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One Year Later, Family Rebuilds After South Oak Street Fire

CONSTRUCTION is well underway at the Ahmed family’s new home, though it will be slightly bigger than it was before with an additional 500 square feet. (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

From the ashes of their house and belongings destroyed by fire, a Falls Church family is working to restore their home and begin living anew on property they’ve owned for 15 years on South Oak Street.

Sajeel Ahmed’s positive attitude, perseverance and smile are the strengths that embolden his family to keep on moving towards their goal to move into their new home this year — as well as a steely patience he cites as the key throughout this whole ordeal.

“You must have patience dealing with a contractor,” Ahmed says. “They take their time. It gets stressful but patience is the main thing. It’s going to happen, but it might not happen on the timeline I want it to happen. Not everything goes the same way every day.”

Since that terrible day in February 2020, it’s been slow going on the new house, but it’s going.

As the News-Press reported back then, fire officials believed it was a space heater plugged into an electrical strip that caused the fire.

The family is thankful no one was seriously injured. His mother-in-law was home at the time of the fire and, fortunately, she did not wait to see if she could put it out, Ahmed recounted the day. Being a lady in her 80s, “she had the presence of mind to get out.”

When speaking to the City’s Board of Zoning Appeals in April of this year, Ahmed said that a neighbor passing in a car saw the fire and reported it. “The only thing we had left was what we were wearing that day,” Ahmed told the Board.

“It was an old house, like the ones you see in Falls Church City and Arlington,” Ahmed explained to the News-Press.

For a split second, right after the fire, the family did consider giving up their lot and moving on. “But we have good neighbors who help us whenever needed,” and “we just decided we wanted to continue to live here.

“Falls Church is an attractive place. We’ve lived here for about 20 years. Our three kids went to school here; they grew up here. We’re used to the area which made the decision easier to stay,” Ahmed said.

While maybe a bit uncertain of what to do next at the time, Ahmed and his family were rewarded by that patience with a thriving housing market now 17 months later. When the house was scorched last year, the median price of a home in Falls Church was just shy of $700,000. It now sits at around $950,000.

His work as an information technology engineer and senior executive for the federal government, and his experience in contracting and management have helped him, his attorney, engineer, contractor, builder and architect make their way through the myriad requirements necessary to rebuild.

Ahmed has found challenges at every step, from the city, to the insurance company, to the contractor which would try anyone’s patience, but he says calmly, “it works out in the end.”

After a building permit was issued, after some bricks fell down during construction, after a stop work order arrived, Ahmed had to take his case to the Board of Zoning Appeals to plead for approval to build the new house on the old house’s foundations.

THE BULK OF THE DAMAGE the Ahmeds’ home suffered on that day in early February of last year. At the time, Falls Church City fire officials believed the fire was caused by a space heater plugged into a power strip. The fire consumed all of their belongings. (Photo: News-press)

New setback lines from the original construction to the new caused at least a two-month delay in the process.

At the meeting BOZA member John Misleh noted the neighbor next door had not endorsed Ahmed’s proposal like several other neighbors who had written the city in support of it.

Misleh wondered if that neighbor would support Ahmed’s project.

Without question, Ahmed replied, for the neighbor was none other than the Ahmed family living temporarily next door while they wait on their new house.

After hearing the story, 100 percent of the Board members gave Ahmed the go-ahead to rebuild.

To face an adversity like theirs, Ahmed recommends “patience, dealing with insurance, the city, the permits and zoning.
“Everyone is doing their job, everyone is doing what they need to do. It just takes time. It’s a process,” Ahmed said, and working for the federal government, he knows a thing or two about the process.

The family has not bought furniture for the new house, but they’ve got some time to shop. The new house is 4,000 square feet, compared to the old house of about 3,500 square feet.

“It was tragic and accidental. The whole house was damaged [by fire, smoke, and water].” Insurance is paying for some of the damage, and Ahmed is paying the rest.

Almost every day he checks and talks with the contractor. “I want to make sure I know what they’re doing. Experience helps but contractors are contractors. They have so many jobs. Unless you keep screaming at them, they are not going to be there. They are doing something else,” as they were when we talked on Saturday at the reconstruction site.

Indeed, the weedy vines climbing the new walls of the home gave the impression the contractor had been doing something else for weeks.

Ahmed said “the contractors work at their own pace.”

He advises homeowners to check their insurance policies to make sure they have adequate coverage. “My insurance company has been good to me, and I would not change,” he said.