Homeowners Insurance

How to Handle Your Home Insurance After Irma and Harvey

If your home was damaged by Harvey or Irma, the emotional and logistical upheaval you’re experiencing may make it difficult to contemplate initiating an insurance claim at the moment. But, the sooner you begin the claims process, the sooner repairs can begin, and the sooner your house can again become the home it was before the storm.

First comes the storm, then comes the aftermath--including, alas, a whole lot of calls, questions and paperwork associated with your insurance coverage.

If your home was damaged by Harvey or Irma, the emotional and logistical upheaval you’re experiencing may make it difficult to contemplate initiating an insurance claim at the moment. Yet that’s precisely what you should be doing, if you possibly can. After a natural disaster, a deluge of claims can quickly overwhelm insurance companies and create long delays for policyholders who don’t act quickly. The sooner you begin the claims process, the sooner repairs can begin, and the sooner your house can again become the home it was before the storm.

Immediate steps

Here’s what you need to do first, even before you contact the insurance company:

Survey and document any damage to your property. Once it’s safe to return home and you’ve gathered and reviewed policies, immediately begin documenting any damage to property and belongings. Policyholders should take photos and video of all damage–even damage to property they might think isn’t covered by the policies. It’s also wise to assemble a list of items that are destroyed or damaged, along with any information you have at hand about their purchase price or replacement value.

**Check your policies for coverage. **If you haven’t yet reviewed your policies for what is and isn’t covered by them, and what deductibles are in effect, this is a good time to do so. Doing so will allow you to confirm the basics of your coverage.

Specific details to check are whether you’re covered for severe wind damage, through either your regular policy or a separate windstorm one, and whether you in fact bought flood insurance, in case you’re foggy on that fact. You can also check your deductibles, and in particular whether damage from a hurricane triggers a higher deductible for claims, as it often does.

Make necessary repairs to prevent further damage. Your policy should also specify your responsibility to make immediate repairs to prevent further damage to your home. If a storm broke windows or damaged a roof, say, homeowners should make sufficient repairs, even in a makeshift manner, to prevent further harm.

You needn’t contact your insurer before making these emergency repairs, says Mike O’Malley, senior vice president for public policy at the American Insurance Association. Assuming the damage is indeed covered under your insurance, the cost of making immediate repairs may be reimbursed later, albeit after your deductible is met.

If you have flood insurance, it’s very likely though the National Flood Insurance Program, although private insurers also offer it. The NFIP requires policyholders to minimize the growth and spread of mold as much as possible, through such steps as drying and disinfecting; if such mitigation isn’t done, the agency may later refuse to cover a claim for mold damage.

Don’t begin permanent repairs until you’ve contacted the insurance company. You should err on the side of caution before making anything more than necessary stopgap repairs without consultation with your insurer. The AIA’s O’Malley warns that “homeowners should not make permanent repairs until the damage has been inspected by the insurer.” That advice is also echoed by Bill Davis, a Regional Representative for the Insurance Information Institute, who says “the insurance company may want to send an insurance adjuster out right away to see the extent of [the] damage for themselves” before approving repairs.

If you’ve relocated, retain any receipts. If you’re forced to pay for accommodations and more while your home is being repaired, keep records of your expenses. Homeowners insurance policies typically reimburse the cost of out-of-pocket expenses if your home is damaged by an insured disaster. As a rule, any costs to evacuate generally aren’t covered by this Additional Living Expenses coverage, even when the evacuation is mandatory, according to Davis. However, he says exceptions were made for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. If you left your home under a mandatory evacuation order, David recommends you contact your insurance company to see if they will cover those expenses.

Making your claims

Contact the insurance company. You do this through the usual means: by reaching out to either the insurance company or the agent who sold you your policy or policies. If in doubt about contact information, check online for phone numbers and other contact information.

Companies typically beef up staffing after natural disasters, and may also lengthen the hours of operation of their call centers as well. In addition, major insurance companies, or other insurers who are especially active in the state, may send representatives to the Disaster Recovery Centers authorities set up in affected areas. Those allow you to get information or file a claim face-to-face with an agent, although they may, of course, also require that you have the time and patience to wait on line to receive that service. An added benefit of the centers, however, is that they typically offer access to representatives of FEMA and of the Small Business Administration, which offers loans to help homeowners finance repairs and rebuilding that are not covered by insurance.

If you have flood insurance, it was likely arranged through the insurance agent for your homeowners policy, who can also handle a flood damage claim. Can’t find or remember the agent who sold you the policy? For assistance in locating them, you can call 800-621-FEMA (3362), and select option 2.

Wherever or however you file your claim, be sure to have all relevant information at hand, including your policy and your documentation of what’s lost and damaged.

Paul Reynolds

Paul is a former Editor at ValuePenguin.