insurance

Dealing with a disaster and your insurance company

After a disaster has passed, leaving behind a mess so complete it's hard to know where to begin putting things right, resist the temptation to run away and worry about it later.

Your mission -- and you better accept it -- is to call your insurers and get the claim ball rolling. The sooner you report damage, the sooner you get to cash the check.

Dealing with disaster

Here are 12 tips from insurance experts that will assist you in cleaning up the financial mess and getting on with life:

1. 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. Getting proof of delivery will let you off the hook if, for some reason, your report goes unrecorded and there is some question concerning timing of the claim.

2. Hunt down your insurance policies.

Ideally, you would have collected these policies in a safe place beforehand, but if not, now is 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. Read the fine print of each carefully, especially the part in your homeowners policy titled "Duties After a Loss."

Don't take the naive attitude that your insurance company will take care of everything.

"Even if you have a good, proactive company, you have obligations," says James Walsh, author of "Get Your Claim Paid."

And although it won't help with your current problems, now that you have all your policies in hand, when things settle down consider what revisions you might want -- or need -- to make in case there ever is a next time.

For example, can you get a more reasonable deductible? In about 20 coastal states stretching from Maine to Texas, plus the District of Columbia, the hurricane-related wind damage deductible (especially on newer policies) probably isn't a flat amount. It usually equals 2 percent to 5 percent, but can be as high as 15 percent, of your home's insured value, meaning that if you have a $200,000 policy, you'll have to cover as much as $10,000 in hurricane-related damage before your homeowners policy kicks in. Some companies will allow you to pay a higher premium to lower the percent or, in some cases, even get a flat dollar deductible. Some insurers even allow changes with as little as 24 hours' notice. Call your agent and ask. The worst the company can say is no.

Another coverage worth adding if you don't already have it is sewer-backup insurance. While homeowners policies don't cover flooding (you have to buy federal flood insurance for that), sewer-backup insurance will cover damage caused by water that backs up, overloading the sewer system, your septic tank or your sump pump, and then flows into the house.

3. 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 predamage 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.

4. 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. "If an adjuster looks at your house and sees that you made a good effort to mitigate further damage, he or she is more likely to approve the claims you make," Walsh says. But stop short of removing evidence of the damage. If the insurance adjuster can't see what happened, he's unlikely to take your word that it did.

And as much as you'd like any help, don't accept the services of companies that drive through damaged neighborhoods immediately after a disaster and offer to help. While these services may seem tempting, Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, says catastrophes bring scam artists out of the woodwork. Plus, the services that many of these opportunistic companies offer, such as tree removal after tornadoes or hurricanes, are usually performed free of charge by Federal Emergency Management Agency teams.

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5. Be wary.

Give your agent the phone numbers and addresses where you can be reached day or night. When an adjuster contacts you, ask for identification. Do not permit an adjuster to inspect your property without proper identification. Thieves have been known to use this ruse to get inside your home.

6. 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.

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