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Getting a Storm Claim Paid

If a natural disaster strikes your home, here’s how to get quick attention from your home insurer.

What steps can I take to help get my homeowners insurance claim paid quickly if my house is damaged by a storm?

The losses from the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma are estimated to top $2 billion, and it could be a very active season for storms: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that this year’s hurricane season (which begins on June 1) could include up to 20 named storms, seven to 11 of which could become hurricanes (the average hurricane season has 12 named storms and six hurricanes). My Prepare Your Home for Storm Season article has a lot of advice about the steps you can take now to help minimize the damage to your property and finances before a disaster hits. And if you do become the victim of a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, storm or other disaster, the following steps can help you get your homeowners claim paid without delay and find out whether you qualify for other assistance.

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Make contact. Call your insurance agent or company right away, even if you haven’t been able to get to your home and assess the damage yet. After major disasters, many insurers’ Web sites feature lists of contact information, the location of mobile claims units, apps to help you report claims, and instructions about what to do right away. After the initial contact, keep in touch with the insurer and agent by e-mail. Doing so gives you a paper trail of the steps you have taken -- which can help if you end up having trouble getting claims paid. Keep records of every phone call and e-mail communication you have with the insurer throughout the claims process.

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Take pictures first. Take photos of the damage before you clean up or make any temporary repairs so that the insurer can see what the house looked like right after the storm. Keep receipts for any materials you buy; the money you spend may be reimbursed by your insurer.

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Make basic repairs. Your insurer won’t want you to make any big changes until you meet with the adjuster. But that can take quite a while after a major disaster. You should make basic repairs as soon as possible -- such as putting a tarp on a damaged roof or covering broken windows -- so the damages don’t get worse.

Take inventory of the damages. One of the most important things you can do before a storm hits is to update your home inventory. (Several apps, such as the one from KnowYourStuff.org, make it easy to go through your house with your smart phone and take pictures or videos that show your possessions and special architectural details.) An inventory can be particularly important if your home is totally destroyed, such as after a tornado, because you don’t want to have to remember every item that was damaged while you’re still in shock about the loss of your home.

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If you have an electronic inventory, ask the insurer how to send it -- you may be able to e-mail it to the insurer right away so that it can start working on the claim. Quick action could put your claim in the queue ahead of everyone who is still trying to construct a list. If you don’t have an inventory, start piecing one together by memory or by using old photos or receipts that haven’t been destroyed. Don’t throw away any damaged items until the adjuster visits your home. See the Insurance Information Institute’s Settling Insurance Claims After a Disaster brochure for more information.

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Get bids from contractors. Meet with contractors to identify structural damage and get estimates for the cost of repairs. But don’t make any commitments until you get approval from the insurance company. Work with a contractor you or your neighbors know; beware of rogue contractors who travel to towns that have been hit by disasters, ask for a lot of money upfront, then disappear.

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Meet the adjuster in person. Insurers usually have many adjusters on the ground soon after a disaster, but it can still take quite a while for one to come to your home when so many other people are in line. Before the adjuster comes, review your inventory and identify any structural damage you’d like to point out during the visit. No matter when the adjuster arrives, try to be there in person for the appointment -- even if you’re living elsewhere until your home is repaired -- so that you can walk through the house together and you can explain what was damaged. It can help to have your contractor at the meeting so everyone can see the damage from the same perspective. Update your insurer if your contractor finds new problems after starting the work.

Keep receipts for your living expenses while you’re evacuated. If you can’t live in your house for a while because of the damages, your insurer may pay for some living expenses, such as a hotel room and meals, up to a daily limit. The insurer may even give you some of the money upfront, before your full claim is settled.

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Keep detailed repair records. After you get the go-ahead from the insurer to start repairs, keep meticulous records -- including a detailed description of every repair made and steps taken to mitigate damage. Make an itemized list of every expense, including receipts and canceled checks. Also keep a list of living expenses incurred while you were evacuated. All of this documentation can help beef up your insurance claim.

Get help with claims problems. If you have trouble getting your claim paid, find out your insurer’s procedure for contesting a claim settlement. Plus, every state insurance department has a free service to help you through the claims process and to make sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to under your policy; many set up fast-track appeals processes after a major disaster. See the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ map for contacts.

If you still have trouble getting your claim paid after going through the process with your insurer and state insurance department, then it may help to contact a public adjuster to provide a second opinion. (You can find an accredited public adjuster through the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.) These adjusters charge a percentage of your payout (typically 10% to 15% of the amount recovered). Be sure the adjuster is licensed in your state. See How to Get Insurance Companies to Pay Your Claims for more information about getting help from state regulators.

Find out about other assistance. You may qualify for other aid, especially if some of your loss is not covered by your insurance -- which is a common problem with flood losses after a hurricane. Flood losses aren’t covered by homeowners insurance; you’ll have coverage only if you have a flood policy through the National Flood Insurance Program (see FloodSmart.gov). If you live in a federal disaster area, you may qualify for some government assistance, such as a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, a Small Business Administration disaster loan (even if you don’t own a business) or tax breaks for uninsured casualty losses.

To learn more about the benefits you qualify for based on the specific disaster and to apply for aid, visit DisaterAssistance.gov or a FEMA disaster recovery center. See Lessons From the Floods for more information about coverage and assistance for flooding.

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