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Superstorm Sandy offers lessons on storm-related home insurance claims

After surviving a violent storm like Superstorm Sandy, the owners of damaged homes had little time to reflect on nature’s destructiveness before starting the insurance claims process.

You may feel disoriented following a natural disaster, but it’s important not to delay contacting your insurer. The sooner you file your claim and document your losses, the sooner you’re likely to have your needs addressed, says Tim Bowen, director for homeowner claims at MetLife Auto & Home.

“Let us know about the claim immediately,” he says. “Our goal is to make contact within 24 hours. We know our customers have a need.”

sandy-damage

Once you file a claim, you should hear back from your company within 48 hours, says Steven Venook, a public insurance claims adjuster in Florida. That doesn’t mean someone will visit your home that soon, however. When big events occur, adjusters often are overwhelmed. Like doctors on a battlefield, they’re handling the most serious cases first.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have your insurer’s adjuster arrive quickly, prepare to exercise patience as the claim is processed. In the case of Sandy, resolving claims in hard-hit communities could drag on for weeks or even months, as claims adjusters visit thousands of homes in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.

“On average, it may take from anywhere from five to 15 days,” Bowen says. “The greater the complexity of structure damage, the longer it will take.”

Play it safe

While you’re waiting for your insurer to take action, you can be doing some things to help your situation. When returning home following a storm evacuation, be sure not to enter until you know it’s safe, says Peter Foley, vice president for claims administration at the American Insurance Association, a trade group.

“You want to make sure that the power is off,” Foley says. “You want to make sure that there is no gas going through your house. You don’t inadvertently want to make things worse.”

Once you know it’s safe to enter, use a camera or a video recorder to document the damage. If some possessions aren’t salvageable, “place those items outside the house, but do not throw them away, because you are going to need to show someone the damaged items," Foley says.

Venook says discarding damaged items opens the door for disputes. “If you pull up you carpet and throw it away, how does (the adjuster) know what quality the carpet was?” he says.

Be sure to create a list of your damaged items. Include the original cost along with the estimated cost of replacement. If you have the receipts, include them when you submit the home inventory to your insurance company.

Make temporary repairs

To prevent further home damage, you should arrange for temporary repairs, such as putting boards over broken windows or tarps over holes in the roof. Otherwise, if more damage occurs after the storm passes, it might not be covered by your policy.

Questions may arise about whether the damage to your home was caused by flooding or wind and rain, Foley says. “If it is flooding, your typical homeowner’s policy will not cover it,” he says. If you have flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, be sure to call your agent right away to begin the process of filing a flood claim.

If you obtain repair estimates for your insurance company’s claims adjuster, it can speed up the claims process. However, be sure to work only with reputable, licensed contractors. It’s common for unqualified workers to drum up repair business following storms.

Get involved and stay involved

Foley says those who play active roles in the claim process tend to get the best results. So don’t sit back and wait to be contacted by your home insurance company if you think the process is dragging on too long.

“Call regularly to determine what is happening on your claim,” he advises. “If they send you something to fill out, return it as soon as you can.”

If you must relocate temporarily, standard home insurance policies provide compensation for temporary housing. Public claims adjusters like Venook sometimes are hired by policyholders to negotiate on their behalf. He says it’s wise to keep a log of all contact that you’ve had with insurance company representatives in case disagreements arise over what was said.

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