Winter turns many a heart to love of insurance What to do when it's time to file a claim


Dear Mr. Gisriel:

This winter, as a result of the various storms (snow, heavy rain ice), my house has suffered a series of misfortunes, e.g., water damage in my living room ceiling, broken rain gutters, flooded basement. I now have to deal with my homeowners' insurance company, and I would obviously like to get full coverage with minimum hassles. Do you have a checklist of items that you recommend when a homeowner must deal with his insurance company when making a claim?

Fred Reinhardt

Perry Hall

Dear Mr. Reinhardt:

Every homeowner sooner or later faces misfortunes such as you describe that necessitate making a claim on their homeowners' insurance policy. Dealing with insurance companies can be very stressful, but it doesn't have to be. If you know the proper procedures and practice advance planning, you can streamline the process.

The basic steps to take to obtain full benefits of homeowners' insurance coverage with minimum hassles are the following:

1. Contact your insurance agent or company. Give preliminary information on losses and how you can be contacted.

2. Make temporary repairs. This provides security and protects property from weather-related damage. Use reliable contractors. Keep receipts for work performed. Most insurance policies cover reasonable repairs.

3. Take photos of damaged property. Photographic evidence assists the insurance adjuster in processing a claim. Back up photographs with detailed notes rather than trusting memory.

4. Retain damaged items. Adjuster will want to see furniture, appliances, electronic gear and other expensive property.

5. Work with the adjuster to assess damage. Even before filling out forms, identify structural damage to property. Don't overlook the garage, tool shed, swimming pool. Discuss repairs. Check for cracks in walls, damage to floor or ceiling, and missing roof tiles or shingles. If structural damage is likely but not visible, discuss this with the adjuster.

In some cases, the adjuster may recommend hiring an engineer or architect (paid by insurance firm) to inspect the premises. Don't get permanent repairs until after the price is approved by the adjuster. Re-contact the adjuster when additional information and/or further damage are discovered.

Of special note: While water is water, whether from the sky or from overflowing river banks, damage from floods generally is not covered under a standard homeowners' policy. Separate flood insurance is required. However, a homeowner's policy usually covers damage from rain flowing through a hole in the roof or a broken window stemming from a storm or other covered disaster.

Another quirk. Most insurance firms will pay for removal of trees that have crashed onto homes. But chances are they'll nix paying for removal of fallen trees that haven't caused damage.

6. Gather information on damaged possessions. Include descriptions, purchase dates and cost to repair or replace items. Since this often is time-consuming and better done without pressure, this task should be done before a disaster strikes.

Surprisingly, very few property owners tackle home inventories ahead of a problem. Insurance experts say maintaining a room-by-room description, updated periodically, is almost certain to assure a higher claims payment. Such a tally, used to indicate losses, also serves to help when it comes time to file state and federal income taxes. A list of possessions is enhanced with video or still photos, receipts, brand names and model numbers, and recent appraisals for valuables, including collectibles.

A copy of the inventory package should be kept away from premises, such as with a relative or in a safe-deposit box.

7. Be aware of insurance coverage. Also best to review prior to a disaster is extent of coverage. Losses may be limited on items such as jewelry, furs, home office equipment, guns and silverware. Some perils may be excluded. Know the cost minus wear and tear, or depreciation, and replacement cost -- the amount required to repair or replace house and contents with similar material and quality without subtracting for depreciation.

8. Use licensed, reputable contractors. To make claim processing faster and simpler, obtain written bids that include details of materials to be used and prices. Make sure contractors get proper building permits and work within current building codes. Avoid shady operators who flock to disaster scenes. Be on guard for repair people who ask for a large amount of upfront money. They often disappear.

9. Keep copies of all lists and documents submitted to insurance company. Also retain all paperwork from the insurance company, contractors and other items linked to the claim, such as additional living expenses while away from home while it is being repaired or rebuilt.

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