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How to Make Car and Home Insurance Claims After a Wildfire

Nov. 28, 2016
Homeowners Insurance, Insurance

Feeling overwhelmed is natural if your home was damaged or destroyed by wildfire. Here are some basic steps to move forward.

Call your insurance agent or company

Contact your insurer if you’ve been evacuated to let the company know how to reach you, advises the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. If your property was damaged, then let the company know you want to start the claim process. Once it’s safe to enter the area, an insurance adjuster will visit the property with you to look at the damage.

Check your coverage

Car insurance: You must have comprehensive coverage on your car insurance policy to get reimbursed for wildfire damage.

Home insurance: Check the “declarations page” for these insurance limits:

  • Dwelling coverage pays to rebuild or repair your home up to the policy limit.
  • “Other structures” coverage is the maximum amount for detached structures, such as sheds and fences.
  • Personal property coverage is for your belongings, such as furniture and clothing. The limit is usually a percentage of the dwelling coverage.
  • Loss of use or additional living expenses pays extra costs you incur, such as rent or hotel and restaurant bills, if you can’t live in your home while it’s rebuilt. There are typically dollar and time limits.

Renters insurance: A renters insurance policy includes coverage for personal belongings and additional living expenses. Check the limits.

Gather ‘before and after the fire’ information

Collect any information you can to document what your home was like before the wildfire, advises United Policyholders, a consumer advocacy group. That includes:

  • An inventory of belongings, if you have one.
  • Photos or videos.
  • Building plans or drawings.
  • Descriptions of finishes and other details.

Take photos of damaged areas to help document losses, and create a detailed list of damaged or destroyed property. This information will be used to create a “scope of loss” document, the basis for estimating the cost of repairs. United Policyholders says establishing an agreed-upon scope with the insurance company is one of the most important keys to getting a fair settlement.

Make temporary repairs to prevent further damage

Cover broken windows and holes in walls and roofs to prevent more damage. Save receipts. The insurer should reimburse you for any materials and supplies.

Save receipts for additional living expenses

You don’t have to couch surf with friends while your home is being repaired. Your home or renters insurance policy will pay for the reasonable extra expenses you incur to live somewhere else. Save receipts for restaurant and hotel bills, laundry fees and any other extra expenses. Work with your insurance company to get help finding temporary living arrangements. You’re entitled to accommodations that maintain your standard of living.

Get estimates for repairing or rebuilding

The insurer will do its own estimates, but you should get written estimates as well from licensed contractors who aren’t working for the insurer, United Policyholders says. All the estimates should be based on the same “scope of loss” document.

Keep good records

Take lots of notes during the claims process in a log. Write the dates, names and contact information of insurance company people and contractors you talk to. Keep all the information together and organized.

Hire help if you need it

Negotiating an insurance settlement after a big loss is complex and time-consuming. You might want to hire help. Public insurance adjusters work on your behalf with the insurance company to help you get all the benefits to which you’re entitled. You pay a set fee in some states or a percentage of the insurance settlement, typically 5% to 12%, according to United Policyholders. A policyholder attorney can help if you think the insurer is not treating you fairly. Check  references for any public adjusters or policyholder attorneys you’re thinking about hiring.

Beware of scams

Scam artists posing as contractors descend on disaster areas to take advantage of vulnerable people who need home repairs. They might demand an upfront payment and then take off before doing any repairs, for instance. Hire only licensed contractors. Ask for credentials, and check references. Be careful with your personal information, such as Social Security and bank account numbers, advises the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The rebuilding and insurance claim process can be lengthy and bumpy. Taking things one step at a time, moving forward with your eyes wide open and getting help when necessary can smooth out the recovery path.

Barbara Marquand is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @barbaramarquand.