Seven Tips When Filing a Wildfire Homeowners Insurance Claim

Wildfires have been raging in the Western United States, wreaking more than $10 billion in damage and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate. But long after the fire season has ended, some owners of damaged homes are likely to find themselves waiting to have their dwellings repaired or rebuilt.

Disputes over wildfire claims sometimes arise between homeowners and insurance adjusters, slowing repairs. In other cases, there are so many claims in a community that there aren’t enough construction contractors to make timely repairs.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make sure your claim is dealt with in a timely manner. Here are seven tips for speeding up the process:

1. File your claim as soon as possible.

If there is widespread wildfire damage, you can end up competing for you insurer’s attention with others whose homes have been damaged, warns Stacey A. Giulianti, chief legal officer with Florida Peninsula Insurance Company.

“When making an insurance claim, the first rule is to call in the claim as soon as the danger passes,” the attorney says. “You want to be high on the adjuster’s list so that your claim is inspected quickly. The second rule is to be absolutely truthful. Any misrepresentation, fraud, or omission can lead to your entire claim being denied.”

2. Take control of your claim.

You’ll have a better chance of getting an adequate payout from your insurer if you understand what it will cost to repair or replace your home.

Create an inventory of all property that was damaged or destroyed so you can file a complete and accurate claim, says Sean Scott, author of The Red Guide to Recovery. This will be easier if you took photos or videos of your home before the fire and saved purchase receipts for big-ticket items. Creating an inventory of what you lost from memory alone “is one of the surest ways to get shortchanged,” he says.

The next step is to find several contractors who work in fire restoration to give you detailed estimates about the scope of work that will be required. With an actual, real-world quote in hand, you’ll know if the amount your insurance company’s claims adjuster offers is too low, Scott says.

3. Save all correspondence with your insurance company.

Saving all correspondence will help you if there’s a dispute over what your insurance company agreed to do to repair your home.

“Document everything as though you were preparing for a lawsuit or an audit,” says Scott.

He recommends logging the times and dates of meetings with insurance officials. It’s also a good idea to make a note of who was in attendance. Having this information can help you if you end up suing your insurer.

4. Save your receipts for living expenses.

If you’re forced to vacate your home and move into temporary housing, make sure you can document all of your out-of-pocket costs, recommends Giulianti.

“Motel or hotel expenses and the increased cost of dining out are the two most common reimbursable items,” Giulianti says. “Keep all receipts, as this coverage is payable after-the-fact, upon proof being provided to the adjuster.”

5. Make sure you get all promises in writing.

If representatives of your insurance company make verbal promises, such as agreeing to stand behind the workmanship of contractors who are their preferred providers, be sure to get it in writing. If you decide to go to court without proof of what was represented to you, you’ll have a difficult time prevailing.

6. Consider getting professional backup.

If you’re worried about not being able to resolve disagreements with your insurance company over how your home should be repaired or replaced, it may be helpful to bring in a professional to represent your interests, says Alexya Williams, an account executive with Fish Consulting, a restoration company based in South Florida. There are specialists who negotiate with insurance companies for a fee. They may be called public adjusters or loss assessors.

Be sure to review credentials carefully and ask for references before you hire anyone to represent your interests.

Some insurance companies may offer to go through arbitration over disputes, notes the Insurance Information Institute. In such cases, a neutral arbiter will hear arguments from both sides.

7. Be careful about closing your claim too soon.

Before you agree to close your claim, make sure that all damage has been discovered, says Scott.

If your home seems OK after a wildfire, but you’re concerned that there may have been damage from heat, it may be wise to have a contractor specializing in fire restoration inspect your home, he adds.

“They will typically inspect the exterior for obvious heat, scorching, ember burns, or other damage,” he notes. They also will inspect your home for interior damages.

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