TIPS TO MANAGE A FIRE INSURANCE CLAIM

 Filing a claim after a loss from a disaster like a fire can be a daunting procedure.  We suggest that you neither be antagonistic with the insurance company, nor a push-over.  Give the insurance company an opportunity to ‘do the right thing’ but treat an insurance claim like a business negotiation and keep it professional. You will get better service if you are organized and prepared.  Here are some helpful tips to help guide you through the process.  

1.   FILE A CLAIM IMMEDIATELY WITH YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY

This may seem obvious, but as soon as you experience a loss, you should call your homeowner's insurance agent immediately to get the process started.  The insurance company will require you to submit a "proof of loss" claim. You might not immediately know the entire scope of your loss. Don’t worry. File the claim immediately. You can add things you think of to the claim later as you discover things that are damaged or missing. When making the initial claim, be prepared with the following information:

      a.         Date of loss

      b.         Type of loss or damage

      c.         Location of damage

      d.         Any related physical injuries

      e.         Names of people involved who may have also lost property or incurred injuries

      f.          Condition of the home or property involved

      g.         A general description of the damaged contents

      h.         Whether or not temporary repairs are necessary

i.          If you have relocated, your current address, phone number, text number, and email address where you can be reached immediately

      j.          A law enforcement report if you have one

2.   GET A 3-RING BINDER

Dealing with the insurance company will be a long process involving countless telephone calls, emails, letters, and other documents. Keep track of all communication and keep a copy of all the documents that you provide to, or receive from, your insurance company.  Take notes during and after every meeting or phone call with any representative of the insurance company.  Document the name of the person you spoke and the date and time of every conversation.

Organize the binder in whatever way makes sense to you, but we suggest having section for communication (phone calls, notes, emails, letters, etc.), another for invoices and bills, another for construction permits and the like, another for contracts and repairs, and another for insurance forms.  You can add any other categories that you feel are necessary as the need arises. Put blank paper in the binder along with a pen so that if you get a call from the insurance company you can take notes right directly in the binder.  Keep all original documents.  When your insurance company wants proof of documents, make them a copy but keep the original.

3.   START A LIST OF DAMAGED/LOST PROPERTY

When you initially report the claim, it is acceptable to be relatively general about the items lost.  No one can be expected to remember every item lost or damaged when immediately filing the claim.  You may have already made an inventory of your property and kept it in your home. It is entirely likely that that inventory list itself was lost in the fire.  Do the best you can to remember all of the items in your property and write them down.  We suggest using an Excel spreadsheet to document the following categories:

      a.         Description of property

      b.         Type

      c.         Room

      d.         Year acquired

      e.         Quantity

      f.          Cost per item

      g.         Total cost

      h.         Condition of item

      i.          Additional notes

A good example of an inventory spreadsheet can be found at www.uphelp.org(Copyrighted and credit given to United Policyholders). 

4.   ASK FOR AN ADVANCE

If you are forced to evacuate or re-locate, you may not have grabbed all of your essentials before you left.  If there is something that you need, when you make the initial claim to your insurance adjuster, tell him or her to get you a check to cover essentials like toiletries and clothing so you can get to school or work.  Be reasonable.  This is not an opportunity to update your wardrobe.  If you have already bought these essential items, save your receipts and add these to your list or spreadsheet so that you can be reimbursed.  

5.   SECURE YOUR PROPERTY

When you can return to your property, first, photograph and document the scene and items thoroughly.  Second, take reasonable steps to secure your property from any further damage.  It is your responsibility to mitigate any further damage to things that may only be partially destroyed and which might be able to be repaired or rehabilitated. Examples of mitigating your damages include:

      a.         Roughly covering holes in the walls to protect from the elements

      b.         Boarding-up broken windows or building a fence to prevent looters

      c.         Extinguishing all embers

      d.         Moving property to a different location prevent further damage

6.   KEEP TRACK OF EXPENSES

Under the loss of use clause of your insurance policy, the insurance company must reimburse you for your living expenses while displaced from your property.  This could be a somewhat complicated calculation as you are entitled to the difference between what it cost you while are displaced and what it would have cost you had you stayed in your home.  If, for example, your monthly living expenses were $3,000 but now you are staying at a hotel, eating at restaurants, and doing your laundry at a laundromat, those expenses increased by $1,000, you will not receive $3,000 plus $1,000, but only the extra $1,000 which you expended.  Obviously, be reasonable and not frivolous with your expenses so that you can defend the necessity of these extra expenditures. If you are staying with friends or family, your insurance policy may also cover the reasonable cost for food and lodging there.  Have your hosts place a value on the room in which you are staying and the extra groceries/utilities that they expended in hosting you while you were evacuated. Again, be sure to save all receipts for your expenditures, including gas, lodging, food and essential items you had to purchase.

7.   OBTAIN REPAIR ESTIMATES

Soon after filing the claim, the insurance company will likely want to send an adjuster to appraise and evaluate the loss. The adjuster from the insurance company is obligated to carry out his or her duties fairly; however, remember, he or she does not work for you.  You should treat your fire claim like a business negotiation and be prepared to support your evaluation of your property if it differs from that of the insurance adjuster.  You should be prepared to obtain your own repair estimates of your losses.

An insurance claim should enable you to repair or even rebuild your home.  “Actual Cash Value” policies should pay you an amount it would take to return your home (including its contents), to its pre-fire fair market value.  

By comparison, “Replacement” policies will pay you the amount it would take to replace the home (and its contents) regardless of the actual cash value of what you lost.  Replacement coverage does not require you to actually rebuild your home on the exact same lot.  You may choose where you want to rebuild and so long as it is the same value as your old lot, the insurance will cover it.  Obviously, if you move to where property is more expensive, you will be responsible for paying the difference.  

Under a Replacement policy, you may choose not to rebuild at all but rather invest the money in something else that is completely unrelated.  This is your right.  However, at that time, the Replacement policy will become an Actual Cash Value policy and provide you with about 15% less.

Before paying for any losses, the insurance company will require an estimate of the fair market value or replacement cost of the damaged property.  Do not authorize any work to begin on your property until you have an agreement from the insurance company to the estimate and work to be performed.  

8.   CONTINUE PAYING PREMIUMS

You should continue maintaining your homeowner's insurance premiums, even if your home is a total loss.  The policy continues to cover your personal property that you took with you.  It will also give you continuing coverage while you are dislocated.  If you will be staying elsewhere for a while as you consider repairing and rebuilding, you should ask your agent to add your current location to your policy as a secondary location for purposes of liability coverage at least.  If your home has been destroyed, you should ask for a reduction of your premium since the cost to insure your damaged property should be less. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

The insurance company will want to close your claim as soon as possible.  You do not need to be on theirtime schedule.  Take the time that you need to make sure you have discovered all of the losses you can document.  It is not uncommon for claims to stay open for months while they are thoroughly documented and investigated.  If an insurance company seems to be pushing for a speedy resolution and sends you a check with the words "in full release of claim" (or similar language) before you are ready, do not accept it.  You are in control of when your claim is “over”.   

If you need assistance at any part of the process or need our office to help you negotiate with your insurance company, please do not hesitate to contact us.  Our website is:  www.lawnorcal.comand our telephone number is 530‑244‑7777.