Widespread natural disasters place huge and often unexpected demands on property owners, as well as insurance companies. The standard way of handling insurance claims may be altered to meet the demands of the emergency. For instance, where insurance claims centers have been destroyed or are unusable, temporary stations may be set up or local independent insurance assessors or adjusters may be hired. The information in this article will help you to work with your insurance company in these special circumstances.
Contact your agent or insurer as soon as possible
You will want to call your agent or insurance company as soon as possible. You may also want to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) online or call at (800) 621-FEMA or (800) 621-3362. In addition to providing low-cost loans for rebuilding, FEMA provides funds for temporary housing, legal counseling, and other expenses.
- How to find your insurance company representative - If there has been damage to the insurance offices, insurers may be working with local officials to establish safe sites that can be used as claim centers. Toll-free hotlines are listed in local newspapers and are broadcast on local news stations.
- Information to gather before and during your call - If possible, have your policy number available when you first contact your insurer. When you speak to the insurance company representative, make a note of the claim reference number that is assigned to your claim. You may want to get a notebook with pockets or folders to record your interactions with your insurance company and keep track of receipts.
- What to tell your insurance company representative - It's likely that you will have several types of claims to report. These may relate to your automobile, home, or business operations. Try to give your insurance representative a complete list of the types of claims you are going to make.
- What to ask - Don't hesitate to ask questions. You may want to ask the following:
- How do I obtain a copy of my policy? (If yours was lost, you may want a copy.)
- What does my policy cover?
- When can I expect to see an adjuster?
- What is my deductible?
- Should I arrange contractors on my own for repairs?
- Will I need to obtain estimates for repairs for structural damage?
- If I cannot live in my home, does my policy cover the cost of staying in a hotel? How long will it take to process my claim?
- What are my next steps?
Information and evidence you'll need to gather
The best thing you can do to help make sure your claim is settled quickly and accurately is to provide your insurance company with as much information as possible about your damaged or lost property. It's a good idea to have the following items ready:
- Photos or video recordings of the damage and of your lost belongings if possible - If you have access to a camera and to your property, then photograph or record video of it as soon as you are able to do so. Between the time you visit, and the time the insurance representative arrives, more damage could be done and your property might even be lost; these photos and video recordings might turn out to be your only record.
- A list of the damaged and lost items - Prepare a detailed list of all damaged or destroyed property. Take a room-by-room inventory and try to include brand names, dates of purchase, cost at time of purchase, and estimated replacement cost. This list will also serve to remind you of everything you would like to show the adjuster. If you give this list to the adjuster, be sure to keep a copy for yourself.
- The damaged items themselves - Don't throw out damaged furniture or other expensive items. The adjuster will want to see them.
- Records of your insurance claim - Keep copies of all the lists, photos, and other documents you give to your insurance company or the adjuster. Also keep copies of any paperwork your insurance company gives you.
Working with the insurance adjuster
An insurance adjuster is someone who has been professionally trained to interview you and to assess the damage. In order to respond to claims as quickly as possible, insurers may send either of two types of adjusters to meet with people in the affected areas: adjusters who are employees of the insurance company or independent adjusters who own their own businesses locally and are hired to represent insurance companies on a temporary basis.
- Verify the adjuster's credentials. Regardless of which type of adjuster you talk with, make sure that the person is properly licensed. Ask to see his or her identification and ask for a contact number at the insurance company. Telephone the company to make sure the adjuster is an employee and that his or her title is accurate.
- Keep in touch. It's important that the adjuster is able to reach you. Let the adjuster know where and how you can be reached. If you change locations, try to call your adjuster with the new information.
- Consider bringing in your own independent adjuster. If you are not satisfied with your insurance company's damage estimates, you may hire your own adjuster, called a public adjuster. For a percentage of your claim settlement (as much as fifteen percent), a public adjuster can handle your claim and negotiate with the insurer on your behalf.
What's covered and what's not covered: wind or flood damage
Whether or not a particular property loss or damage is covered by insurance will depend on the cause of the loss or damage. In investigating hurricane damages, insurers often focus on two particular causes: flood damage and wind damage. Most homeowner's insurance policies cover wind damage (e.g., broken windows, fallen trees, etc.). Homeowner's insurance policies usually don't cover flood damage. You need a separate flood insurance policy that's provided through the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program.
The first claims to ask about: living expenses and repairs
In a disaster situation such as a flood or other emergency, you and your insurer will probably share two immediate concerns - your living expenses if you are unable to remain in your home and the need to repair your property to avoid additional damage. If the cause of your loss (for instance, wind damage or looting) is covered by your insurance policy, you may receive payment for the following types of expenses:
- Additional living expenses - If you have had to leave your home and are in a hotel, shelter, or staying with friends or relatives, it's important that you report this to your insurer as soon as possible. Your homeowner's insurance policy may include coverage for a specified amount of additional living expenses (ALE). If you do have ALE coverage, your policy will specify the maximum amount that the insurer will provide.
- Repairs - Avoid beginning any permanent repairs to your property until it has been assessed by your insurance company. But do take reasonable steps to protect your property from further damage. It's in everyone's interest - yours and your insurer's - if you can minimize the damage to your property. Keep in mind that payments for temporary repairs are part of the total settlement, and if you spend large sums on temporary repairs, you may not have enough money for permanent repairs.
Settling your claim
It may take months before your claim is settled. It's important that you not rush into any settlement or accept a settlement check as final. Talk to your insurance company representative about your ability to reopen the claim if additional damage is discovered later on. Most policies require claims to be filed within one year from the date of the disaster, so ask about the deadline that would apply in your situation.
If you and the adjuster don't agree on the settlement amount, contact your insurance agent or the insurance company's claim department. Provide your insurer with the figures and documents that back up your own account of your loss. If you and the insurer still disagree, you will have further options, such as mediation or arbitration, to help resolve your claim. Remember that in the end, you and your insurance company share a common goal - a settlement that is fair and accurate.