The disaster has passed, leaving behind a mess so complete it's hard to know where to begin putting things right.
Resist the temptation to run away and worry about it later. Your mission -- and you better accept it -- is to call your insurers and get the claim ball rolling. The sooner you report damage, the sooner you get to cash the check.
1. Call right away.
Calling the insurance company will put the claim on record and also may get you some emergency help, such as a crew to help pump out a swamped basement following a hurricane or flood. You can contact your agent by phone or e-mail, but it is always a good idea to also mail a letter notifying the company and outlining the loss. Getting proof of delivery will let you off the hook if, for some reason, your report goes unrecorded and there is some question concerning timing of the claim.
2. Hunt down your insurance policies.
Ideally, you would have collected these policies in a safe place beforehand. Now is time to get them out. This includes not just your homeowners, wind and flood policies, but also auto and even health insurance. You need them all because some policies may include overlapping coverage. Read the fine print of each carefully, especially the part in your homeowners policy titled "Duties After a Loss."
Don't take the naive attitude that your insurance company will take care of everything.
"Even if you have a good, proactive company, you have obligations," says James Walsh, author of "Get Your Claim Paid."
And although it won't help with your current problems, now that you have all your policies in hand, when things settle down consider what revisions you might want -- or need -- to make in case there ever is a next time.
For example, can you get a more reasonable deductible? In at least 18 coastal states stretching from Maine to Texas, plus the District of Columbia, the hurricane-related wind damage deductible (especially on newer policies) probably isn't a flat amount. It usually equals 2 percent to 5 percent, but can be as high as 15 percent, of your home's insured value, meaning that if you have a $200,000 policy, you'll have to cover as much as $10,000 in hurricane-related damage before your homeowners policy kicks in. Some companies will allow you to pay a higher premium to lower the percent or, in some cases, even get a flat dollar deductible. Some insurers even allow changes with as little as 24 hours' notice. Call your agent and ask. The worst the company can say is no.
Another coverage worth adding if you don't already have it is sewer-backup insurance. While homeowners policies don't cover flooding (you have to buy federal flood insurance for that), sewer-backup insurance will cover damage caused by water that backs up, overloading the sewer system, your septic tank or your sump pump, and then flows into the house.
3. Check your property thoroughly as soon as possible.
Inspect everything: basements, attics, backyard sheds. In particular, look carefully at the roof. Even if it looks solid, search for any evidence of leakage. Check the foundation for cracks or erosion, even if you don't have floodwater inside your house. Make sure that major systems like your furnace and air conditioner are working. Turn on all your appliances. Make a written list of any damage you find. It also is a good idea to corroborate any damages by taking photographs. If you have predamage pictures of your property and belongings, all the better. The before and after photographs can substantiate what property you lost or how strong a hit your home took.
4. Make temporary repairs.
This will prevent further damage to your property. For instance, if a picture window is smashed, do what you can to cover the opening. "If an adjuster looks at your house and sees that you made a good effort to mitigate further damage, he or she is more likely to approve the claims you make," Walsh says. But stop short of removing evidence of the damage. If the insurance adjuster can't see what happened, he's unlikely to take your word that it did.
And as much as you'd like any help, don't accept the services of companies that drive through damaged neighborhoods immediately after a disaster and offer to help. While these services may seem tempting, Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, says catastrophes bring scam artists out of the woodwork. Plus, the services that many of these opportunistic companies offer, such as tree removal after tornadoes or hurricanes, are usually performed free of charge by Federal Emergency Management Agency teams.
5. Be wary.
Give your agent the phone numbers and addresses where you can be reached day or night. When an adjuster contacts you, ask for identification. Do not permit an adjuster to inspect your property without proper identification. Thieves have been known to use this ruse to get inside your home.
6. Be prepared.
When the adjuster shows up, have available evidence of your loss, including itemized lists, appraisals, videos, still photos, receipts -- whatever you can muster to prove what you owned and what it's worth.
7. Don't settle for less.
It can be a blessing if your insurance company sets up an emergency claims office in the area and offers to settle partial claims on the spot. This is a practice of many large insurance companies experienced in disaster management. But don't jump at immediate relief. Occasionally, a less scrupulous insurer will try to slip in language on a small settlement that states the payment is a full satisfaction of the company's liability.
And be careful of anything you sign, warns Walsh.
"Under those circumstances, most major companies won't require that you sign anything other than endorsing the check," says Walsh.
Even before you do that, make sure that there isn't language on the back of the check that prevents you from making any further claims.
8. Don't take the first offer.
You don't have to accept the first settlement your insurance company offers. If you don't think a settlement is enough, go back and look over your policy. Read the coverage limits for various types of structures and personal possessions and check how the insurance company is applying each type. Talk to the claims adjuster. If he doesn't provide satisfaction, go higher.
"If you're sure you're right, don't take no for an answer," says Gorman.
If all else fails, file a report with your state insurance department.
"In a disaster situation, no company wants the state insurance department breathing down its neck," says Gorman.
9. Consider the alternatives.
It's possible that your policy limits you to rebuilding exactly the same house in the exactly the same place. Many policies don't. Consider whether you want to use this opportunity to move to a condominium or pick up stakes and sail around the world.
10. Get help.
Filing any insurance claim generally is a do-it-yourself task. In most cases, that's not a problem -- as long as you are dealing with a reputable insurance company and you are reasonably assertive and willing to stay on top of the claim. But if you're unable to be near the property or the claim is complicated or you're not well, you might consider hiring a licensed public adjuster. For about 10 percent of the claim, they'll read over your policies, submit the paperwork and follow up on any problems.
11. Vet the repair services.
Your insurance company may offer to wave a deductible if you're willing to work with a contractor it recommends. While this can be a good thing, Walsh warns that it can also lock you into hiring a company whose work doesn't meet your standards. Whether you go with the insurer's choice or find somebody on your own, don't be in such a rush that you neglect to check references or sign on the dotted line for work that you don't want. And if the insurance company is paying the repair company directly, don't sign anything that approves payment until the work is completed to your satisfaction.
12. Continue to be vigilant.
Even after you've submitted a claim, stay on the lookout for damage that may take weeks to appear. Storms sometimes trigger things such as sinkholes and other earth movement that occur days or months later. And foundations of houses may shift or settle weeks after flooding. But don't let too much time pass. Find out your policy's time limit on making claims and meet that deadline.
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