After the Storm
Protect your interests by consulting people who can help you deal with insurance companies
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For decades, Bob had enjoyed the towering pines and magnificent cypress trees that surrounded his home. Neighbors suggested that they might pose a threat to his house in a bad storm, but never had Bob considered having them removed.
Then, Hurricane Michael took them out for him. Some landed on his roof. Branches punctured the roof’s decking. Water streamed into the house’s interior. By the time the storm reached the North Atlantic, mold was creeping up the walls of Bob’s living room.
Bob met with representatives of his insurance company outside their mobile disaster unit in a shopping center parking lot. He felt good when he left that meeting, but 10 days later, he had not been visited by an adjuster.
Meanwhile, contractors from near and far stopped by Bob’s house, and offered to remove the downed trees and replace his roof. Finally, he agreed to do business with two of them after a friend in the insurance business told him that he could later submit invoices and receipts to his insurance company for reimbursement.
That approach, said Dana Matthews, founding partner at the law firm of Matthews & Jones, equates to risky business.
“I get it. People reach the point where they feel like they can’t wait,” Matthews said. “Their house is in disrepair and they don’t have anyplace to go. Insurance companies don’t have enough adjusters on staff to deal with a major disaster like Michael. They fly in independent adjusters from around the country to help out and, still, you may be waiting.
“But, if you are going to self-help, you need to take a lot of pictures documenting the damage and the repair process, day by day. Those pictures will be the only evidence you have to back up a claim.”
Insurance is complex, said Matthews, having found that few homeowners and many lawyers don’t understand it. Many consumers lack a grasp of even the fundamentals. They may not know if they have windstorm and flood policies in addition to a basic homeowner’s policy.
“All you know is that you dealt with the John and Mary Doe Insurance Agency down the street,” Matthews described a typical situation. “You contacted them by phone, gave them information for an application, never saw the application and then you were told to send in a check for $373 as your annual premium.
“Ultimately, the insurance company will send a policy to the insured, but if I had to guess, 99.5 percent of people never read them. And, the policies are written like the internal revenue code — you can quote me on that. Now, you get a declarations page for coverage and maybe an invoice in the mail once a year for a renewal, and you don’t even know what it means.”
Matthews said that when claims are filed, insurance companies are motivated to resolve them quickly, write them off and move on to the next claim.
“For sure, they don’t want you to hire a lawyer experienced in insurance matters,” Matthews stressed.
Insurance companies do not arrange for contractors to complete repairs. Nor do they send out engineers, electricians or plumbers to prepare estimates. Instead, adjusters perform a surface inspection and the company calculates the cost of repairs, employing software that takes into account costs for repairs typically charged in different regions of the country.
”In my experience, actual costs are never the same as what they project,” Matthews said. “And, if you think a storm that displaces tens of thousands of people isn’t a feeding frenzy for the construction industry, you are sadly mistaken.
“You’re a homeowner, you sign a paper that releases the insurance company from additional claims and they send you a check. Then, you go to get people to do the work and, come to find out, the work is going to cost much more than what the insurance company paid. The contractor is not bound by an insurance estimate. He is going to charge what he is going to charge. I’m not saying that the insurance company check is insufficient in every case, but it happens a lot.”
That’s why consumers, in cases involving extensive damage, are well advised to consider hiring an attorney and/or a state-licensed public adjuster to guide them through the claims process. Attorneys will charge by the hour or they may collect a percentage of the money recovered.
Public adjusters, who have expertise and credentials that insurance company adjusters lack, are allowed to charge up to 10 percent of recovery amounts and usually work with professionals and lawyers who carefully analyze claims and their components. The expense involved is often worthwhile.
“It’s not easy, but the best thing consumers can do when their home has been heavily damaged by a storm is to slow down,” Matthews said. “Don’t jump off a cliff by signing that release and quickly accepting a check.”