Having grown up in the northern tip of tornado alley, I’m always a little nervous this time of year. I know from experience that on any given day, the weather gods can reach down and rip your house apart. (Luckily, I didn’t live in a trailer, so I was safe.)
Now, I know the odds of a tornado striking the Washington area are pretty slim, but it has happened to deadly effect. And there are other disasters that can hit. Hopefully, you’ve got you emergency kit prepared and have planned for safely making it through a natural disaster.
But when the trouble has passed and everyone is safe, you must resist the temptation to run away from the scene to stay with relatives for a few weeks while you get yourself back together. The job of recovering from the disaster has just begun, and the sooner you get started dealing with the insurance company, the sooner you’ll get your check.
Here are eight steps that will help you clean up the financial mess of a disaster and get you back on track:
- 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.
- Find your insurance policies. In a perfect world, you would have collected these policies in a safe place beforehand. Now is the 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.
Also, check to see what your responsibilities are under the policy. You’ll find that information in the part of your homeowners policy entitled “Duties After a Loss.” Don’t take the naive attitude that your insurance company will take care of everything.
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 pre-damage 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.
- 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. However, make sure you don’t remove evidence of the damage. If the insurance adjuster can’t see what happened, he’s unlikely to take your word that it did.
While working to fix up the house, you may get visited by service companies offering to help. Don’t take it. Many of these “professionals” are scam artists. In addition, the services that many of these companies offer, such as tree removal after tornadoes or hurricanes, are usually performed free of charge by Federal Emergency Management Agency teams.
- 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.
- 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 all else fails, file a report with your state insurance department.
- Get help. Usually, you can file an insurance claim on your own. 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.
- 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.
Mark Helm is a personal finance writer and financial planner. He can be reached at HelmFinancial@aol.com.