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'Storm chasers' come to repair hail-damaged cars

John Truit is reflected in the passenger side window as he surveys damage to his 2011 Scion TC from a June 23 hail storm.
John Truit is reflected in the passenger side window as he surveys damage to his 2011 Scion TC from a June 23 hail storm. (Staff photo by Larry Perl)

The damage to John Truitt's car isn't evident until you look at the hood close up — dozens of dents from a hail storm June 23.

"I was home when the storm hit," said the 27-year-old software engineer, who goes by Sean and lives in Topfield Apartments in Cockeysville. He could hear the hail pounding against the roof above his second-floor apartment. But it wasn't until he took his dog for a walk that he saw about 30 dents on the hood of his 2011 Scion TC.

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An insurance appraiser came out just before the July 4 weekend, and Truitt got the bad news last week — $4,990 to repair all the dents, he said, some of them deep into the hood.

Cockeysville was hard hit in the storm, according to the National Weather Service.

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"That was where the largest hail was recorded," some as large as grapefruits, said meteorologist Dan Hofmann.

While it's bad news for Truitt and many others with car damage from the storm, it's good news for auto repair shops, dent repair businesses — and for a little-known breed of contractors from out of state, sometimes known as "storm chasers," who track hail storms around the country and make arrangements to come to work for body shops as hail damage repair specialists after the storms.

Now, they've descended on an area stretching roughly from the Maryland State Fairgrounds to Hunt Valley Mall.

"We chase the storms," said Brandon Petersen, of Orlando, Fla. "I've been doing this personally for six years, chasing the hail storms."

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"Everybody from all over the country is here — Oklahoma, Texas New Jersey," said Jared McGregor, of Atlanta.

Several of the freelance specialists and businesses that use them said that the so-called storm chasers set up shop anywhere they can, and pay for their own food and lodging, sometimes for months at a time. Some work directly for repair shops; others as subcontractors for dent removal businesses that do work for the shops and for dealerships with hail-damaged inventory.

One local business, The Dent Guys, has been working out of Valley Motors' Mercedes dealership in Hunt Valley since the storm, using 25 hail specialists from out of state, in addition to its staff of five local dent repair people, said Shaun Sutton, owner of The Dent Guys. The business is running an Internet ad touting its hail damage repair expertise.

"You have to have people who specialize in hail damage," Sutton said. He said his local staff is too inefficient and "overwhelmed" in doing major hail damage repair.

"You have to be very experienced for this kind of damage," said Eric Jacksen, also of Atlanta, who is helping repair hail-damaged cars for Hunt Valley Auto Repair. He too said the volume of work is too much for locally based repair shops to handle with their own staffs, and customers are impatient.

"People don't want to wait four months" for their cars to be repaired, Jacksen said.

Hunt Valley Auto Body contracts out the work to a local dent repair business, Dents Be Gone, which hires the so-called storm chasers.

Knowing the system

At the Dent Guys, Sutton said he uses people from out of state that he has been working with since he started the business in 1999.

"They know our system, how we operate and (know) to keep up with their (certification) paperwork," Sutton said. He said he doesn't like to refer to them as storm chasers, because "it makes them sound like they're fly-by-night."

"It doesn't matter where you're from, but what quality you can do, what you can bring to the table," said Petersen. "It's a very niche business. There's a need. It's Mother Nature, and sometimes it's a handful."

It's been more than two weeks since the hail storm here, and Sutton said late last week that all but four of the specialists from out of state that he hired as subcontractors had left, after helping to repair about 650 cars with hail damage since the storm.

But Jacksen, 35, is staying put for now.

"I'm planning to stick around," Jacksen said. He said the damage he is seeing is extensive and that he has been getting at least a car a day to repair.

Greg Smith, owner and sole employee of Dents Be Gone, said he does hail damage repair work for several local dealerships and body shops, including Hunt Valley Auto Body, and said he has six specialists working for him, from as far away as Texas and Colorado. They've told him they expect to see hail-damaged cars for the next six months to a year, he said. One of the specialists is even helping with insurance paperwork, he said.

Smith, who works out of the parking garage at the Executive Plaza building at McCormick and Shawan roads, said that the day after the storm, his phone began "ringing off the hook" with calls from contractors looking for work, because he was known in the storm-chaser community as a local go-to guy for hail damage repair.

"They consider me a 'route' guy," he said.

Smith said they called immediately after the storm because in their line of work, "If you snooze, you lose. The early bird catches the worm."

Hunt Valley Auto Body manager Jason Rommel said that the morning after the storm, the shop fielded about 200 calls for work from 7:30 a.m., when it opened, to 9:30 a.m.

Rommel said the family-owned business is glad for the expertise of the out-of-towners.

"It's a stressful time, because we're taking on so much of the work," he said. "Hail is not something we deal with all that much. The storm chasers are the professionals in a sense. They're guiding us."

The storm chaser trend appears to be relatively recent. Rommel said the last time a hail storm came through the area, in 2007, there were no storm chasers that he knew of, and the shop used local dent repair people.

Smith said the experienced freelancers, some of whom have gone as far away as Europe and Australia for hail-related work, are "a necessary evil," because they're taking potential jobs from local residents. But he also said they bring money in to the local economy as temporary residents eating out and renting rooms.

Christmas in July

Truitt, whose car is dented, said he first heard about the hail storm chasers when he was getting his estimate.

"The insurance adjuster had an interesting way to put it," he said. "It's like Christmas for them."

Truitt is glad to know they're here.

"I feel like the body shops would be overwhelmed if they weren't," he said.

It's a tenuous life for storm chasers, who are quick to leave when expenses overtake their paychecks. Jacksen called it "a travel job" and said he is camped out in an area hotel, spending as much as $3,000 a month for food and lodging.

But he said, "This is what we do for a living."

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