Practical Advice from a Public Adjuster to Avoid Tampa Bay Tornado Insurance Claim Mistakes
The EF2 tornado that started in Pinellas Park and touched down several times all the way through Polk County will have many filing property insurance claims. The industrial claim damage will be especially complicated given property damage, business interruption and inventory loss issues that will arise. As a local Tampa Bay public adjusting firm serving the area since 1984 we are ready to assist policyholders with their claims. Here are some tips and common mistakes to avoid while preparing yourself for the insurance claim process.
Before the adjuster arrives:
- Be pro-active! Buy a notebook / binder and create your own file for your claim. Keep detailed notes throughout the entire claim process to make sure you maintain a paper trail. Save business cards for everyone you meet in person and write down what that person told you. For anyone you speak with over the telephone, ask and write down their first and last name, the company they are calling you from and ask them to provide you their call back information. Be sure to write down the specific date, time and include notes of what the person said.
- If you have not already done so, report your claim directly to your insurance company. Most have special phone lines set up for claims. You can also contact your insurance agent and ask them to report your claim. Also, request your insurance agent and/or your insurance company provide you with a “Certified & True copy of your Insurance Policy to include ALL Forms & Endorsements.” Obtaining a copy of the policy that is specific to your property is extremely important!
- Document and photograph any/all tornado related damages. Start outside by taking overview pictures of your area as well as other adjoining properties that were damaged. Next, take a picture of your property address number (if possible) and then walk around the outside of the property and take overview photographs from each side; from all angles starting with the front, sides and rear. Be very careful not to step on nails, sharp objects on the ground and stay away from downed powerlines. Once you have taken sufficient overview pictures, you should then zoom in and focus pictures on any damages you see such as small punctures or scratches from debris impacts, broken windows, impacts to mechanical equipment such as air-conditioner coils that may have been hit, etc. If there are debris laying on the ground, take a picture. There is no rule on how many pictures you should take! Trust us, you will appreciate this advice months later when all the debris is cleaned up and you are sitting in a room somewhere or negotiating with your insurance company’s “Desk Adjuster” who is making offers to settle your claim based upon the limited photographs that their “Field Adjuster” uploaded and provided from his/her camera, which may not be many considering how many other properties they were required to inspect. We have seen where insurance adjusters take pictures of areas that do not appear badly damaged and use those to argue the property was not damaged the way you feel it was. With your pictures, you can prove otherwise. The same detailed approach applies when photographing the interior. We recommend you take a notepad, write down the name of the room and take a picture of the notepad showing what room you are in before photographing it. Take pictures from each corner of the room and be sure to capture the floors as well as the ceilings. The rule of thumb is you can always zoom in, but you can never zoom out. Then you should focus on the details. If floors are lightly scratched take a picture. It’s all about the details and the details can really add up to real money.
- Start making a detailed inventory list of all damaged business or personal property, furniture or equipment items inside the property. Be sure to write down the make, model #, serial # and to the best of your ability the age and place of purchase. I recommend taking detailed pictures of each item as well. Again, the more detail you can provide, the better. Most insurance adjusters tend to miss these very important details because they are trying to work fast and they have other properties to inspect. Do not think you are the only property they were assigned to inspect!
- Duty to Mitigate - Your insurance policy requires you to “Mitigate” your damage, meaning you as the insured policyholder are required to take “reasonable steps to protect and prevent the property from sustaining additional damages and to mitigate the extent of losses both physical and economic.” This is where we see many people get into trouble as they sign contracts with contractors to tarp roofs, board-up broken windows & doors, remove damaged/wet items from the property or install drying fans or other equipment. First, you should NEVER SIGN ANY PAPERWORK with a contractor to perform these “Emergency Services” without first seeking approval from your insurance company. There are MANY moving parts to this phase of the insurance claim recovery process that are important. Stay on guard because there will be thousands of contractors converging into the disaster area to make money. These contractors chase storms for a living and many are extremely aggressive and successful with their sales tactics as they attempt to pressure people to sign their Work Authorization contracts. Do not fall for these high-pressure sales tactics or promises, but instead try to use some common sense. Do not sign anything that has an Assignment of Benefits clause. Basically you are signing away your claim.
Think of your property as crime scene and what could potentially happen if a contractor comes in and removes all the evidence. We have seen insurance companies argue that the scene was disturbed, thus you have prejudiced their investigation of your claim. We frequently see contractors charge excessive amounts for “Emergency Service Work” and in some cases, they will install drying fans or other equipment that the insurance company will not agree to pay their invoices in full, thus leaving you to pay the balance because you signed their contract. More importantly, property owners need to know that the amounts charged by a contractor reduces your insurance coverage limits. For example, a contractor will install their drying equipment and then send the bill to the insurance company without your knowing and their bill to dry your carpet may be 5x’s more than what it would cost to replace the carpet with new carpet. Our recommendation is that you ask the contractor to provide you a with a written quote for the work they plan to do and if possible, try to obtain 1 or 2 other quotes so you can compare apples to apples. Then send the quote to your insurance company or the adjuster and ask if they are agreeable to pay for it. Then check to make sure the contractor is licensed, request to see their IICRC Certifications and also ask they provide you names and references. Again, use common sense and do not fall prey to the high-pressure sales tactics because there are plenty of other contractors that will follow right behind them. If you choose to sign a “Work Authorization” form with the contractor, understand what you are signing. If the contractor is only there to do the “board-up,” make sure the form only says “board-up.” Same applies to anyone in need of a roof-tarp. The goal is to allow the insurance company adjuster the opportunity to inspect the damage and then have the adjuster agree to the contractor’s scope and method of repair as well as price. Send a follow-up email to the adjuster to memorialize his or her agreement as well.
- Never throw anything out until you have photographed the items or until the insurance adjuster has the opportunity to inspect them. Again, you do not want to prejudice the investigation of your insurance claim.
- Get estimates from contractors, if possible. Although it may be difficult to get a contractor, most adjusters like to work from estimates. If the disaster is widespread, consideration should be given to a likely increase in material and labor costs.
- Check your insurance policy. Does it provide for replacement of like construction or actual cash value? Owners of older or historic properties should have policies that include replacement cost or a special endorsement to cover the cost of unique or hard-to-find materials and features. Endorsements cost extra and not all insurance companies offer them.
- If your property is considered "historic" (i.e., listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a contributing element in a historic overlay), obtain documentation of its historic status from the Metro Historical Commission or the State Historic Preservation Office. This may be important to establish the need for special materials or treatment of the property.
During and After the Adjuster’s Visit:
- Be present or have your public adjuster present when the insurance company adjuster arrives and make sure to show them all the damage. Take your time and do not let them rush you. It is important to have a pen and paper ready to take notes of things you agree upon and also those items you disagree on. In some cases the adjuster who shows up to your home or business first will not be around to see your claim through to the end. Get everything in writing in case the next adjuster disagrees with what the first adjuster agreed to do.
- Ask the adjuster for his or her credentials and work experience. If you are a business, find out if they have handled commercial claims before or if they only handle residential claims. Ask questions about the complex issues that were addressed in the prior claims they handled. It may come as a surprise, but some insurance adjusters are only required to complete a three-day crash course before they are allowed to show up at your door. If you feel they are not qualified or you are not happy with the adjuster, engineer, or any other so called “expert” the insurance company provides, request a new adjuster as soon as possible.
- Keep in mind that you are not required to utilize the insurance companies preferred contractors, unless it is required by your policy. You have a right to hire your own contractor. Some insurance companies obtain low repair rates from their preferred contractors. Good for them, not necessarily good for you if you are expecting the repairs to be done to the previous building standards. Consider getting at least one other independent repair estimate.
- Try to have your contractor present during the meeting to inspect the damage, discuss the scope of repairs and answer questions that the adjuster might have. If the adjuster advises you to start the repairs, get it in writing. If your contractor wants to repair damaged items not discussed during the meeting, call the insurance company and get their permission in writing first. If needed, schedule another joint meeting to re-inspect the loss and damage.
- Ask for a copy of the adjuster's “damage estimate” report and review it for accuracy or mistakes. Damage tends to get overlooked and can be exacerbated if not properly remediated in the beginning. Also ask the adjuster for a copy of the claims file. You're entitled to it.
- Never sign a “Sworn Statement Proof of Loss” unless you completely agree with the insurance company and their assigned adjuster as to their scope and method of repair. Also, make sure the line item prices are accurate. Once you sign a Proof of Loss you may never be able to go back to the insurance company for more money should other damage arise, or repair prices increase due to supply and demand in the market.
- Following the adjuster's visit and appraisal, you may find that repairs cost more than the adjuster's estimate due to the use of special materials for a historic property. Insurers may pay the difference if you can prove that the in-kind replacement for the historic property was more expensive than the adjuster's estimate that used standard or less expensive materials and methods.
- You may request an extension of the repair period, if you can prove that you were unable to get the necessary estimates and complete the repairs in the time allotted by you insurer. Normally, filing a claim should not cause your homeowners insurance premium to increase or your policy to be canceled. However, following a major disaster, policyholders who have a history of frequent claims could be canceled and find obtaining new coverage more difficult.
- Do not be afraid to ask your insurance company for an “Advance Payment.” Many people need funds to start the restoration/reconstruction process and certainly that is why you paid for the insurance policy. If you don’t ask, they are unlikely to offer it. So, if you are in need of funds, ASK!
- If you have trouble with a claim or feel that your insurance company is trying to rush you into a settlement, you may call the Florida Department of Insurance at 1-877-693-5236.
Of course, much of what I outline above are just some of the services a public insurance adjuster that works for you and represents you best interest will perform. If things get too complicated or you need to tend to other important matters to get your life back together, consider hiring a professional. Tutwiler & Associates corporate office is located in Tampa Bay and has been serving the area since 1984. Our licensed adjusters stand ready to handle tornado damage insurance claims and answer questions throughout the Tampa Bay area. We are here to help you start your insurance claim and get your business or residence back up and running. Contact us today by calling 813-296-6389 or click to contact our team.