How to File an Insurance Claim When Disaster Strikes

man grieving over house destroyed in flood.

Hurricane season is an old and familiar threat for many residents living along the southeastern coast of the U.S. Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall in the U.S. Oct. 8, left an estimated $6 billion worth of property damage in its wake across five states (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia).

Unfortunately, many insurance policies require homeowners to purchase supplemental policies for specific coverage for natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding. Homeowners in Matthew’s path will need to act quickly to file damage claims with their insurance companies.

Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Report any crimes to the police. If your home has been burglarized or vandalized, you should report that to the police first. File a police report and make sure to write down the names of all of the officers that you speak with. Your insurance company will ask for those police records.
  2. Contact your insurance agent. Next on your list should be contacting your insurance agent to get any damage and/or loss claims started. Contact the insurer as soon as possible. Insurance companies typically put limits on the time homeowners have to file claims, which vary by state. Ask the insurance agent if your coverage includes hurricane insurance. Disaster policies often have deductibles, so be sure to ask your agent if you will have to meet a deductible before your coverage kicks in. Lastly, ask for a timeline for your claim, so you know when to expect it to be completed.
  3. Gather all necessary paperwork. Take this time to ask your insurance company what documents you’ll need to report damage or loss. They may ask for repair estimates or evidence of structural damage.
  4. Make temporary repairs. Insurance claims can take weeks or even months to process. Don’t wait that long to make repairs to your home that could pose a safety risk to your family. Keep all of your receipts so that you can be potentially reimbursed down the road.
  5. Beware of contractor scams. Sadly, natural disasters can be a prime breeding ground for contractor scams. Be wary of anyone who charges a fee to help you complete disaster assistance forms like those offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those are provided for free from both FEMA and the American Red Cross. Also, don’t agree to a random inspection by someone posing as a federal emergency response agent. Check their credentials first and ask for a phone number to verify that they are with an authorized agency. Some scam artists have been known to charge unwitting homeowners fees to enter them into federal “grant programs” that purport to help hurricane victims. Legitimate grant programs do not require upfront fees.
  6. Relocating? Keep your receipts. If your home has been rendered uninhabitable, and you are forced to relocate, keep track of those moving expenses as well. Some insurance policies will cover you for the “loss of use” of your home.
  7. Take inventory of damaged or lost items. Make a list of damages, and check it twice. You’ll need it to prove any losses that you claim. Take pictures or video of the damage, and don’t throw anything away yet. Make note of all of the damages you’ll need the adjuster to see. If an item is not properly recorded, you could lose its value in the claim. While you’re at it, get your electrical system checked. It may cost you upfront, but it’s worth checking, and most insurance companies will reimburse you for the inspection. Pull together your inventory and bundle it with any copies of receipts you can find for your damaged items to give to the adjuster when they arrive. Turn it over with any repair estimates that you’ve gotten from licensed contractors, as it could help speed up the process.
  8. Make an appointment with the claims adjuster.
    More than likely, your insurance company will also send an adjuster to check out your home, verify your claims, and tell you how much the damage is worth. They should connect with you soon after you contact the insurance company to arrange a time to come to assess the damages. When they connect with you, make sure you have any necessary paperwork ready to go, and you will be all set to finish your claim.

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Can I Get Last-Minute Insurance for Hurricane Matthew?

hurricane_insurance

For homeowners in the path of Hurricane Matthew who are uninsured or underinsured, it’s probably too late to get or add coverage. That’s because insurance companies generally stop writing coverage as soon as an area is under a hurricane warning.

In most cases, however, if you have homeowner’s insurance, you have coverage for wind, unless you’re in a high-risk area. Then you might need a special rider on your insurance policy, said Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokesperson for The Insurance Information Institute.

“Wind and hurricane (damage) are standard coverage in home and business policies. Wind is covered,” Salvatore said. “If you live in a very high-risk area it’s possible that you’d have to get coverage (for wind), but that’s the exception, that’s not the rule.”

Still, it’s a good idea to check your policy and ask your insurance agent what your policy cover. For those of you worried about Hurricane Matthew, you may be out of luck already though. That’s because insurers are allowed to stop writing and changing coverages in these situations.In Florida, for example, any changes to insurance policies should be made 72 hours before the storm makes landfall, according to Billy Wagner, multi-unit owner of Brightway Insurance in Jacksonville, Fla. One exception, Wagner said, is if a homeowner is closing on a new house, then a few select companies will still write a policy.

Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm at the time of publication, is widely expected to cause significant damage from Florida to North Carolina, with floods and high winds expected.

“It’s going up the entire coast, so they’ve pretty much shut down the entire state of Florida, meaning that you cannot bind or alter coverage with any of the (insurance) companies,” Wagner said.

Flooding & Storm Surges

If you’re in an area farther up the coast and are still able to get coverage, one thing to keep in mind is that, while homeowner’s insurance typically covers wind damages associated with hurricanes, it doesn’t cover flooding or storm surges. In fact, most policies cover damage from windstorms, hail, lightning and fire. Most even cover damage by airplane, but it’s good to review your exact coverages with your insurance agent. You’ll need a separate flood insurance policy to cover any damages from storm surge or rising water.

“One of the biggest misnomers for many people is that rising water from outside the house, even if caused by a hurricane, is considered flood damage,” Wagner said. But flood insurance, in general, has an even longer waiting period of 30 days, said Wagner, meaning, if you ordered flood insurance today, it would likely take about a month before flood damage would be covered.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency makes exceptions on the 30-day waiting rule for flood coverage for homeowners who are buying flood insurance “in connection with making, increasing, extending, or renewing your mortgage loan” as long as coverage is purchased before or at closing.

If you’re in the process of buying insurance coverage, your credit score could affect your homeowner’s insurance rate. Insurance companies will obtain what’s called an “insurance-based credit score,” a score designed to predict whether you’re likely to file a claim. The score could also determine if you qualify for discounts. Similar to a traditional credit score, it considers your outside debt levels, credit balances, late payments and credit history, so your traditional credit score can give you a good idea of any problem areas you may need to address before you apply for coverage. You can get a free credit report once a year from all three bureaus, even if you’re not buying insurance. And you can get a free credit report snapshot every 14 days on Credit.com.

Image: Aneese

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