Filing an insurance claim after a disaster is a stressful process. To avoid having to deal with the hassle, and with hopes of getting more money from the insurance company, many homeowners seek the help of a public adjuster.

A public adjuster is an insurance claims specialist who interprets the homeowner’s policy, assesses the damage and how much it will cost to repair, and negotiates with the insurance company on behalf of the homeowner until the claim is settled.

Public adjusters market themselves as professionals who act solely on behalf of the policyholder and help ensure homeowners get the money they are entitled to under the policy. They differ from adjusters hired by the insurance companies to assist with the claim because their compensation comes out of the homeowner’s pocket, not the insurance company’s.

Homeowners don’t always need the help of a public adjuster, says David Barrack, executive director of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters in Potomac Falls, Va. But for many, the assistance is crucial, he says.

“It’s a judgment call,” he says. “You have to determine whether you need the service or not.”

When do you need a public adjuster?

Some people decide to hire an adjuster simply because they don’t have the time to deal with the insurance claim process, Barrack says.

The general rule of thumb is if you estimate you have losses of $10,000 or more, it’s probably wise to hire a public adjuster.

“But it really depends on your circumstances and how the insurance company is reacting,” Barrack says.

If your adjuster doesn’t return calls or answer questions properly, or if you think the adjuster left any damages off your claim, you should probably get your own public adjuster, says George Skidis Jr., a public adjuster in Belleville, Ill., who worked as an adjuster for insurance companies for more than a decade before becoming a public adjuster in 1994.

“Insurance companies are reputable businesses, but they are only as good as the field adjuster looking at your claim,” Skidis says. “If you’re lucky, you’re going to have someone with 30 years of experience looking at your claim. In that case, you’re probably fine. But if not, you need to hire somebody who knows what they are doing to look at the damages.”

How do you go about finding a good public adjuster?

One place to start your search for a public adjuster is the NAPIA website. The organization has a vetting process and requires members to be licensed and to have been in business for at least two years to become members. Keep in mind having a license alone is not a guarantee you are hiring the best, says Skidis.

“Go by prior clients and word of mouth,” he says. “Check their websites, get a reference list and talk to some of their clients.”

It’s also helpful to check with your state’s department of insurance to see if there are any complaints filed against the adjuster you’re about to hire.

What to expect from an adjuster

A public adjuster should assess your losses and help you “get every penny you deserve,” from your insurance company, says David Lowitz, director of marketing and business development at East Coast Public Adjusters in Coral Gables, Fla.

But don’t expect miracles.

“Understand the insurance company is not going to agree to everything you want just because you hired an adjuster,” Skidis says.

Homeowners should be aware that hiring a public adjuster after you’ve already started processing and negotiating your claim can slow the process.

“If we are in upfront, it’s not that big of a deal,” Skidis says. But usually, homeowners don’t contact the adjuster until they start to have problems with the adjuster who had been assigned to them by the insurance company. In those cases, hiring an adjuster might add another 30 to 60 days to the process because the public adjuster has to revisit and renegotiate much of what’s been done with the previous adjuster, he says.

Does it pay off to hire an adjuster?

Sometime the wait pays off. But there are no guarantees homeowners will get more money by hiring an adjuster than they would on their own.

A study conducted in Florida, which analyzed claims at one insurance company in 2008 and 2009, shows policyholders who hired public adjusters generally received higher settlements than those who didn’t hire public adjusters. According to the study, the typical settlement to those who had the help of a public adjuster was about $22,266, compared to $18,659.

But public adjusters come at a cost, usually about 10 percent of the amount you get from the insurance company.

Can you negotiate the adjuster’s payment?

The rate is negotiable, says Lowitz, “but we pretty much stick to 10 (percent) to 20 percent of the claim,” he says.

The bigger the claim, the more leverage you have to negotiate.

“Sometimes it depends on the size of the loss,” Barrack says. “If it’s a small loss, the adjuster might be spending a considerable amount of time on it (but the settlement amount will be low), so the percentage will generally be higher for smaller losses.”

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