storm victims look at flooded home

Hurricane Michael has been downgraded to a tropical storm after wreaking unprecedented havoc on the Florida panhandle, but it's still a threat to the Carolinas and Virgina. Making insurance claims is only one of the many challenges faced by homeowners and renters in the wake of the storm.

After a natural disaster hits your home, it's critical that you take the proper steps to get the most out of your coverage.

The first is to get in touch with your insurer or the agent who sold you the policy. The insurance company will then assign an adjuster to document the damage you’ve suffered and submit it for review by your insurer. 

But you need to act quickly and ask the right questions. There’s a risk you could get less than what's due to you if you don’t make sure the adjuster has accounted for all your losses and if you fail to back up your claim with evidence. Follow these tips to make sure you get everything you’re entitled to, as quickly as possible.

Be Vigilant With the Adjuster

Document all losses. An insurance adjuster sent by your insurer will assess your property damage and then estimate how much it will cost to either repair or rebuild your property while also replacing your storm-damaged possessions. Many insurers ask policyholders to submit an inventory of storm-damaged items. So before the adjuster arrives, take photographs and write down each item’s purchase date and estimated value, says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, which represents the property and casualty insurance industry. "Collect the receipts from when you bought these items, as well, if you still have them," Barry adds.

Verify the adjuster’s identity. If you’ve signed up for your insurer’s text message service, your insurer can provide details in writing about the adjuster assigned to your claim. Or ask the adjuster for proof of his or her affiliation with your insurer. Beware, too, of contractors asking for cash down payments on repair work. "It is an unfortunate fact of life that criminals attempt to take advantage of people struggling to recover after a storm," Barry says. 

Show the adjuster all the damage. Make sure that you are home when the adjuster visits and that he or she sees all the loss and damage. Get the adjuster’s e-mail address and communicate using email so that you have a record.

Document all contact with the insurance company. That should include times, dates, and what was discussed. Note when an adjuster visits as well as any missed appointments, unreturned phone calls, or rude behavior. You might need the notes if you have to sue.

More on Coping After a Disaster

Make copies of all documents. Copy everything you give the adjuster, such as a list of property lost or damaged. If the adjuster advises you to start repairs, get that permission in writing, advises Amber Mostyn, an attorney in Houston who represents consumers against insurers. In fact, she says, it's best to communicate in writing as much as possible and make notes of all calls and meetings. In an emergency situation, she observes, the first adjuster may be replaced by a new one during the claims process. “There’s often not a good handoff of information when the next adjuster comes in," she explains.

Get additional estimates if necessary. If you have custom work in your house, insist on an outside estimate by an appropriate contractor. And don’t accept lower-quality replacements. 

Consider Hiring a Public Adjuster

If you have a very large claim, a public adjuster might save you hassles and help you get a higher payment. A public adjuster is an independent adjuster who works on your behalf and represents you on the claim. But be aware of fees; in some states these are capped, typically at 10 to 12 percent of the insurance payout. In other states there are no caps. In some states—Louisiana, for instance—adjusters must charge a flat fee. 

To find a public adjuster, check the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. When you make contact, insist on references from past clients, several years of experience as a public adjuster, and a state license where required. In the five states where no licensing is required—Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Wisconsin—contact an attorney who works with catastrophe victims to help you find a reputable adjuster, says Diane Swerling, vice president of Swerling Milton Winnick Public Insurance Adjusters in Wellesley, Mass.

Standard flood policies for homeowners are capped at $250,000 for the dwelling and $100,000 for contents. They’re limited in terms of what they cover. Most don’t cover personal items stored in a basement. (Some private insurers will sell policies with higher limits.) Swerling says that it could make sense for a flood victim to hire a public adjuster, even with their coverage limitations. “Flood losses are very difficult losses to adjust,” she says.

Deal With Roadblocks Head-On

The adjuster may hand you a check on the spot to cover immediate costs like the replacement of clothes and medicine. But it could take weeks to get a full estimate of your damages and a final check. So keep on top of where your claim is in the pipeline. Once the adjuster finishes the report, review it for mistakes before signing.

For more on what’s involved in the flood claims process—including what’s covered and what’s not—check the Flood Insurance Claims Handbook published by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

FEMA’s guideline for delivering an estimate of damage to the flood policyholder is no longer than 45 days, notes Maureen Westling, vice president of claims at Aon National Flood Services, a provider of flood-insurance policies based in Kalispell, Mont. But once work begins on your home, you’re entitled to add to your claim if you or your contractor discover more damage or loss. “There’s nothing to prevent you from doing that even after the claim is closed,” Westling says. “You’ve signed that statement of loss to say, ‘At this time, to the best of my knowledge, this is correct.’ That doesn’t mean it can’t change.”

What happens if your insurer maintains that your policy doesn't cover the damages or the offer is too low? Ask the carrier’s representative to point out the exclusion or limit in your policy in writing. 

If you’re not satisfied with the dollar amount being offered for your flood claim, check the NFIP’s page on flood claim appeals and guidance. FEMA also has consumer advocates who may be able to help. 

If you think you’ve been misled by the policy wording, contact a local plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in insurance law. The Consumer Federation of America notes that courts have consistently ruled in favor of policyholders on policy ambiguities. File a complaint with your state’s department of insurance.