At first, Kari and Dustin Drees thought their home had been invaded by a peculiarly destructive thief.
The first-time homeowners, who had lived in their new suburban Atlanta home for only a week, returned from a holiday vacation late last month. When they opened the door they found a house in shambles.
Wood chippings littered the foyer like confetti. Soot soiled the living room and the couch. The wooden window frames had been gnawed.
They heard the faucet running in the kitchen and feared a burglar was hiding somewhere in the house. They called the police. Kari stayed outside with their baby, and Dustin went in to investigate. He followed the trail of soot ― until it dawned on him: It was a trail of not footprints but little paw prints, starting from the chimney and leading to nearly every room in the house.
The destruction, the couple soon learned, was the work of a wayward squirrel.
“He ran across the couch, ran through the dining room. It even went in the bathroom, somehow got in the toilet, and then went in our daughter’s room,” Dustin, 30, an employee of a venture capital company, told The Washington Post on Tuesday night. “He was just trying to figure out a way out of the house.”
The couple believes the squirrel must have fallen through the chimney before frantically trying to escape their home. It turns out that a fleeing squirrel can do a lot of damage.
They will have to replace almost every window in their house after the squirrel, in his desperate escape attempts, chewed away the paneling and in some cases poked tiny holes in the glass. He pooped on their beds and on the couch and on the counters and floors. He gnawed off the wood on the door and window frames and indoor shutters. And somehow, the couple thinks, he flicked on the kitchen faucet while apparently trying to leap for the window above the sink.
The squirrel was soon captured by animal control. But then they had to contend with their insurance company. When they called to report the freak incident, their insurance adjuster had some very bad news: The company did not cover damage inflicted by rodents.
Now, the young couple says they are left to pay out of pocket an estimated $15,000 in damage caused by a single rogue squirrel.
Kari, 27, said that the experience has left her wondering “the purpose of homeowners’ insurance,” if not to protect against a disaster like this.
“I’ve had moments of wondering why we purchased this house in the first place,” she said. “You’re supposed to have a sense of security and be protected in these types of situations, and I just feel like insurance companies find loopholes to get out of paying for things. We’re supposed to have someone on our side, and at this point, we feel like the insurance company is not on our side.”
The couple’s insurance company, Mercury Insurance, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night. But the company said in a statement to Georgia news outlets that the rodent caveat is clearly described in the insurance policy, adding that it’s a standard homeowners policy for most insurance companies.
“When Mercury Insurance received the claim on January 1st (last Wednesday), we sent an adjuster to the property and learned that — in fact — a squirrel had found its way into their home,” the company said in the statement, according to WSB-TV. “This was confirmed by the ‘critter catcher’ company that removed the squirrel.
“Unfortunately, damage done to a property by birds, vermin, rodents and insects is not covered,” the statement continued. “This is explicitly stated in the contract and all insurance companies we know of have similar exclusions.”
Mercury said in its statement that it would offer to pay for up to two weeks of temporary housing for the Drees family. But the couple told The Post they were unaware of the offer to pay for housing for two weeks until the company’s media statement, and are currently staying with a friend.
Kari and Dustin had moved into the cottage-style home in Buckhead, a northern suburb of Atlanta, on Dec. 16. After living in Georgia for four years, they decided to buy their first home together to put down roots, they said, especially after the birth of their daughter last year.
Just a week after moving in, they left for San Diego to spend the holidays with family. But almost immediately, the couple suspected something was wrong back home.
Somehow, the squirrel tripped the home burglary alarm.
ADT Security Systems went out to the couple’s home to investigate. The security company found no signs of forced entry, and a friend checked on the home too, finding that the doors and windows were still locked. “We just thought it had to be a software issue,” Dustin said.
Upon realizing the intruder was an animal — the droppings made that crystal clear — the couple called a critter control company. The serviceman found the squirrel quivering behind a couch pillow, before it “freaked out” and went rogue again, the couple said. “He made a little bed in there — it’s a comfy couch,” Dustin said.
They aren’t sure whether they’ll be able to keep it. The couple said that “phase one” of the cleaning ended Tuesday after workers wearing hazmat suits swarmed the house and threw “sanitation bombs” everywhere. It cost $2,000, Kari said.
Dustin said the hardest part has been understanding why the insurance company views this squirrel fiasco as being in the same boat as a rodent infestation. He said he understands why insurance may not cover typical mice or insect problems. But this seemed wildly different. “You see the commercials of the crazy things that happen, or the Allstate mayhem guy,” Dustin said. “You think these things would be covered.”
He said he wishes a raccoon had fallen down the chimney instead.