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Out of the ashes



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Gina in her new kitchen. Photo by Susan Bromley. (click for larger version)
May 09, 2012 - Groveland Twp.- On top of Gina and Brian Muzzarelli's mailbox is a metal sculpture of a phoenix.

The mythical bird is a fitting symbol for the Muzzarellis. Fifteen months ago, their township home burned to the ground. Since then, they have struggled to recover from the tragedy that took the lives of two beloved dogs and destroyed their dream home and everything within. But slowly, they have rebuilt, and like a phoenix, they are rising from the ashes.

Now they hope to help others who may face a similar tragedy.

"It has been 15 very long months, and quite a learning experience," said Gina. "The support this community has given to our family has been tremendous and I would not feel right if I did not share some of the knowledge we have gained during this journey."

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Gina and Brian Muzzarelli had been married for 20 years when they built their dream home here in the township. Brian, a mechanical engineer, obtained his builder's license specifically for the task, and in 1999, the roughly 4,000 square-foot custom-built log home was completed and ready for the couple and their three sons.

"When we came home, we felt like we were on vacation," recalls Gina.

There has been no "vacation" since Feb. 1, 2011, however. Brian and Gina had to work that day. Their sons were no longer living at home, the two eldest on their own, and their youngest son away at college. When Gina left at 9:30 a.m., only Gracie, a labrador retriever, and Luca, a Great Dane/lab mix, remained in the house.

Less than two hours later, at about 11:15 a.m., a neighbor left a message on Gina's cell phone, telling her there was a problem and she needed to come home. She called back and learned the house was on fire. Smoke from the blaze was difficult to see, as the house is set far back from the road and air pressure from a coming storm that would dump nearly 20 inches of snow later that day kept the smoke down. By the time a neighbor saw the fire, the house was engulfed.

Gina arrived 20 minutes later and the house and everything in it, including their pets, was gone. The neighbors physically held up Gina.

"What a blessing to know the people taking care of you at that moment," she recalls now with gratitude. "Because you definitely need to be taken care of."

Groveland Township Fire Chief Steve McGee offered his condolences on the loss of the Muzzarelli dogs and then immediately asked Gina if the house was insured.

It was— but they would soon learn that the claims process is anything but simple and often exceedingly frustrating and emotionally draining. Insured by Allstate, Muzzarelli says it turns out she was not "in good hands" as the company's motto promotes, although she can't fault anyone in her local agent's office. Her local agent was out of town last week and unable to comment for this story.

"On more than one occasion they were as shocked as we were by the way things were not being handled," said Gina.

In the hours after the fire, the Muzzarellis were in shock and wrestling with how to tell their sons. What they didn't know was how small of a window they had to notify the insurance company that they'd had a tragedy, or, as Gina says, in the company's terms, "an insurance loss."

"Our policy said they must be notified, 'within a reasonable time,' but some policies say, 'within 24 hours' or 'as soon as you know,'" she said. "Read your policy and then read it again and read it again. Get out a highlighter. A lot of things are not clear."

The Muzzarellis were assigned to three different people at Allstate— one for contents, a second for living expenses while they were displaced from their home, and a third person was in charge of disbursing funds for the rebuild of their home. However, none of the three were allowed to release money. They each had two or three bosses above them to go through.

"We didn't realize the parallels shared with all insurances not wanting to pay a claim, or not pay it in full, whether it's auto, medical or homeowners," said Gina.

With homeowner's insurance, consumers can have a replacement cost policy or repair cost policy. Jason Moon, public information officer for the Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation, said both policies protect homeowners from a wide variety of possible losses, and protect both buildings and their contents, but they differ in the loss settlement offered to the insured homeowner. Replacement cost policies will pay the amount needed to replace, rebuild or repair a home to its original condition with materials of the same kind and quality. Repair cost policies will pay the amount needed to replace, rebuild or repair a home to a condition similar to what it was before the damage, using modern materials.

The Muzzarellis had a replacement policy, which to their understanding meant they would be able to have their home rebuilt to exactly what they'd had before.

After the fire, investigators from the Oakland County Sheriff's Office came out, and Allstate also sent an independent fire investigator. They were unable to determine a cause.

"When it's arson, it's easy to determine a cause," said Groveland Fire Chief Steve McGee. "When it's an accidental fire, like this one was, it's tougher. The thing we see the most is fireplace and stove fires, followed second by careless cooks, and then smokers. This was a newer house, so electrical wouldn't seem to be an issue. We spent a lot of time digging through and trying to find cause, but sometimes you don't."

While the investigation was going on, the Muzzarellis were not permitted to look for any possessions that may have survived the fire, nor were they allowed to find and remove the remains of their animals. Their distress mounted as the Allstate investigator came out once in February and once in March, and would not give them permission to go through what was left of the charred structure.

"They sent someone out, but they kept telling us, don't touch anything," Gina recalled. "The real turmoil was I wanted to find the dogs and bury them. Yes, they're dead, but they're in the ice and rain and snow. I feel strongly they used the emotional component. The more emotionally tormented you are, the more likely you are to say, 'Write me a check— I'm done.' But we know that life goes on no matter what and we like to be in control— they're not rolling us over."

More than two months after the fire, McGee interceded and told Allstate representatives he was going to order the house torn down as a hazard. The Muzzarellis were finally allowed to search through the debris and find and bury their pets.

A few items did survive the fire, including a few pieces of jewelry, some photos, a squeaky teddy bear and helium balloon Gina had saved from when their sons were babies.

As the investigation concluded, the Muzzarellis, were anxious to get their home rebuilt. They were staying at the home of a friend who would be in Florida until June and then they stayed in a trailer on their property paid for by the insurance. But it wasn't until July that the first check was disbursed to begin work on the new home. Prior to that, a builder came out to interview them and find out as much detail about their original home as possible.

Bids for the work came back and the battles began. The bids would include drywall or tile, neither of which their original home had. The home they had lost had wood floors, and log walls— both more expensive materials than what the bidders were offering.

The Muzzarellis had video and documentation of what was in their home, but lost the records in the fire. Gina and Brian spent hours making new lists of everything they'd had in the home, all construction materials and contents. Meanwhile, Allstate, she said, was offering to write a check to pay off the mortgage and telling them they could buy a really nice home in the current market.

"They want to collect premiums and not pay out claims," she said. "They offered $385,000 for a $900,000 home and contents... There was lots of back and forth and little things that added up. We had lost our dream home, and I felt they were belittling it, taking away from it. Our home was Brian's blood, sweat and tears."

Gina filed complaints through the state of Michigan's Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation, and between the complaints and having a super comprehensive bid done, she said Allstate finally realized their seriousness in just wanting their home back. Still, the disbursement checks were slow, with only $100,000 disbursed at a time. They would request the money, then wait.

"It was never just one phone call or e-mail," said Gina

She kept a detailed journal of every communication, the date, the time, the person she spoke with, a summary of the conversation.

She remembers her youngest son, Ryan, asking her why the ordeal seemed to bother him so much more than her.

"I realized in my effort to get things done, I was trying very hard to be strong and levelheaded," she said. "I'm not a patient person, but I have learned to take a deep breath and pull the emotion out and realize they are doing their job and I have to be nice and tactful in the fight to make us whole again."

The fight has paid off. Just over a month ago, on Easter weekend, the Muzzarellis received their certificate of occupancy and moved in with Lucy, a lab/boxer mix they adopted last summer. The house is not exactly the same as the original, all the work is not quite finished, and they are still waiting for furniture, but once her gardens are planted within the next month, she expects to be as close to normal as she can be for a very long time.

Gina offers the following advice to homeowners:

-Read and understand your insurance policy carefully, before a tragedy occurs.

-Take pictures and video of your home and then give a copy to your insurance agent for safekeeping

-Keep a journal in the days after filing a claim, documenting all communications with your insurance provider and keep communication regular, whether you are getting what you want or not.

-When your friends want to help you, let them.

The Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation was very helpful in interceding on behalf of the Muzzarellis and Gina recommends that anyone who has had a loss utilize their free services.

The OFIR received 93 complaints from all homeowners who had a delay or no reponse with their insurance claims in 2011, said Moon, who added that in instances where there is a total fire loss to a home it may take more than a year for the policyholder and the insurance company to come to a final agreement. No enforcement actin was taken against Allstate in this case.

"Most complaints do not result in adverse action against companies, but we can assist consumers by resolving questions or problems," he said. "We serve as mediator between consumers and the insurance companies and advise them of their rights pursuant to Michigan law. If we feel a company is delaying, we can intervene and issue some enforcement action. We are here to assist the consumer in getting action taken."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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