When the loss occurs. First, make sure your family is safe and that emergency personnel have been called to protect your home. As soon as practical, take pictures of the damage. Then take steps to prevent further damage, such as covering a hole in the roof with a tarp and moving undamaged furniture and other items to a safe place. Keep receipts for any money you spend to prevent further losses. But don’t repair anything or dispose of ruined property until an adjuster has examined everything.
If you were burglarized, call the police first and your insurance agent later; you’ll need to document your claim with a police report anyway. If someone trips and falls on your front stairs, see to their medical care first. Again, take detailed notes about what happened and get photos of the scene.
When filing a claim. Report the loss to your insurance agent as soon as practical. Your insurer will send claim forms, which you should return as soon as you can. Ask about the time limit for filing claims, details about what’s covered, and how to get repair estimates. If you have an inventory of your possessions, submit it with your claim along with any photos of damage, receipts, police reports, and other evidence that documents the loss. Keep notes about any promises you’re given, the date and time of each contact, and the name and title of each person you deal with.
Make sure the adjuster sees everything. Ask for a copy of his or her report and scrutinize it for mistakes. You’re also entitled to a copy of your entire claims file.
Copy everything you give the adjuster and ask for a receipt. If he or she advises you to start repairs, get that in writing so promises and permissions can be accurately passed on if your case is transferred to another person. If you get payments up front for temporary living expenses, don’t sign any documents that make them your last payments or that surrender your right to collect further payments.
If problems come up. Be ready to fight for what you’re due, especially if your claim stems from a major natural disaster. When the Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 10,700 readers about their experiences with homeowners’ claims in 2008, half of those who had filed claims related to Hurricane Katrina reported problems, twice the rate of the other claimants.
There are signs that insurers have improved their act. After last year’s tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., insurers had mobile catastrophe units on the scene to process claims, says Sam Friedman, an industry analyst for Deloitte Research, a consulting company.
But Deloitte found adjusters sometimes complained that salespeople promised more protection than policies actually provided. If your insurer says your policy doesn’t cover certain damages or if the offer is too low, ask for the policy exclusion or limit in writing. If you’ve been misled by policy wording, contact a local attorney who specializes in insurance law. The Consumer Federation of America notes that courts have consistently ruled in favor of policyholders on such ambiguities.
If you reach an impasse, consider getting help from a public adjuster. You’ll pay a hefty fee, typically 10 percent of the policy payout. But a Florida study of more than 76,000 claims found that policyholders who used one got payments that were 19 to 747 percent larger than those who didn’t, though the cases took longer to settle.
To find a public adjuster, go to the website of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. Look for references, several years’ experience, and a state license if required.