After a loss, you want to get back to normal as quickly as possible. Navigating the insurance claims process is critical to getting the money you're owed. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) offers this overview of handling a claim following a disaster. The NAIC also has information on how to prepare before a storm hits and special considerations for flood insurance.
Immediately after the disaster
Your first instinct may be to clean up, but it's important to have an accurate account of all damage for your insurance company when you file a claim. Before removing any debris or belongings, document all losses. Take photos or video and make a list of the damages and lost items. If possible, save damaged items so your insurer can inspect, if necessary.
After thoroughly documenting damage, take reasonable steps to avoid further destruction to your home or belongings. Policies call this mitigation. Make temporary repairs, such as covering a hole in your roof or boarding up broken windows. Insurance will typically reimburse the cost of these repairs as part of your claim, assuming the loss was covered. Your company may also reimburse you if you need to find temporary lodging or storage for your possessions. Keep a record of all receipts.
Starting your claim
Most insurance companies have a time requirement for reporting a claim, so contact your agent or company as soon as possible. Your state insurance department can help you find contact information for your company, if you can't find it. Insurers often send response teams to disaster areas. Company officials can help you determine what damages are covered, start your claim and even issue a check to start the recovery process.
When reporting losses, you'll need insurance information, current contact information and a home inventory or list of damaged and lost property. If you do not have a home inventory, begin making a list of lost items, going room by room, including as much detail as possible. If your car sustained damage while in your garage/carport, it is covered by your auto insurance, not homeowners. If you have different home and auto insurance providers, you will need to report a claim with both companies.
The claims process
After you report damage to your insurer, they will send a claims adjuster to assess the damage at no cost to you. Public adjusters offer the same services, but you would be responsible for any related fees. An adjuster will walk through your home to inspect damaged items and temporary repairs. They may look at the outside of your home, your roof or your basement.
Once the adjuster has completed their assessment, they will provide documentation of the loss to your insurer to determine your claims settlement. When it comes to getting paid, you may receive more than one check. The first will likely be an emergency advance. Other payments will be for the contents of your home and other personal property. Please note that if there is a mortgage on your home, the payment for structural damage may be payable to you and your mortgage lender. Lenders may put that money into an escrow account and pay for repairs as the work is completed.
Be alert for fraud
Home repair fraud is common after a natural disaster. Contractors often come into disaster struck regions looking to make quick money by taking advantage of victims. Be wary of aggressive contractors and demands for up-front repair payment. Do not feel pressured by any contractor or rushed to sign a contract. Never pay cash or write a check before services are rendered. Pay in installments and wait until the repair work is complete to issue final payment.
It's a good idea to do business with local or trusted companies. Ask friends and family for references. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau to ensure contactors are licensed in your state. Your insurer may also have recommendations. Always get more than one bid on work projects. Your adjuster may want to review estimates before you make repairs.
Fraud related to vehicles damaged by flooding can be common after a disaster as well. Flood damaged vehicles can be fixed and sold as used vehicles to unsuspecting consumers. Before buying a used car, run the vehicle identification number to check for prior damage and repairs to the vehicle before purchasing. For more information about fraud, check out this consumer alert.
States have rules governing how insurers handle claims. If you feel that your insurer is not responding in a timely manner or completing a reasonable investigation of your claim, contact your state insurance department. You can find more information on disaster preparedness at Insure U. The NAIC is also offering tips on what to do before the storm hits and special considerations for flood insurance.