in order to meet the current codes, the structure would have had to have been demolished entirely, including the foundations, and constructed all over again compliant with new codes in order to ever get a certificate of occupancy. Therefore, the structure had no value just prior to the loss and was actually a liability. The case was adjudicated in Los Angeles Superior Court where the Jury returned a defense verdict in favor of PSIC.
  • San Diego County Wildfires (2007) - Xpera was retained by the San Diego Fire Victim Law Lawyers Group. As a result of the extent of loss from these wildfires, the County of San Diego adopted new rules and regulations regarding what would be required for access to properties re-built after the fires.  No longer would the County allow, for example, a gravel road that traverses a creek to be the only access to a home since the Fire Department could not safely get their fire fighting equipment to the structures.  Xpera, utilizing in-house civil engineering resources, designed and priced out new 24 ft. wide roadways with all necessary grading and retaining structures to provide access onto the properties over structured culverts with hammer-head turnarounds to comply with new county regulations.
  • Sayre Fire - Xpera was retained on behalf of defendant Southern California Edison (SCE) to perform damage assessments and cost of replacement estimates for homes and associated infrastructure damage. Consultants on behalf of the plaintiff property owners in their claim against SCE opined that the mountain of concrete rubble removed after the loss would cost millions to haul off and dispose of the rubble off site.  According to the consultant, the concrete rubble was a huge liability. Xpera surveyed the rubble and developed a strategy to turn the mountain of rubble into an asset by setting up a concrete crushing operation on site and converting the concrete rubble into class 2 base suitable to be used for road base construction in the re-construction process. This strategy turned a substantial loss into substantial asset.

Level of Finish Evaluation

In conjunction with the damage assessment process, we develop an understanding of the level of finish of the construction prior to the loss. This involves an understanding of building materials and their availability. Some older structures, for example, may have utilized interior plaster walls as opposed to now much more common and less expensive drywall. For the preparation of the estimate, a well reasoned understanding of the specific finishes utilized in the pre-existing construction is necessary for a comprehensive and credible cost evaluation.

Quantification

Based on information gathered in the damage assessment, we prepare a complete quantity survey as a basis for estimate preparation.

Estimate Development

The estimate brings together the steps described above into a comprehensive and accurate evaluation of the cost to restore the structure(s) to their true pre-loss condition. Our unit costs come from either of or a combination of: actual trade contractor or general contractor proposals, nationally recognized unit cost data bases, actual cost history and experience in similar projects, detailed productivity analyses and labor and materials price studies.

 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do you use Xactimate in the preparation of your estimates?

No, Xactimate is an estimating program with a “canned” unit cost database often used for insurance claim work. It is a good system for doing repair estimates where the work involves spot repairs on a room by room basis. It is commonly used by insurance companies or their consultants. Its effectiveness is based on the user and can be manipulated for an objective. It doesn’t facilitate estimates on a building system by building system basis and therefore sometimes obscures the ability to understand the overall picture in an accurate way. Its canned unit costs are not always appropriate for a specific application. We estimate the work on a system by system basis which is generally how construction estimates outside of the claim business are prepared. The system basis, we believe, tends to render a more accurate reflection of the true cost since construction is planned, scheduled, and executed on a system basis. Our unit costs are analyzed for the specific dynamics of the project which produces more accurate results than any pre-canned approach like Xactimate. See tips on reviewing and evaluating Xactimate estimates in the article “Guidelines for Reviewing Adjusters and Contractor’s Estimates”.

 

How much does it cost to prepare a damage evaluation and estimate of cost to replace or repair?

The cost to prepare an estimate is based the projected level of effort that will be required to perform the tasks associated with the assignment. We can usually forecast the time required to perform the assignment based on a discussion that helps us understand the factors as outlined below:

  • How large is the structure, or structures?
  • Whether its a total loss or partially damaged.
  • The availability of information regarding the pre-loss condition.
  • The availability of information regarding the post-loss condition.
  • Access to inspect the post-loss condition.
  • Whether plans are available that accurately reflect the structure as it existed pre-loss.

 

Do you typically work on behalf of property owners or for insurance companies?

We work for both property owners and for insurance companies. Our mission is the same no matter who hires us: develop the most accurate and credible evaluation of the damage, and estimate the cost to return the property to it’s pre-loss condition.

 

Are you willing and/or able to provide expert testimony in the event that the claim ends up in litigation?

Yes, Xpera experts provide testimony on a wide range of construction and real estate dispute subject matter. We find that claim situations tend to settle outside of litigation more readily when the claim is approached in the first place with the same level of professionalism as required for testimony in a court of law.

 

Why are there differences between the cost to repair between different consultants?

There are many reasons that there may be differences between the estimates prepared by different parties. Most commonly, the differences are driven by a difference in scope as opposed to simply the difference of opinion of how much it costs to buy a 2x4 and that is why the effort to accurately scope the work is perhaps the most important step in the process. A property owner may receive a very low estimate from their insurance company’s consultant, not necessarily because the the insurance company is dishonest or trying to “low ball” the cost, but because they didn’t spend the time to understand the scope of the loss. We have met with many property owners who have received an estimate from their insurance company but after going through our scoping process report that “that’s the first time anyone has asked me such detailed questions about the finishes that were in my home”. That’s because details do matter and to accurately estimate the cost to replace the loss, you first have to understand the loss. Often after large fire loss or earthquake events, the adjusters and their consultants are overloaded with work and just do a “drive by” assessment not focusing on the details. We like to think that most rational people will make the right decision when given the right data. That’s why often a thorough and well supported evaluation will help the other side come to a rational resolution – no matter what side hires us.

 

Is there anything I can do to help mitigate the risks of major property loss?

Of course, the most common approach to mitigating the risk of property loss is buying insurance. But the two critical steps that many property owners fail to take in order to maximize the prospect of getting their loss covered by insurance is 1) make sure you have insurance limits of coverage for structure, contents, and out-buildings adequate to replace what you have, and 2) document what you own in order to prove up your loss. See article: Proactive Risk Management for Property Loss.

 

Does Xpera negotiate on my behalf with my insurance carrier?

No, Xpera is a construction consulting company. We don't provide legal advice or negotiate on your behalf. We work with your attorney or public adjuster to provide damage assessment and cost to repair analysis. 

 

 

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