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Homeowners insurance can be essential to recovery after a hurricane, blizzard or other serious storm, but it’s important to act quickly and understand what your policy covers. Here are four tips for filing an effective storm damage insurance claim.
Review your homeowners insurance policy
The first priority is to ensure your and your family’s safety. Once that’s addressed, it’s time to check what your homeowners insurance policy covers, says Insurance Information Institute spokesperson Mark Friedlander. Look at your homeowners insurance declarations page to see what types of damage are covered and what your coverage limits are.
Key distinctions within a policy could translate to thousands of dollars. For example, some policies will cover the replacement cost of damaged belongings, while others reimburse the actual cash value only. If a burst pipe ruins your 5-year-old TV, replacement cost coverage will help pay the cost of a new, similar TV. Actual cash value, on the other hand, will account for five years of depreciation and pay only what the insurer thinks the TV was worth right before it was destroyed.
You’ll also want to check your deductible. A deductible is the amount of a claim your insurer expects you to pay. So if a storm does $10,000 worth of damage to your home and you have a $1,000 deductible, the insurer will pay $9,000 and you’ll cover the rest.
Some policies have one deductible for windstorms or hurricanes and another for all other types of claims. In these cases, the hurricane or windstorm deductible may be listed as a percentage of your dwelling coverage. For example, if your home is insured for $250,000 and your windstorm deductible is 2%, you’d need to pay for the first $5,000 of windstorm damage.
If anything is unclear, contact your insurer or agent to make sure you fully understand what your policy covers.
Report the claim to your insurer
If a storm damages your home and you need to make a claim, report it to your agent or insurance company right away.
“There's going to be a massive number of claims, [so] it's important to file your claim or to notify your agent or company very early on," says David Sampson, president and CEO of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
Technology will be your friend in explaining what happened, Friedlander says. “Get pictures of it if you can. Video's good, but definitely at least pictures with your phone so you can document the damage.”
Don’t throw away anything that might affect your claim unless explicitly cleared to do so by your insurer, Liz Heigle, Oklahoma Insurance Department communications director, advises in an email. She also recommends keeping a list of everyone you speak with at the insurance company about your claim.
Your insurer will typically send an adjuster to your home to inspect the damage. Heigle recommends being present for the visit. If you can’t make it, leave a note with information on where the adjuster can contact you.
Repair what you can
Once you’ve talked with your insurer, you can take care of any repairs that require attention.
If, for instance, a pipe is dripping water into your home, you don’t have to wait until a contractor shows up to address the problem. As long as you have a clear understanding with your insurance company about the steps to take, you can make emergency repairs without the risk of losing insurance coverage.
As you make repairs, be sure to document all your expenses. Anything you buy to fix the problem will likely be covered as part of your claim.
If the damage has left your home uninhabitable, you may need to temporarily live somewhere else. Your insurance company typically will pay your additional living expenses while you’re displaced, but there can be coverage limits and other restrictions. Discuss this step with your insurer, and keep your receipts for hotels, restaurant meals and other expenses. Learn more about loss of use coverage.
Beware of fraud
Insurance fraud is a common problem after serious storms. Unscrupulous contractors take advantage of people’s desperation by inflating costs or taking money in advance and not completing a job, among other schemes.
“Money will come in either from the federal government, or insurance, or a hybrid of both, and the fraudsters know it,” says David Glawe, president and CEO of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
The NICB offers the following tips for avoiding scams after a storm:
Get estimates from multiple contractors, and check each one’s credentials before choosing one.
Use caution with anyone who comes door to door seeking your business.
Ask for a detailed written contract without any blank spaces.
Other than a reasonable down payment, don’t pay for the work until you’ve inspected it and made sure it’s done to your satisfaction. Pay with a check or credit card rather than cash.