My Year of Spending Dangerously

Last year our family home burned to the ground, with everything still inside it.

This week, after 488 (often sleepless) nights, we are finally back on the farm. In fact I’m typing this from my brand-spanking new deck, overlooking the dam.

It’s our slice of heaven — but we had to go through hell to get it. So let me tell you about those 488 days, and the things we learned along the way….

Our perfect little world was falling apart.

We were still grieving. Anxious. Stressed. Bickering. Utterly overwhelmed at the task in front of us.

“I’m pregnant,” announces my wife, Liz.

Way to go, God! Put some extra lead in the saddlebag, why don’t you? Just for kicks, let’s add some hormones into the mix.

Now up until this point, Liz and I had always had a drill: she would hold up two items — it could be dresses, shoes or wine — and say, “which one?”

My standard reply would always be: “Whichever is cheaper, dear.”

Yet, armed with a big cheque from an insurance company to replace all our contents, I wondered if we’d suddenly transform into Brynne Edelsten, maxing out the old codger’s credit card in a buying frenzy. Not quite, but our first shopping trip after the fire did not go well.

We headed to Harvey Norman. As we walked in, a saleswoman casually asked my still shell-shocked wife: “Are you looking for something in particular, or just browsing?”

“Well, we lost our home in a bushfire, so we have to replace everything,” said Liz.

“Everything?” quizzed the saleswoman.

“Everything,” she confirmed, staring blankly at the electrical goods section.

“Oh, that is …. shocking” said the saleswoman, as her eyes darted excitedly around her showroom floor. “Have you seen our dining tables? They’re amazing — and they’d go beautifully with this matching lounge setting.”

“Well, we do need a lounge setting … and a dining table,” agreed Liz.

“No, no, no!” I snapped, giving the saleswoman the stinky eye.

I frogmarched my better half off the showroom floor. When we were safely back in the Toyota, I read her the riot act.

“Look, just like Santa we’re going to make a list of everything we need. We’ll do our own research and use our buying power to screw down a bloody good deal. There will be absolutely no suggestive selling in this process.”

And, in the course of the research, we did something very un-Australian. I found that quality furniture in America is much cheaper than it is here. So, buoyed by a relatively strong dollar, and a friend in the shipping business, we decided to buy a container load of furniture from America.

The world is a weird place. The furniture was made in China, shipped to the US, then sent to Australia — and it was still cheaper than getting it from a local department store.

Read The Fine Print

As I’ve mentioned before, standing in front of our burnt out home with my wife and our little baby was the worst moment of my life.

Yet to the guy at my insurance company, it was just another Monday morning. His job was to pay out as little as possible — or at least hold on to the cash for as long as he could.

Insurance rep: “So you just need to let us know when you’ve found a builder, because we help you with your scheduled payments and …”
Barefoot: “That’s not needed. I’d just like my payout. In full.”

Insurance rep: “What we do is hold on to the money, and work with you to …”

Barefoot: “Every last cent. In my bank account. By the end of the week.”

Insurance rep: “Oh … kay.”

However, I’m sad to say that even I was outmanoeuvred when it came to building warranty insurance, which is a total rort. In Victoria it’s compulsory, and lumped on the consumer. It costs the homeowner (on average) about $1000, and up to a third of that premium is gobbled up by either the sole insurer, QBE, or to the Housing Industry Association, and the Master Builders Association.

And here’s the rub: according to my friends at the Consumer Action Law Centre, the insurance “offers next to no protection for consumers. Instead of paying out a claim when the building isn’t up to scratch, claims can only be made where a builder is dead, disappeared or insolvent.”

So the chance of claiming on the $1000-plus policy is basically like trying to get money out of Geoffrey Edelsten. (Unless you’re Brynne, of course, or whoever his latest squeeze is.)

Don’t Be Cheap

I’d rather be subjected to watching a season of The Block than build my own home. Like visiting Canberra, it’s just not something that was ever on my bucket list. Maybe it’s because I knew we were at a disadvantage. After all, the builders we were thinking of hiring had built hundreds of homes, while we were like that Chinese bloke on The Block — no idea.

After a lot of research, we narrowed it down to two builders, both of whom came highly recommended to us from multiple sources. So, me being me, I went with the guy who gave us the cheapest quote.

This would be one of many lessons. The builder we chose was going places: he was building six or seven homes at the one time, had an office full of employees, and had assigned us a project manager to ‘deal with the details’. The other, more expensive, builder had three employees, built only a handful of homes each year and, most importantly, was on the tools every day.

At the last minute we switched to him. Obviously, I can’t compare the outcomes, but we are very happy with what we got. And long after I’ve forgotten how much we spent on the house, I’ll continue enjoying the quality of his build.

People Are Kind

The weeks after we lost our home were a blur, but what I do remember, vividly, is receiving thousands of emails and letters, as well as toys for my son Lewis, from Barefooters across the country. (In fact, one junior Barefooter even sent us $2 of his pocket money!) We’re planning on using the generous gifts we were given to make our house a home.

The ultimate lesson I’ve learnt over the past 488 days is this: it’s only when you lose pretty much everything that you work out how much you’ve really got.

Tread Your Own Path!