There is no discounting the danger and disruption a fire can cause. Fire damages can range from a total loss to a simple wipe down of a few walls and everything in between. Each fire claim is very different, and there is no uniform way to address each situation. Hopefully, we can help you understand how to speak the insurance lingo and where to set your expectations when dealing with the insurance company.
Is it safe to enter the home? Not usually.
Assuming that your fire is minimal (in regards to safety), the fire department typically soaks the area when putting out the fire. This creates a potential hazard of wet sheet rock falling from the ceiling. There is also likely broken glass on the floor in addition to other tripping hazards due to the firefighters moving things around in order to put the fire out. In addition, the air is now toxic.
What should I take out of house immediately after the fire?
The insurance company may ask you to leave things as is until they send someone out for an inspection. In this regard, use common sense and remove only what you cannot live without. By this we mean birth certificates, family heirlooms and memorabilia, etc. It’s okay to remove these items simply because you run the risk of things being destroyed by mold over the course of just a few days. There is also the risk of smoke or even the possibility of the house being broken into while no one is living there. These items are covered by your insurance, but money won’t replace a family heirloom or memory.
Be sure you take photos of every room, panoramic and zoomed in, before you remove or move anything. Those precious items then should be cleaned and dried by a professional because any moisture could lead to mold. Also, smoke is acidic and can slowly eat away at things. Do not procrastinate on having items cleaned. Call a contents restoration company right away for those items.
Solicitors have arrived. What do I do?
Chances are, if you live in a major city, you will be solicited by restoration contractors, cleaning companies, and public adjusters. All of these professionals add value to a claim. However, each of these groups will likely give you different advice because of their financial interests in the job. A contractor wants the insurance company to account for as much replacement of the structure as possible and doesn’t benefit from the contents portion of the claim at all. On the other hand, a cleaning/restoration company will want to clean and salvage as much as possible on contents and structure. A public adjuster will be interested in pursuing and obtaining the maximum settlement for the entire claim – structure and contents. So, because of these different financial interests, you can see how each group will be jockeying for the ball.
A lot of people prefer not to be bothered by solicitors. I understand this reaction, especially when getting a “pitch” after a fire or other type of catastrophic event. There is a silver lining though. These professionals all have a good perspective and valuable opinion when it comes to the extent of damages sustained. Unlike some fly-by-night roofer that chases hail storms, these professionals differ and you should recognize that difference in a simple walk-through, listening to their recommendations. Whether you choose to hire or not, definitely consider the source of the information you are receiving before you sign anything. Before hiring anyone, do your homework, call references, and make sure they are easy to contact.
Should I use the insurance company’s preferred contractor?
Chances are the insurance company will send out a “preferred” contractor or cleaning company immediately after the claim is reported. Even though these companies are “preferred,” don’t be fooled, and don’t assume that they are the best choice just because your insurance company trusts them. Choosing to use a preferred cleaning company or contractor recommended by the insurance carrier has its pros and cons.
The silver lining in using a preferred contractor or cleaning company is they don’t want you to complain to the insurance company about their work. So, by design, you should receive good work based on the scope that the insurance company approved. This is best case scenario.
On the other hand, what you must consider is where their financial interest lies, which most likely is with the insurance company. Chances are they will figure out how to work inside the adjuster’s scope of loss in hopes of cruising under the radar, which solidifies their relationship with the insurance company and leads to future jobs. When you allow a contractor or cleaning company chosen by the insurance company to perform the repairs, your negotiating power is all but taken from you. The adjuster will then be able to use that contractor or cleaning company as their “consultant” to determine the scope of repairs and pricing, and that is likely what you will be stuck with.
Furthermore, if you allow the insurance company’s cleaning company to get to work right away, chances are, depending on the severity of the loss, money will be spent attempting to clean items that in the end are not cleanable and will have to be replaced. If your claim, structure or contents, reaches your policy limit, those wasted funds spent on attempted cleaning could significantly affect the amount you are left with at the end of the day to rebuild your home and replace your lifetime of belongings.
In summary, if the insurance adjuster is giving away the farm, the preferred contractor might be a good match for you. But, if there are things that the contractor and the adjuster are not wanting to pay for, or if you don’t think you are being treated fairly, a preferred contractor is not a good match and definitely not someone you will want in your corner. Whatever you do, do not make any hasty decisions. Take your time, do your homework, and get a feel for the people and/or companies you are dealing with, and make the decision that you are most comfortable with.
When can I start disposing of the contents?
If you have suffered a fire claim, you really should wait until the insurance adjuster arrives to inspect so that you have a better feeling for what items may be in dispute. Many times the adjuster will attempt to salvage as much of the contents as possible and bring in a cleaning company to pack them out and clean them. When you walk through the house with the insurance adjuster and their recommended cleaning company, stay with them. Make certain that they are not attempting to salvage and clean items that are just not cleanable. This includes sofas, beds, clothing, inexpensive items like stuffed animals, etc. It is important to remember that the cleaning company gets paid to clean which is less expensive than the alternative – replacement. If you don’t have a claim professional on your side, be firm on what you believe is not salvageable. After you and the insurance adjuster have determined what is non-salvageable, the adjuster will either have someone price the non-salvageable items or request that you document the items and price them. As with all insurance claims, do not remove anything from the home until you have first taken pictures. This is the single most important task when it comes to your contents coverage. It is important to take both a photo of the entire room as it stands and individual photos of each and every item in the room. Be sure to open cabinets and photograph items damaged. Once the picture taking is complete, use common sense when disposing of any non-salvageable items. If you hire a contents inventory company or a public adjuster, it is their job to document each of these items.
What can I expect from my insurance adjuster meeting?
Assuming you get an experienced insurance adjuster, you should consider them an artist who is painting the picture of what should be approved on your claim. If they are good at painting that picture, the claim should be approved based on those findings. A seasoned insurance adjuster will typically have a certain way they conduct an inspection. Usually, this includes going from room to room through the home explaining what their recommendation will be and why. You most likely will not be in agreement with everything, so take notes. Also, it is a possibility that the adjuster may get some friction from his file examiner concerning some of the items that he agrees need to be replaced during his inspection, so be sure and note the items that the adjuster has agreed to account for as well. If you hire a public adjuster, he or she can handle all of this for you.
Where can I expect to get resistance from my insurance adjuster?
When an object actually sustains a burn, there is rarely a dispute over paying for it. However, when you experience smoke damage instead of an obvious burn, it becomes an area where a professional is crucial. This is a “hot topic ” and a grey area that requires an expert. For example, if the fire was contained to one room, but smoked out the entire house, you may need to replace the windows because seals may have melted causing them to fog in the future. Smoke can also penetrate the moving parts of the window.
Insurance adjusters usually will do their best on the obvious things – like replacement of sheet rock, insulation, and painted surfaces. But smoke also discolors things in your home that they may suggest salvaging. It can attach to duct work, etch metal and granite, and even cause electrical issues. Be sure to have a professional on your side evaluate these areas so that they can be properly addressed with the adjuster.
How do I resolve these issues?
It is important to consult a claim professional right away who specializes in smoke damage. If your desire a settlement based on a quality, professional report, you should can hire your own public adjuster to handle these issues and perfect the claim. It is best to consult with a claim professional as quickly as possible following the loss so that they can be one step ahead and set the tone for the entire claim.
How much work is involved in handling the claim myself?
If you are set on completing your own contents inventory, you should consider that it will take approximately five (5) minutes per item to complete. This time calculation is based upon completing a full description and pricing of ALL items, and including a web link for all of the more expensive items and/or specialty items. The average home can expect to inventory 1,000-3,000 items. With respect to the structure, the most difficult task is contacting a qualified person to assess the smoke damage and submit a report and supporting estimate to the insurance adjuster. If there are multiple areas of the claim in dispute, there most likely will also be multiple people to coordinate with to evaluate the damages. It can be a full time job.
What is covered under my policy?
If you are adequately insured, there should be enough coverage for everything you own (with a few exclusions) and living expenses while displaced from your home during repairs. Fire claims are a nightmare, but if properly insured and if you are able to reach a reasonable settlement with the insurance adjuster, you should only be out-of-pocket the deductible.
How long will it be before I get my check?
You can request an advance payment immediately. Insurance claims can sometimes feel like you’re shooting at a moving target, especially if you’re trying to handle everything yourself. However, best case scenario, by hiring a claim professional to represent your interest, you could get a thorough initial adjustment and possibly receive a structure payment in as little as a month and possibly receive the contents payment in two months. However, when there are areas of dispute, it will be necessary to budget additional time to get these issues resolved. “It’s best to lead than follow.” So, for time sake, be proactive immediately after a loss and map out a plan.
I fixed my house, but what if I file a claim again?
If you have had a prior claim, you should still be covered on everything that you replaced. It is highly recommended that you keep really good records (i.e. receipts, pictures while the construction is underway, etc.), especially if you choose to replace items that were damaged with new items that are exactly the same or very similar.
Keep your head up!
Handling an insurance claim can be very stressful and the financial impact may be crippling if not managed efficiently. Keep your head up, have a plan, stay organized, and surround yourself with good people who can guide you through this tragic event.
— by Roy Young, PA