What Should You Do Immediately After An Earthquake – from an Insurance Perspective
Five Things to Do
1. Make sure your family and pets are safe. Find a place to live. Most insurance policies provide reimbursement for hotels and rental homes. You do not have to rough it. You are entitled to stay in a location with similar quality as your covered home. In order to ensure that you are fully compensated for your “additional living expenses” and “loss of use”, you will need to keep all receipts for meals, lodging, and purchases to replace damaged items from the time you left your home after the quake until it is fully repaired and you are able to move back in.
If you have a policy issued through the California Earthquake Agency, the Additional Living Expense coverage will probably not cover your living expenses during the repair process. You may want to contact FEMA for additional assistance.
2.Notify your insurance agent and/or insurance carrier that you have sustained damage to your home. If it is only minor, you may want to think and reconsider as your deductible may cover the damage that was caused. If you have suffered damage you believe is covered by your earthquake, business and/or homeowner’s insurance policy, you need to inform them that you plan on filing a claim. Coverage for some earthquake related losses might be available under certain sections of your homeowners or business policy.”
3.If you don’t like what your insurance adjuster is saying or if they tell you that the damage does not exceed your policies’ deductible, you should get an independent opinion. It may be time for you to call in a Public Insurance Adjuster, licensed structural engineer or a contractor who has had experience rebuilding earthquake and fire damaged homes.
“The adjuster sent by your insurance company to inspect your home after a quake may not know how to look for and identify earthquake damage,” warns UnitedPolicyHolders.org, a non-profit organization that fights for the rights of insurance consumers and educates individuals and businesses on how to get fair treatment. “Do not blindly trust your adjuster, especially if he or she tells you no benefits are owed because the damage did not exceed your deductible. Some companies reward adjusters for paying out as little as possible on claims. Your home is simply too valuable for you to rely on one person’s opinion, especially if that person is not a licensed structural engineer or an experienced contractor.”
4. You should do this BEFORE you have a disaster but most people don’t look carefully until after something bad happens. You need to take a close look at the “declarations” page.
That is the page that states your name, address, policy number, categories of coverage, dollar limits, endorsements, lender, etc.). Check the date to ensure that you are working from the most current, up-to-date copy because that will state exactly what your coverages are. The “Endorsements” (extras) will be listed and review the ones that apply to your policy. Every endorsement has a code number that matches text in the policy. (See Declarations Guide below)
Amy Bach of UnitedPolicyHolders, warns, “If you are confused, do not rely solely on your insurance company or THEIR adjuster for answers. Consult with professionals who specialize in advising or representing insurance consumers.”
5. Do not sign anything unless you are sure that you are being adequately compensated for your losses. Don’t provide a sworn statement or final “Proof of Loss” document to your insurer until you are positive that you understand your rights, your insurance policy coverage and endorsements, and the FULL extent of your claim and what it will take to make you whole again.
Don’t sign anything without proper legal advice first. Be especially aware of “releases or waivers of any kind. Carefully read all documents carefully, including both sides of all checks, to make sure they don’t contain “final” or “release” language.
Insurers have the right to take your recorded or sworn statement regarding your claim, and you must cooperate, provided their request is reasonable. However, giving such a statement without legal representation, or prematurely signing a final proof of loss may hurt your ability to fully recover the policy benefits you need to repair your home properly.
Insurance company adjusters often try to rush you into a fast settlement to save money and close your file. He or she may also claim that your home damage pre-existed the quake. Don’t be pressured. Take your time and get professional help if you need it.
Documenting a major loss to ensure a full, fair recovery requires work and lots of research. Before you can really know the true amount of your insurance claim, you must get estimates from reputable contractors, and be able to inventory all your lost or damaged possessions. This takes time. If your home is showing severe cracks, you may have foundation damage. A licensed structural engineer should fully inspect and tell you the scope of necessary repairs. Discuss repair options with a reputable contractor before settling your claim.
UnitedPolicyHolders Guide to What to Look for on the Declarations Page:
1. Your policy has categories of coverage and dollar limits for each one. The main categories are “Dwelling”, “Contents”, “Loss of Use,” (sometimes called “Additional Living Expenses”), and “Other (or ‘Appurtenant’) Structures” etc.
2. The dollar limits stated on your Declarations page may be lower than your true limits. Annual inflation factors, “endorsements”, and other additions contained in the policy increase your limits. Typical additions are 5% of your dwelling limit for debris removal and landscaping. Typical endorsements are Extended Replacement Cost coverage and Building Code/Ordinance coverage. Do the math to re-calculate your limits in all applicable categories.
3. The policy language may not provide the coverage you requested at the time you purchased it, and you may find you are under insured. In this situation, you may need professional help from a policyholder attorney or the Department of Insurance to determine whether an agent/broker or the carrier is legally responsible to solve this problem.
There are laws and regulations that protect you as an insurance consumer. Those laws are set forth in the California Insurance Code at section 790.03(h), the California Code of Regulations at Title 10, Chapter 5, and judicial decisions.
Take Your Time – Don’t Be Rushed
Even though you are in a hurry to get everything settled and to get your family back into your home, you need to take your time and do it right. Once you sign the final documents, you will have no recourse. Most people who sign quickly lose out on money that they could have got if they had waited. If you hurry, you will not be able to adequately remember all the possessions that you had purchased and are now destroyed. This is especially true of the little things- special tools and implements, the gifts, decorations and special items that only get used several times a year – on holidays or vacations. A rushed settlement only benefits the insurance company and its agents – not you.
Check out this Quality Claims Management online article with maps to find out if your home is in a danger zone – check for landslide, liquefaction and earthquake fault zones. http://www.qualityclaims.com/homeowner.aspx?sect=_quakeinsurance
by Ronald Reitz, President of Quality Claims Management