The aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will unfold for months to come. Unfortunately, natural disasters have a way of pointing out some of the more mundane aspects of our financial lives, like the details of property and casualty insurance coverage.
Many victims of a flood learn quickly that standard homeowners’ policies cover structural and water damage only in limited circumstances, like when a falling tree knocks a hole in a roof or breaks a window, allowing rain to fall inside. Most do not cover damages that result from rising water, unless the homeowner lives in a designated flood zone and has purchased insurance through the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program. (To make a claim through FEMA, go to www.fema.gov/nfip-file-your-claim.)
There are reports that up to 80 percent of those impacted by Hurricane Harvey do not have flood insurance. And for those who do not have flood insurance, the government may step in with a safety net. Check with DisasterAssistance.gov to learn the details about how to get assistance.
In the meantime, for those affected by a disaster: when you are able to return home, take a set of photos before you move anything. Then make a list of damaged or lost items, including their date of purchase, value, and receipts, if possible. Report the claim as quickly as possible – insurance companies respond on a first come, first serve basis. Once reported, be sure to get your claim number and write it down.
Don’t make permanent repairs until the insurance company has inspected the property and you have agreed on the cost of repairs. Do inform the insurance company if you need to make temporary repairs to prevent further damage to your property. You will then meet with the insurance company’s adjuster, who will survey the damage. In some cases, this person is an employee of the insurance company, but with a storm of this size, there are likely to be plenty of independent adjusters (IAs) who are on the scene.
The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recommends that you “ask if they are authorized to make claim decisions and payments on behalf of your insurance company and ask for the name of the in-house company adjuster to whom the I.A. is sending your information.”
Remember that all settlement offers from insurance companies can be negotiated, so don’t do anything with the offer yet before reviewing the full report and agreeing with all items and costs. This includes refraining from cashing or depositing the insurance company’s check. Once that check clears it is an acceptance of what the insurance company is going to cover.
Be sure that adjusters are taking into account regional differences in the cost of materials and contractors, but if they don’t, make a case for a higher amount. Some red flags include omissions of damaged items, partial or incomplete measurements and low-ball contractors’ costs. If you see a problem, return the first check and request that the adjuster revise the report, then request a check from the insurance company for the correct cost of the damage. CFA also notes that you may choose to talk to an insurance company’s approved contractor to estimate your property damage, “but you are not under any obligation to use them.” If you hire your own, be sure to secure references and evidence of insurance.
The process can be lengthy, so be sure to create a paper trail. In addition to calling, register all complaints in writing – the more specific, the better. If problems persist, contact your state’s insurance commissioner. Keep working the process-it can take patience and persistence, but ultimately, you have to be your own advocate.
Of course, the time to review and become familiar with the terms of your policies is not in the aftermath of a severe event, but before it occurs. So, if you aren’t in the middle of Irma, take some time and go through policies, get flood insurance if needed and be prepared.