What To Do if You Suffered Storm Damage to Your Home
As of this writing, the devastating floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy that devastated the Northeast are receding and recovery crews are getting to work restoring access, emergency services and power to the afflicted areas. And millions of people are now getting back to their homes, sorting through what’s left, and picking up the pieces.
This article was written primarily in response to Sandy, but the principles are always the same:
1.) Go over your homeowners or renters insurance policy. Ideally, you should have this document and other key items stored off site, well away from your home. Assuming that you have Internet access as you read this, though, you can frequently read your policy particulars online by going through your email archives to when you bought or last modified the policy. Understand that standalone homeowners’ insurance policies don’t usually cover floods. Flood coverage happens under a separate policy, administered by FEMA. If you didn’t bother getting flood coverage, then you can make the repairs out the money you saved not paying those premiums all these years.
2.) Update your contact information with your insurance company. This is critical if you had to relocate or find temporary lodging pending the repairs to your home. It’s also important if you gave the insurance company a landline number, rather than a cell number. Update your contact information with a number you can actually be reached at. If you miss an appointment with an adjustor, it will just take you that much longer to get your payout.
3.) Photograph and document the damage. Hopefully, you also took an inventory of your property prior to the storm – and stored that inventory off site. This inventory will be invaluable in winning any disputes with an insurance adjuster. Yes, USAA is a fine company. But they are not pushovers when it comes to paying claims. One reason their rates are affordable is because they don’t give away the store to everyone with a stubbed toe who presents a claim for indemnification.
Tip: Don’t neglect outdoor property, to include the value of your landscaping, valuable plants and trees, outdoor lighting and recreational items.
Include any food spoilage that might have occurred, too. How much meat did you have to throw away after it thawed? How much would it cost you to replace all the dairy items and produce you lost because your refrigerator was out for a week or more?
4.) Take steps to mitigate further damage. Remember, as a policy holder, you have a duty to mitigate the insurance company’s loss. If you are a USAA customer, you are also part owner in the company. The obligation goes double for you, and for any others insured via a mutual company – that is, an insurance company owned by policyholders and not stockholders. Board up windows if you need to. Put up tarps and other coverings to prevent further water damage to wood, insulation and drywall. If you fail to take these reasonable and obvious steps to prevent further damage to your home, the insurance company may well reduce your compensation or contest your claim. This could cause a delay in settlement. The insurance company’s claims adjusters are alert to signs of negligence.
5.) Keep your receipts. If you have to buy materials or labor to make temporary repairs to mitigate your loss, have those receipts handy for the claims adjuster. Insurance companies generally want to encourage responsible, proactive behavior on the part of policyholders to limit damage. You shouldn’t normally have trouble getting reimbursed for these expenditures, over and above your deductible.
6.) Journal the process. Keep a record of every conversation with your insurance agents, your insurance carriers, and any adjustors.
7.) Don’t delay. File your claim with your insurance company as soon as possible. That way, the evidence of storm damage is fresh and there hasn’t been time for additional damage to occur from follow-on rains, exposure, etc. That makes it more difficult for an insurer to counter your claim with an accusation that you failed to mitigate damage.
When the adjustor comes
It might take a while. There are millions of homes affected and only so many trained insurance adjusters to go around. It’s important to be prepared when the adjuster comes to visit though.
Have your own consultant there for the inspection. It can be difficult to make schedules work: Independent adjustors, contractors and the insurance company’s own adjustors are all working overtime trying to process claims as quickly as possible – and they are all incredibly busy in the aftermath of a storm or other major disaster. The ideal, however, is to have a qualified, experienced contractor or independent adjustor present for the insurance company’s adjustor’s inspection. If you can, have some estimates in hand to mitigate the damage.
Show all structural damage. It’s critical to be sure the adjuster sees all the damage in all areas of the home. Not all damage is readily visible. The home may have suffered severe foundational damage, for example, profound wet rot damage in areas not obvious to the casual observer. Inspect your home thoroughly before the insurance adjuster arrives, so you will be able to identify anything the adjuster might have missed before he leaves.
Document all upgrades and improvements you made to the property. Did you just put in a new hardwood floor that’s now ruined, when all the other homes in the area have shag carpet and concrete floors? It will cost you extra to replace that hardwood. Did you have a kitchen remodel done? Is the ruined bed made of solid wood rather than particle board? Make sure the adjustor knows the special features and marks of quality and workmanship of every damaged item. It isn’t bragging. You paid premiums to ensure you are made whole on any loss, minus your deductible, up to the limits of the insurance policy. It’s to your advantage to get as close to the policy limit as you can – provided you are honest and truthful in your representations.
After the Adjustor Comes
In most cases, you’ll get your money very quickly. Your check from the insurance company should cover the cost of replacement or repair, up to the dollar limit of your policy, minus your deductible. Note: Some states are now requiring insurance companies to waive the deductible, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. This is true in New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut and New York so far.