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Protecting your finances after disaster strikes

If you find yourself facing cleanup after a hurricane or tornado has ripped through your neighborhood, the task can be truly daunting. One hopes all your preparations in the event of a disaster will come in handy for cleanup. Here are the essential steps to take to preserve your home, your bank accounts and sanity when cleaning up after a disaster.

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1. Contact your insurance company
Notify your insurance company or agent as soon as possible after the storm to advise them of your loss and to let them know you will be making a claim. It's too early to make any specific dollar claims at this time. Your insurance company will assign an adjuster who will either be an insurance company employee or an independent adjuster hired by the company. The adjuster will advise you of the steps you need to take to file your claim and will provide you with any required forms.

2. Inventory your loss
Write down everything you lost and begin to collect written records of the loss. This is where your home inventory, if you made one, can be invaluable. If you don't have the inventory, one way to begin to reconstruct lost records is by sifting through catalogs or walking through store aisles to help to establish a value for lost items. Check with friends or relatives who may also have pictures of your property. Go around your property and take photos of the damage.

3. File your claim
Generally speaking, the sooner you file your claim the better. But you don't want to file until you're sure your claim is complete.

You want to be sure you've reconstructed your loss as accurately as possible. You want to avoid settling a claim and then realizing later you left out significant property.

4. Settle your claim
You may not want to jump on your insurance company's first offer.

"Insurance companies are paying a lot more attention to the claim side of the business," says Stewart H. Welch III, a certified financial planner and author of "Estate Planning for Baby Boomers and Retirees."

"They are much more tuned to their bottom line than they were in the '80s. It's the claims adjuster's job not to give you more money than they have to."

Before settling on a figure, try to secure two or three estimates of what needs to be done and how much it will cost.

"You need to educate yourself with a firm estimate of what the repairs will cost instead of accepting the first offer right off the bat. This will give you a feel for what your actual costs may be and you can use it as a guide in negotiating with your claims adjuster," says Welch.


Next: "If your house is still standing ..."
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