Layton woman forced to live in tent after house fire, insurance fiasco

Saturday , August 12, 2017 - 4:30 AM

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Patrice Harris looks over her partially remodeled home in Layton on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. More than a year after a fire damaged her home, Harris is living in a tent in her backyard while wrestling with insurance and construction companies. "I don't want to be a millionaire," Harris said. "I just want my house back."

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

LAYTON — More than a year has passed since a police officer pulled Layton resident Patrice Harris from her second-story bedroom window as fire engulfed her home.

RELATED: Police, firefighters rescue woman from Layton house fire Sunday

According to Harris, a single mother raising three children, her homeowner’s insurance policy would cover up to $450,000 in structural damage and $400,000 in personal losses. So it should have been more than adequate to fund the restoration of her 2,200-square-foot home in a timely manner.

Instead, the nearly finished project sits stalled — lacking such essentials as electrical outlets, sinks, toilets and running water. Without those, Harris has no certificate of occupancy to be able to move her belongings and family back into the home.

“I guess this would be what you call the master bath,” Harris said wryly as she waved at the port-a-potty perched at the top of her driveway. For now, Harris is living in a tent next to her house and showers off using her outdoor water hose.

Her belongings are stored in two portable units adjacent to the port-a-potty, and her children are temporarily housed with relatives until the situation can get resolved. Without a kitchen, Harris said she keeps food in the refrigerator at work, where she enjoys one good meal a day.

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Her insurance company, Utah Farm Bureau, did pay for up to a year of hotel stays for Harris, but told her she’d exhausted that resource. Immediately after the fire, Harris said she spent the first six weeks in her motor home until the roof sprung a leak. 

“I keep thinking I’m in a bad dream and I’m going to wake up,” Harris said Wednesday. “But right now I feel like I’m being held hostage between the insurance company, the mortgage company and the builder.”

According to Harris, Utah Farm Bureau sent a $157,000 check to her mortgage company — Seterus, Inc. — to fund her home reconstruction. But Seterus put her builder through so many hoops, Harris said, and then delayed paying him for months at a time. 

“The builder said construction is 85 percent done, but he’s only been paid 58 percent,” Harris said, “and that’s with me putting in my personal loss money to keep him from walking off the job or putting a lien on my house.”

In the meantime, Harris said she continues to make mortgage and utility payments on a home she can’t occupy. 

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Tim Trujillo, co-owner of Syracuse-based Moose Creek Construction, voiced his own frustration over the project that had threatened to drain his own bank account.

“It’s been really kind of a mess for us,” Trujillo said, calling Seterus “the worst I’ve ever dealt with in my entire life. Sometimes we didn’t get money for 90 days, and it would be 50 to 60 percent of what we were asking for.”

According to Trujillo, he’s had to deal with three inspectors on the project — one from the city, one from Utah Farm Bureau and one from Seterus. And at one point, the insurance and Seterus inspectors disagreed widely on how much of the work had been completed, with Seterus coming in about 30 percent lower than Utah Farm Bureau.

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“I’ve had to use my money for the construction, and it’s taken a long time,” Trujillo said. “We first got involved back in October, and I don’t think we got the first funds from Seterus until after the first of the year.”

Now Trujillo feels he’s caught in the crossfire between two companies and the homeowner, not knowing quite how to find resolution.

Trujillo added that he’s spent hundreds of hours working with Harris’ insurance agent and received approvals for much of the work. But with partial payments trickling in, he’s had to move on to a full slate of construction jobs that will put food on his table and allow him to pay subcontractors.

“We’ve pulled off the job several times. I told the owner it would take about $50,000 to finish so she could move in, and it’s taken three months to get $15,000 released. I’ve already had to pay painters, and I’m not willing to spend any more of my money until I’m compensated for what I’ve already done,” Trujillo said. “I’ve done insurance jobs a lot in the past 38 years, and this one has been such a nightmare.”

Attempts to reach Seterus for comment Wednesday and Thursday were unsuccessful.Their website contains no contact information for company personnel, and calling their main phone number resulted in several minutes on hold intermixed with conversations with representatives who had no idea whether the company has a media relations department or spokesperson. One representative was able to provide a second phone number, but it also resulted in dead ends.

POSSIBLE RECOURSE

Nancy Wiles, vice-president of marketing communications for Farm Bureau Financial Services, spoke on behalf of the insurance company and how the process typically works.

“When there is a mortgage in place and there is an insurance claim, the check goes to the insured as well as the mortgage holder depending on the amount of the claim,” Wiles said, adding that she’s aware of Harris’ situation.

“Our company is very committed to make sure our members have the right coverage in place, and we do all we can to make them whole when something like this happens,” Wiles said, confirming they do provide up to one year of living expense from the date of loss to pay for temporary housing while repairs get finished.

“Typically that is plenty of time,” Wiles said. “We have paid the majority of that claim, and the rest of the money will be dispensed when repairs are complete.”

Wiles had no information concerning Seterus and payments to the builder, but said Farm Bureau is “working very hard to make sure the claim is paid so the work can continue and the homeowner can get back into the home as soon as possible.”

Steve Gooch, public information officer for the Utah Insurance Department (UID), said his agency’s role is to “ensure that the insurance ecosystem is healthy and working for all involved.” That task, Gooch added, involves making sure the insured are taken care of and safeguarding the viability of those who insure. 

After consulting with UID’s Property & Casualty team, Gooch said that Utah Farm Bureau appeared to have acted appropriately in sending a check to the mortgage company to fund repairs. And policy language will determine if additional payments can be made after repairs are completed. 

“The language in the homeowner's insurance contract also spells out the length of time that a repair should take; generally it's around 180 days,” Gooch said. “In some cases, it takes longer, and the homeowner should keep the insurer in the loop — they're almost always willing to work with their customers, even if it takes a year or more.”

Gooch recommended Harris contact Utah’s Department of Real Estate (DRE), which oversees actions of mortgage holders. 

“It seems to me that the root issue is likely with Seterus because at this point they have control of the money and should be disbursing it properly to complete the repairs,” Gooch said. 

He also recommended that Harris file complaints with both UID and DRE.

“This will allow both departments to investigate the issue with all the facts and contracts on the table,” Gooch said. “If she mentions that she's filing complaints with both departments, then we can work together to figure out where the problem lies.”

For now, Harris looks forward to moving back into her former childhood home — when her mother died, she purchased it from the estate. 

“When the work is finished, it will be like a brand new house,” Gooch said. “But it’s the house I grew up in, and I’ve lost all my memories.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.