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Tornado victim suffered second disaster: Sneaky home repair contractor

This is the third in a series of stories about how American homeowners recovered from four types of natural disasters and what they learned from the experience.

Homeowner: Ann Larson

City: Sunset Hills, Missouri

Disaster: Tornado, December 2010

It was an oddly balmy winter day, and Ann Larson remembers telling her two sons, then 13 and 10, to spend time outside in the St. Louis suburb of Sunset Hills. “Don’t waste the day watching TV – take the dog for a walk,” Larson told them. Then, the self-employed mom left her home and headed to her office.

As she prepared to meet with clients, her phone rang. It was her mother. “You need to get home right away – there’s a tornado and it’s coming right for you!” Larson’s mother warned.

Larson tried calling her sons, but all the phone lines were busy. She finally reached them and learned they were huddled in their basement storage room. Larson tried to flee her office but couldn’t. Through a window, she saw “a wall of water.” When she saw a McDonald’s sign flying through the air, Larson screamed and ran into a bathroom.

Finally, the storm subsided and Larson left her office. She drove across lawns and past downed power lines to get home to her sons, who were OK. However, the same couldn’t be said for her home. The tornado had ruined the gutters, damaged the roof and blown out some exterior bricks.

The worst damage, though, was to the pool house the family had built two years earlier. A huge tulip tree had smashed into it, and a pair of pine trees had fallen on the pool. In all, the tornado caused $130,000 worth of damage.

[caption align="alignright" width="387" caption="Ann Larson’s tornado-damaged pool house."]Ann Larson’s tornado-damaged pool house.[/caption]

Within an hour, Larson spotted strangers wandering through her yard. She warns other homeowners to watch out for “storm chasers” who will show up out of the blue and offer to do work. Amy Bach, executive director of consumer advocacy and education group United Policyholders, says you should avoid rushing to hire a contractor. Also, always check references and make sure the contractor is properly licensed and insured – especially for debris removal, which can be hazardous, Bach says.

Larson says she found out the hard way that you shouldn’t let a contractor handle negotiations with your home insurance company, nor should you disclose how much money you’re getting from your settlement. The contractor she hired to rebuild her pool house offered to work directly with the insurance adjuster, she says.

“He told me, ‘I’ll take the burden off you,’” Larson says.

The contractor got the adjuster to agree to a $50,000 payment for the pool house, then had Larson sign a contract for that amount. He then began cutting corners – such as not rebuilding a gable or reusing old cabinet hardware instead of buying new – and pocketed the savings, Larson says.

That’s not uncommon. Bach says some contractors show up in disaster zones eager for work and offer to act as go-betweens with victims’ home insurance companies. “That is not an appropriate role for a contractor,” she says.

Insurance lessons learned

1. Be careful who you hire to remove debris and rebuild. Get at least three bids from reputable companies. Check with organizations like the Better Business Bureau to dig into a contractor’s background.

2. Never let a contractor negotiate with your insurance company on your behalf, and don’t divulge the amount of your claim settlement.

3. Keep detailed notes of all conversations with insurance company representatives and your insurance agent. Be your own advocate.

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