Jan 06

You Need an Emergency Fund When Your Furnace Dies

furnace room

The “culprit”, on wall, left-hand side

I did a post a few months ago about why it’s important to have an emergency fund. December 27th, I re-confirmed the importance of having an emergency fund when we arrived home from our “horrible” trip (see this post for further explanation) to Maine. The drive home was relatively uneventful. We made good time, the weather was good and we didn’t hit any traffic (all amazing feats because it’s normally a pretty stressful drive). When we arrived home we unpacked the car into our building’s lobby so that Eric could return the car to our garage (city living is so fun, ugg). Cold and tired after a week of sporadic sleeping due to power outages, I carried Brooklyn upstairs and opened the door to our condo.

The Smoke Before the Fire


Smoke damage above the boiler room door

I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of smoke. Terrified, I ran to the guest bedroom to check on the cats and make sure that  there wasn’t a fire in one of the bedrooms. Our condo is small so it wasn’t much of a run (10 steps or so) to get to the spare bedroom. But before I got there, I noticed that the smoke appeared to be coming from the boiler room closet where the furnace is. I opened the door and the wall behind the furnace (it’s a wall mounted unit) was black and sooty. The wall directly outside the closet was really hot to the touch (and smoke damaged). Despite my immediate panic, I remembered to turn off the power to the furnace using the emergency wall switch. I yelled downstairs to Eric and he came up to see what was going on (I suspect I was yelling something to the effect of, “Our closet is on fire.” which was bit of an exaggeration-but not that much as we’d later find out).

We turned off the gas manually and called my step-dad. He reassured us that gas heat is very safe and that there was probably nothing to worry about (I appreciate him telling me that in the moment, because I kept imagining our condo burning to the ground). I cried for a minute because I was so scared and mad and sad. I kept thinking that if we’d been away from home for one more hour we might have come home to a burned down house.

furnace room

Damaged drywall inside the closet

We had an HVAC man come take a look at the furnace on the 28th. As soon as he took the cover off the unit he told us that we were very lucky we didn’t have a massive fire. This wasn’t particularly surprising to us based on the amount of smoke and the condition of the wall. When we bought our house we knew that the furnace was very old, but we were told (by our home inspector) that there was nothing wrong with it so we may as well “use it until it dies.” Unfortunately, I never thought, “dies” would involve a raging inferno that would burn our unit to the ground (yes I’m still exaggerating, but I’m very afraid of fire).


Charred furnace

What caused the smoldering and the charred wall? We don’t really know. Our smoke detector went off about two weeks ago, so we called our handyman and he replaced it with a Nest Protect smoke detector (he said the old one was old and dirty). The bf also bought a Nest thermostat two weeks prior to the smoke detector going off. The Nest thermostat lets you adjust your heat from your iPhone from anywhere in the world. I have to admit, I was a little bit worried/nervous that the new “Nest” thermostat might have overheated the furnace or maybe there’s something about the way it’s wired that caused the old furnace to malfunction. Eric doesn’t think that’s the case (nor does the furnace man). They actually belief that the Nest thermostat and Nest smoke detector may have saved our house because the detector “talks” to the thermostat and would have “told” the furnace to shut down the the smoke detector went off.

Being a homeowner is so expensive!

  • Cost of new furnace and hot water heater $1825 (we had to buy both because the wall unit furnaces aren’t made anymore and the old hot water heater wouldn’t fit in the closet with the new furnace-it’s a very small room.
  • Cost to install the furnace (labor) $1950
  • Cost of materials $500
  • Total Cost of replacing the “dead furnace” $4,275
  • Coming home and still having a house-Priceless!

Yes I’m annoyed and angry and frustrated, but I’m incredibly thankful that no one was hurt and my house didn’t burn down.

Here are a few of the things I’ve taken from this whole situation:

  1. Having an emergency fund is a real blessing. I realize that many people (well many people not reading this blog-wink) probably don’t have an emergency fund. I can’t even imagine how stressed out I’d be right now if I had a $4,275 bill and no money to pay it. When you’re a homeowner there are a lot of “hidden costs” that you don’t have when you’re a renter.
  2. Writing a big check and seeing your savings drop really stinks, but money is just money. Money is meant to be spent, and if spending our savings makes our home safer (so we don’t have a bad fire), I’m more than happy (well as happy as you can be when you write a check that big) to spend the money in this way.
  3. Sometimes when it rains it pours. My mom has always said that bad things happen in 3’s, so I’m hoping that this is our number three (ice storm, broken furnace, smokey house). The last couple of weeks have really has been a test for us mentally and emotionally. We’ve found ourselves being a little more snappy and on edge because we’ve been under a lot of stress and pressure. Hopefully now that the new furnace is installed (they finished Thursday night at 10:30pm) and everything is “safe” we’ll be able to relax a little bit.
  4. Even when you have a “system”, the system doesn’t always work. After our smoke detector malfunctioned (well we think it malfunctioned), we bought a new Nest smoke detector that communicates with our thermostat and our phones. At 5:50pm on the 27th, Eric received a message on his phone that there was smoke in the house and the detector was going off. The only problem? His phone was still on “airplane” mode because we get no cell reception in Maine and he didn’t want to run down his battery looking for a signal.
  5. Smoke is no joke. I used to really like the smell of a wood fire. The smell of a wood fire in my home, on my clothing and furniture, not so much. The smell has lessened with time (and a lot of cleaning) but is still noticeable. I’m hoping once it warms up a little I’ll be able to open the windows and get some fresh air in here (of course it’s been bitterly cold here since we got back from my parents’ house).
What’s your most expensive emergency to date? Have you ever survived a house fire?


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  1. Matt Becker

    I’m actually in a position where I’m REALLY using my emergency fund right now (to be written in the near future) and like with your situation here, you only truly appreciate it when you need it. That’s why it always hurts me when I hear people questioning why they have an e-fund when the stock market is returning 30% or whatever. People, you need it! I’m glad everyone is okay and that the damage was relatively minor, if not inexpensive. Great lessons here though and thanks for sharing.

    1. KK

      Oh no, hope that everything is OK (use of the emergency fund is never fun, but some “uses” are less scary and awful then others-my car died once, that wasn’t nearly as scary as this furnace business). I’m totally right about people without the e-fund. Even in our situation, I was thankful Eric had a significant amount of cash readily available in his checking account (all of my money was saved in an online savings account with no way to get it to my bricks and mortar bank).

  2. Kali @ CommonSenseMillennial

    Oh my goodness! I am SO glad you and your kitties are okay – and that you had an emergency fund to deal with the cost. It sucks having to use it, but it’s definitely much better to use than trying to pull it out of a regular monthly budget or worse, having to put things on credit and not being able to pay off the card balance.

    1. KK

      Me too. I don’t know how I’d live with myself if something happened to them. They must have been so scared with the alarm going off :-( I’m very thankful we had the money to pay for the new furnace. Our contractors only accepted cash and without cash we wouldn’t even have been able to get the work done. It would have been a big problem (it’s supposed to be negative 15 degrees tonight!).

  3. Alicia @ Financial Diffraction

    Yikes, that is a good chunk of change. But as we mostly say in the PF world, that is a great example of having an emergency fund. I am so glad nothing serious happened, aside from smoke damage really. And of course it happened when you were away!

    Knock on wood that that is your string of three. My Mom always says it comes in threes or sevens. Threes are usually way too much as it is!

    1. KK

      Yup, I definitely wasn’t very excited about handing over that cash, but I’m very grateful we had the money to spend. No furnace this time of year would be a nightmare. Oh no, I’ve never heard 7’s before, let’s hope this time it’s only 3’s đŸ˜‰

  4. Mackenzie

    Oh my gosh, what a scary situation! I am so glad to hear that there wasn’t worse damage and that your cats are okay. Sorry all this happened, though :(

    1. KK

      Thanks Mackenzie, we feel very fortunate. Our poor kitties must have been so scared, that breaks my heart.

  5. E.M.

    I am so glad there wasn’t any severe damage and that your cats are okay! Fire scares the crap out of me too, ever since I witnessed our old neighbors house go up in flames. While that is a lot of money to be sure, I like your viewpoint that at least it’s being spent on ensuring the safety of the condo. Here’s to hoping nothing else occurs!

    1. KK

      I could be writing a completely different (my house burned down) post, and I’m so thankful that I’m not. I really know a higher power must have been looking out for us that day. I hope my bad luck or whatever it is, streak is over.

  6. Mrs PoP @Planting Our Pennies

    Holy cow! So glad that you are all okay and the damage is contained. This is exactly why being prepared matters – because sometimes poop happens.
    Are you able to file an insurance claim at all? I don’t know if it’s worth it in comparison to your deductible.

    1. KK

      Yup, this “emergency” isn’t a financial emergency because we have the cash, just a really scary situation that we’re thankful wasn’t worse. We didn’t file a claim because we had the cash on hand and weren’t sure how it would impact our future rates. If the damage had been much more we probably would have considered filing the claim.

  7. Liz

    wow I am so happy that you didn’t have a fire- sounds like a really close call there. Our water heater went out yesterday morning. Went downstairs to do laundry and there was water EVERYWHERE. This wasn’t a huge surprise as the the water heater is really old but no fun at all to deal with. We will be forking out just under $1,000 to get a new one. Our AC unit is also very old. Wouldn’t be surprised if that goes this coming summer too. We will be keeping our savings account well funded this year to prepare!

    1. KK

      Oh no, I’m sorry to hear about your water heater. Unfortunately our water heater was working fine and we had to buy a new one so the furnace could fit in the closet (wish I could get my perfectly good, lightly used one, to you). Hoping your A/C hangs on for the summer. We just bought a new A/C last year and it wasn’t cheap.

  8. anna

    Oh my gosh, that’s so scary!! I’m glad to hear that a fire didn’t occur and the cats are safe. I don’t think it would have occurred to me, as well, that ‘dies’ means there could have been consequential damages, but I’m glad to hear that’s not the case. That blows about the cost of replacing the furnace, but that’s awesome that your emergency fund can cover it! Knock on wood that your 3’s are over, KK!

    1. KK

      In retrospect (it’s so easy to be retrospective after the fact), I wish I’d asked him more about what he meant. Obviously he didn’t think that it was an emergency to replace the heater, but I wish he’d explained more about what could happen. I also wish we’d had the old one serviced, just to see if there was anything that could have been predicted about the furnace malfunctioning (or whatever happened). I’m knocking on wood everywhere these days. I’m hopeful everything is going to be smooth sailing for a while.

  9. Morgaine

    Glad you guys (and your cats) are alright! I definitely want to boost my savings this year, I’ve been towing the line very dangerously and it has to stop. We have the original furnace from when our house was built (2000) and since furnaces last about 20 years, we have 7 years to save for a new one – probably less. So the plan is to cost out the new furnace and divide that by how long we have until we have to get a new one and then save separately from an emergency fund. Although, that hasn’t happened yet. We bought new stuff for the house and are paying that off first, then comes savings.

    Definitely glad to hear you guys are ok. Here’s to better things for the rest of 2014!

    1. KK

      Until last week I really had no idea how long furnaces last (apparently 20 years or so, like you said). I knew ours was old, but how old is sort of a mystery to us (the original paperwork doesn’t exist-we did see a sticker stating that it was “serviced” in 1988-so we know it’s at least that old-probably much older). I think it’s really smart to start saving now for a new one. Then if and when you need a new one it’s not a massive unexpected expense.

  10. Debt Hater

    Glad to hear that everyone, your cats, and everything are all okay! That would have scared the crap out of me, especially after realizing it was coming from furnace. It’s also a good thing that you had installed a new smoke detector prior to this happening, always a good reminder to test/check these to make sure they are fully functioning.

    Hopefully things quiet down for you and no more bad luck strikes (my parents also say things always happen in 3s) so that your emergency fund will be given plenty of time to recover and stay there!

    1. KK

      Thanks, we know we are very fortunate. I hadn’t really given much thought to smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors until recently. Apparently they are supposed to be replace every 7 years and tested weekly. I suspect our old detector was older than 7, and we’d never tested our smoke detector in the almost 2 years we’ve lived here. Now I’m going to be much more diligent about both. If one simple device can save my life, I’d be stupid not to keep it up to date and functioning properly. Crossing my fingers that 2014 will turn out being a better year.

  11. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

    OH my goodness, such a blessing that you guys came home when you did!!! That must’ve been terribly scary for you, my friend! That is weird about the charred wall. I asked Rick about this, him being a firefighter, and he said that there was probably a “flash” fire that caused the wall damage (a quick, intense fire that burns itself out right away and affects random areas), but that he would definitely have the fire inspector out if you haven’t fixed it (the wall) already to get their take on it, just to make sure it wasn’t the smoke detector that defaulted……

    1. KK

      We know god was looking out for us that day. There’s really no other explanation for why the house is still here and we came home at exactly the right time. We had a couple of different people come to check out the wall (to make sure that there wasn’t smoldering in the wall or anything else dangerous). What’s interesting (and now frustrating to us), is that the closet wasn’t insulated properly at the top of the wall by the top of the door. Actually it wasn’t insulated at all and didn’t have any dry wall on the inside of the closet-likely there was a shorter door there in the past and when the newer door was installed they didn’t bother to insulate the space between the door and wall on the inside of the closet (outside, as you can see in the photo looks fine). Because the closet is so small, we never were able to get in the closet to look up to notice this issue (and if we hadn’t had this problem, we never would have known). This whole experience has been crazy, but we’re very very blessed.

  12. Tonya@Budget and the Beach

    OMG I would have been right there with you having a heart attack! I’m so terrified at the idea of a fire. It sucks that you had to spend so much on the furnace, and I know it’s tough to look at the bright side but it could have been so much worse! I hope the streak of “bad luck” ends and things get back to normal soon. PS I don’t really believe in luck, it’s just life shit.

    1. KK

      Totally life shit, and it sucks, but I think we’re back on the road to “normal.” It’s amazing how things like this can really throw your life for a loop. I still don’t really feel like things are back to normal yet. When I’m at work I’m constantly checking my phone to see if the smoke detector is going off. It’s a good and bad thing to have that technology, I guess.

  13. Dear Debt

    I am so glad you are ok! That sounds scary!! I am also petrified of fires to an irrational degree. That is quite an expensive emergency but glad you had the $ and have a house and your pets! That is priceless. My most expensive emergency was a car accident that was my fault. 2k deductible down the drain, but everyone was fine,so it was priceless in that sense.

    1. KK

      I’m petrified of fires as well, so I don’t think that you can be irrationally afraid (all fear of fire is rational to me ;-)) That stinks about the accident, but like you said, at least nobody was hurt. Money’s just money we can make more. We can’t replace people.

  14. DC @ Young Adult Money

    So sorry to hear about your furnace and the big expense it was. I agree with you about the emergency fund – it’s so important for situations like these. We actually had three things “go wrong” last year that thankfully weren’t too expensive to fix (sewer drain-out covered by city, flooded basement cleaned up quickly by us so no expensive damage, and finally our garage door coils – $500!). Building my emergency fund is a top priority this year.

    1. KK

      Thanks DC, it’s been a frustrating experience, but we’re thankful to have the funds to cover it. Being a homeowner can be pretty expensive (this is our first experience with a big expense since we bought our condo). Sorry to hear about your emergency fund drainers, I guess you got in your “three” bad things out of the way :-) Hoping 2014 turns around for both of us.

  15. Brian @ Luke1428

    We had to dip into our emergency fund as well over Christmas and replace our upstairs heating unit. On a routine service call, the technician saw with his camera probe that our furnace was rusting from the inside out. I asked him what the danger was and he said carbon monoxide would eventually be leaking into the house. Yikes…don’t want that! So we had it replaced the next day. But it was awesome knowing we had the cash to cover it already saved up. Glad you guys are OK!

    1. KK

      Oh wow, that’s definitely not something you want to chance. Thank god they checked and you were able to replace it quickly and without anyone getting hurt. I’m also unreasonably afraid of carbon monoxide. We have two detectors right by the furnace because one just isn’t enough for me after all of this.

  16. Demaish @ Borrowed Cents

    Wow..Sorry for what happened to you guys plus the sizeable chunk that left your E-Fund. However, it’s true, Efund is very important band as much as we feel the pain biting into it, things would be very different if you didn’t have one.

    1. KK

      I’m sad to see that money leave the account, but I guess that’s exactly why we have the e-fund, for when crappy things like this happen. I’m hoping this will be the last time we have to use the e-fund this year, but if it’s not, it’s not. I just want everyone to be safe and I’m thankful we’re OK.

  17. Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt

    Phew – so glad that everyone is alright, this must have been so scary for you. It’s a huge cost to replace it but extremely necessary. I’m currently building up my emergency fund as I have a feeling our boiler in our rented house will pack up in the next year or so. I currently have nowhere near enough money to replace it!

    1. KK

      Oh no, I hope your boiler hangs on for a while (although I suggest replacing it if you think it might be “too old” after our crazy experience). We’re very glad to be OK and to still have a house to come home to. It’s been a crazy ride the past couple of weeks.

  18. Holly@ClubThrifty

    I am so sorry that this happened to you but I think it’s great that your e-fund was able to cover it. That’s what it’s for, right?

    1. KK

      Thanks Holly, it’s been a rough couple of weeks, but we have a lot to be thankful for (including the fact that we had the money to cover the new furnace).

  19. SuburbanFinance

    Eek! I’m so sorry to hear about this – that’s pretty scary when there is smoke and fire involved. We try to maintain our furnace but it’s always good to be well equipped financially.

    1. KK

      Since we’re new homeowners it never even occurred to us that we should have the furnace serviced or checked. When we moved in the inspector said it was OK, so we just kept running it. Now we’ll definitely be having the furnace checked on a yearly basis (lesson learned!).

  20. Cash Cow Couple

    Super easy to think an e-fund is unnecessary when life is going swell without a hiccup. Then something like that happens and you realize the importance. I’m really hoping nothing like this happens in our little mobile home as $5k is far too much when compared to the purchase price!

    1. KK

      Thankfully I’ve always been a worrier (not always a good thing, but sometimes it works out) so we have a pretty good sized e-fund. A good friend of mine just replace the furnace in his mobile home and it wasn’t nearly as expensive as ours (but hopefully you’ll never have to find out!).

  21. Tara @ Streets Ahead Living

    So scary about what you went through with that furnace! But you are so fortunate it didn’t catch on fire all together. It sucks to spend so much but at least now you have a great furnace that when the time comes to sell (if you both choose to), it will greatly add to the value of the condo.

    Also, it’s always moments like these that make you so glad to have an emergency fund!

    1. KK

      We are soo lucky we didn’t have a fire (which makes me incredibly thankful and also terrified). Thankfully that was the oldest “big ticket” item in the house. All the other appliances, windows, etc. are newer. We’ll probably rent out the place or sell in the next 5 years or so, so at least we’ll know what we’re renting or selling is safe for the next occupants.

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