Dealing with your home owner’s insurance company when you make an insurance claim can be one of the most intimidating and stressful events the ordinary consumer deals with. The mine field awaiting the average person making such an insurance claim is filled with opportunities for miss-steps, misunderstandings and regrets. The following recommendations will not guarantee a successful resolution of your claim, but they may save you some frustration and provide you with some common sense tools in dealing with your insurance carrier.
First, when making a claim to your insurance company, make it as soon as you are aware of the claim. You should also consult with an attorney early. Any delay in reporting the claim will provide you with absolutely no benefit, but it could give your insurer a reason to delay or possibly even deny your claim if key evidence or witnesses fade away with the passage of time. Also, it is a good idea to document every contact or phone call you have with your insurance company on the claim. Everybody’s memory fades with time, but a simple written notation of the date and time, person you spoke with and gist of the conversation, will withstand even the ravages of Alzheimer’s.
Second, once you find that you are going to have to make an insurance claim, go dig out your insurance policy. You know, that 20 page booklet of fine print, mumbo-jumbo the insurance company first sent you when you signed up for coverage. If you can’t find it, then call your agent and ask for a copy. This is something you are entitled to. Once you have it, start the slow, agonizing process of actually reading it, because this document is going to be your gospel for the duration of the claim. It doesn’t matter what you think is covered under the policy or what your insurance company thinks is covered by the policy. If the written policy doesn’t say the claim is covered, then it’s not covered. Likewise, if the written policy states the claim is covered, then it doesn’t matter what your insurance adjuster says, the claim is covered. The written policy controls.
Third, never accept at face value the estimate provided by your insurance company. One of the key points to remember when you first deal with your insurance company on an insurance claim is that you have embarked on an adversarial relationship – that you are on different sides of the fence, so to speak. You are no longer dealing with your friendly, easy going neighborhood insurance agent that you see at summer barbecues or your childrens’ little league games, you are now dealing with an insurance claims adjuster – a bean counter – a bottom line orientated individual. This person’s only justification for existence at the corporate level is to save the company money. And the really good claims adjusters can make their offers seem like they’re coming straight from the pulpit on a bright, Sunday morning in May. There is no reason to feel awkward or uncomfortable about getting your own estimate or asking for a second opinion. After all, the claims adjuster hasn’t put a sticker price on your claim that locks the number into place. But if you don’t have an estimate of your own to compare it to, then he might as well have, because you have no reason to doubt that what he is telling you is the truth. And if you do try to dispute his estimate without one of your own, the adjuster will simply keep coming back to his estimate saying something like, “but Mr. Smith of XYZ Company says such and such, and after all, he’s the expert”. What are you going to say, “I don’t think Mr. Smith is right”. Believe me, that sounds as lame as it reads. So rule number two: get your own estimate. In fact, it’s a good idea to get two estimates. Most companies will provide free estimates so all it is going to cost you is a little bit of your time and the resulting documentation you receive will be well worth the expenditure and inconvenience.
Fourth, take photos of all your damages. Yes, your insurance company will most likely come out and take photographs, but you don’t know how long it will take them to come out and just like with memories, everything fades and deteriorates with time. Also, remember that the insurance company will be taking the photographs for their benefit, not yours. If you had the foresight to make a pre-loss video recording of the property, (such as a video of the interior of your home in a fire loss claim), then a post-loss video recording of the damaged areas or property while you describe for the camera everything, can also be of great benefit. One of the overriding principals to keep in mind when dealing with your insurance company is: documentation is everything! Verbal commitments are fine if you’re making plans with friends for a weekend at the beach; but when it comes to dealing with an insurance company, if there isn’t any written documentation supporting a verbal conversation or agreement with an adjuster, then there is a very real possibility that somewhere down the road you will hear the adjuster say, “no, I never said that”, or, “no, you misunderstood me”.
Finally, when you are ready to try and settle your claim with the insurance company, remember that it is a process of negotiation. Be prepared to go back and forth with the adjuster on dollar figures, just like you do when you are buying a car. Did you pay sticker price when you bought your last car? Probably not. That’s what the adjuster’s first offer will be to you – the sticker price of your claim. You need to go back with a counter offer, supported by your documentation (estimates, photos, ect.). And at some point in the process, the adjuster will say something to the effect like, “this is all your claim is realistically worth and this is my final offer”. What he really is saying, is that this is all the company is willing to pay. Because at the end of the day, he doesn’t get to unilaterally decide what your claim is worth any more than you do. If you and he can’t agree, then you will have to litigate your claim and that figure is ultimately decided by a judge or jury.
For the average consumer, dealing with your own insurance company on a homeowner’s insurance claim is rarely a pleasant experience. But if you apply some common sense principals and possess the appropriate documentation, it can be an experience you will not have to look back on with regret.