How to File a Homeowner Insurance Claim After a Storm

Here are some tips to ensure that you receive what you are owed.

After surviving a severe storm, the arduous task of restoring your home and your life begins. It is crucial to promptly seek assistance from those who can provide support to expedite the relief process.

Get in touch with your insurance company:

The first step is to contact your homeowner's insurance agent. Your policy mandates that you file a claim on time, and this begins with reaching out to your insurer. However, this initial contact can also provide immediate financial aid, surpassing the assistance offered by non-governmental organizations, your state, or the federal government.

For instance, individuals displaced by Hurricane Ian could receive funds from their homeowners Insurance companies can cover living expenses without requiring paperwork through additional living expenses (ALE) insurance, which is a standard feature in most homeowners' and renters' policies. Following recent major disasters, many homeowners insurance companies have waived the requirement for documentation of home damage before issuing initial checks to policyholders, according to Michael Barry, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.

Barry states, "While some insurers may request proof that a home is uninhabitable, they are in the minority based on my observations."

Eventually, you will need to provide documentation of the damage incurred. However, in the interim, ALE insurance can assist in covering costs such as temporary housing, meals at restaurants, laundry services, additional commuting expenses, and pet boarding. It can also aid in covering expenses when you are displaced due to mandatory evacuation orders, even if your home is accessible and habitable.

In addition to ALE insurance, you will typically need to document the property damage to initiate a visit from an adjuster, who will assess the costs of repairs, restoration, or rebuilding. If you cannot access your property, it may be worthwhile to inquire with your insurer about the use of drones for initial damage assessments. This technological approach expedites the overall process.

Get things done for now

The insurer can advise you on necessary repairs to make your home habitable or prevent further damage.

For example, If you need a plumber to shut down water lines, make sure to check the licensing board of your state to find a licensed plumber.

Regardless of where the plumber is from, check the Better Business Bureau from that region for complaints and other information. You also may find testimonials on local review sites for consumer services.

Even if the insurer sends you a check right away for that emergency work, you may have to pay the bill yourself first. Either way, keep receipts that you can later file with your claim.

Get Your Coverage Details

When you contact your agent or insurance company, find out what’s covered in your policy. You can also probably find it on your account page on the insurer’s website.

A standard homeowners insurance policy covers damage to the home’s structure as well as personal property, minus a deductible. The amount you’re paid will depend on the kind of coverage you have. “Replacement cost” coverage should pay for the cost of repairing or replacing your home and any lost or damaged items at today’s prices—without accounting for the original items’ depreciation. “Actual cash value” coverage will pay you the value of your home and the damaged items inside after depreciation has been taken into account.

Claim Small Water-Related Losses

Usually, CR advises avoiding filing claims for losses that appear to be less costly than the value of the deductible. That’s because if you later file other claims, the insurer could decide you’re reporting too many incidents and raise your premium—or refuse to renew your policy.

But there may be exceptions after some storms. With water damage, small spots on a wall or ceiling could reflect a bigger mess behind the gypsum wallboard or plasterboard, says Amber Mostyn, a Houston attorney who represents consumers dealing with insurers. “Reporting it now shows you’ve reported on time,” she says. “And if you find something later, it could very well add up to above the deductible.”

Prepare for the Adjuster

The insurance company will assign an adjuster, who will assess the damage and submit an estimate for review. Since the beginning of the pandemic, adjusters have increasingly been doing their work remotely—communicating through smartphone tools like FaceTime, Google Meet, and Skype—and accepting videos and photos directly from policyholders’ phones.

During the appointment, the adjuster may ask you to walk from room to room taking video with your phone, describing the damage, and showing it in context and scale by zooming in and out.

But if you’re not comfortable meeting virtually—or the damage appears to be considerable and severe—you can ask the insurer to have an adjuster come to your home.

If that’s the case, ask the insurance company for the adjuster’s name before your appointment, then ask for identification before letting the person into your home.

Regardless of whether your adjuster’s visit is conducted virtually or in person, it helps to make a list of items that were destroyed or require repair. Include the amount you paid for them and gather any receipts you can find.

You can report more damage you discover after the adjuster’s appointment. Depending on the policy, a claim can stay open—and you can receive additional compensation—for many months after the initial report.

Document All Your Transactions

After the adjuster’s appointment, remain in contact by email or text so that you have a backup of all your communication. Keep notes about missed appointments, unreturned phone calls, what you discussed, and even whether the adjuster was rude. Though you probably won’t need this information, it will be useful if any disagreements have to be resolved in court.

Make copies of all documents, including everything you give to the adjuster, such as your list of property lost or damaged. If the adjuster advises you to get repairs, get that permission in writing.

In an emergency situation, the first adjuster may be replaced by a new one during the claims process, so having correspondence in writing could be helpful to you.

Let's talk about the exclusions or limits mentioned in your policy.

After the appointment, the adjuster or a company representative may give you a better idea of what the insurer intends to pay for the entire claim. If your insurer maintains that your policy doesn’t cover all the damages or if you think the compensation is too low, ask the carrier’s rep to explain in writing how they got to the estimate. The rep should also include any reason certain items aren’t covered and whether there are any coverage limits.

If you have custom work in your house, an adjuster might not know how to properly estimate the value. Get an outside estimate from a contractor.

If you think the wording in the policy is misleading, contact a local plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in insurance law. The Consumer Federation of America says courts have consistently ruled in favor of policyholders on policy ambiguities. File a complaint with your state’s Department of Insurance.

Have you considered hiring a public adjuster?

If you have a very large claim, you may want to turn to a public adjuster, someone who works on your behalf and represents you during the process. But be aware of fees. In some states a public adjuster’s fees are capped, typically at 10 percent to 12 percent of the insurance payout. In other states, there are no percentage caps, or adjusters charge an hourly or flat fee.

In Florida, public adjusters can charge up to 20 percent—but only in areas that haven’t been declared federal disaster areas. “Any claims in Florida related to Hurricane Ian will be capped at 10 percent,” says Brian Goodman, general counsel of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.

You can check NAPIA’s website to find a public adjuster. Ask any candidate for references from past clients and look to see whether they have several years of experience and a state license where required.

If you live in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, or South Dakota, there are no rules about getting a license to be a public adjuster. If you need help, it's a good idea to speak with a lawyer who works with disaster victims. They can refer you to a reputable public adjuster. This advice comes from Goodman.

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