Homeowners are still assessing the damage from Hurricane Sandy and reaching out to their insurance companies. It can be a complex process. Here, experts offer advice on how to navigate the system.
1. FILE THE CLAIM, CHECK YOUR POLICY
By now, homeowners should have called their insurance companies. If not, do so immediately. Many companies have brought in employees from other areas to help out. Read through the policy to see what is covered, the amount of your deductible and any riders you may have. For instance, your household insurance may not cover damage from flooding, but it may if the flooding is from a sewer or storm drain backup. Don't assume your broker knows your policy. "You can be given misinformation by the broker," said Anthony Ballato, an attorney from Massapequa whose home was flooded in the storm.
2. ASK THE QUESTIONS
3. BE CAREFUL WITH REPAIR COMPANIES
Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of disasters and charge more than is necessary or are not qualified to do the work. Make sure the workers are licensed and insured. Get references and the entire job's costs in writing. A reputable contractor will know how to work closely with a claims adjuster to make sure repairs are done so they will be covered by the insurance company, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Make sure the company has a permanent address.
4. HIRE AN ATTORNEY?
Most claims are handled without problems by the claims adjuster assigned by the insurance company, experts say. If a claim is taking longer than expected, homeowners can hire a public adjuster or attorney to help expedite the claim. The Insurance Information Institute recommends checking references with family and friends, and calling the state insurance agency (see box) before hiring a public adjuster, who must be licensed. A public adjuster can be an important advocate if your insurance company is balking.
5. HOUSEHOLD INSURANCE IS NOT FLOOD INSURANCE
For those with non-flood related damage, sufficient household insurance will cover it. If damage is from wind, such as a hole in the roof, it is covered by household insurance, says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group based in Manhattan. But if damage is due to storm-related surging floodwater, then it's not covered by household insurance but by a special flood insurance policy homeowners would have had to have purchased separately. Flood insurance is from FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Make sure claims are filed with both FEMA and your insurance company. If using flood insurance, there will most likely be two adjusters -- one from your insurance company related to non-flooding issues and one from FEMA, says Barry.
FEMA spokesman William Rukeyser expects homeowners will be having many conversations with their insurance companies about situations in which it's not clear-cut whether their damage was caused by water falling from the sky or rising water such as from storm surges, which can determine which policy kicks in. "It seems from a common sense point of view that water is water, but from an insurance company's contractual point of view, it's not," Rukeyser says. "This is a matter which always comes up in the wake of a storm."
6. INVENTORY THE DAMAGE
If not done already, take pictures or videos or both of the damage to the house and property. Keep a separate journal of any communications with the insurance company and the cost of repairs as well as receipts. Don't forget to check for damage in places that may not be apparent, such as swimming pool cracks or damage to other structures on the property, such as sheds.
7. OK TO MAKE SOME REPAIRS
It's OK to make some temporary repairs to help stave off more damage or for safety reasons, say insurance experts, such as placing a tarp on the roof or getting large tree limbs off the roof. But don't begin more permanent or substantive work until after the claims adjuster has approved it. State Farm and other insurers say there is not a set time a claim will take.
8. CHECK TO SEE WHAT ELSE MAY BE COVERED
Keep receipts for everything. For those displaced, meals could be covered, as well as the cost of renting a new place. (See main story.) Work closely with your contractor as to how much mitigation work should be done. The insurance company may only want to pay for new carpets, but your subfloor could be severely damaged, too.
9. FILE A CLAIM WITH FEMA
Long Island has been declared a disaster area by the federal government. "It's a good idea for everyone who took damage to get the story told into the FEMA system," says Rukeyser, urging those impacted by the storm to contact the agency and file a claim, even if the homeowner has insurance. Grants and low-cost loans may be available for things not covered under insurance.
Beth Whitehouse contributed to this story.
There is help
The state Department of Financial Services can handle questions regarding insurance issues. Both counties have consumer affairs departments where homeowners can check to see if a company is licensed and bring complaints. The state attorney general's office is handling complaints about price gouging, which is illegal.