Thinking about property insurance claims? I bet you are. So listen up:
I was a property insurance adjuster for Citizens Property Insurance from 2005-2007, dealing with the aftermath of the 2004 hurricane season, and I’m going to give you advice. I know you all know how to google and doing so will get you basic advice worth following (take pictures before/after, keep a claims journal to track all your interactions with the ins. co., keep records of everything you spend, etc.). I also want to state that I am not currently a licensed adjuster nor have I ever been a lawyer, and will not review your insurance policy, so don’t ask.
What I’m going to do here is give you a step up on the games insurance companies play to try and keep from paying you any money. If you go to any insurance company they will deny half of what I’m telling you, but they have a good reason to, because they are losing millions, if not billions, of dollars and their literal job is not to help people but limit payouts by whatever means necessary. I was on the ground floor of “Catastrophe Operations”, I’m telling you what I saw happen with my own two eyes.
- About those before/after photos: great idea, but TIME STAMP the “before” photos, and save copies somewhere safe (by which I mean, Dropbox or Google or somewhere “in the cloud” so they are not just on your phone/camera). Will the insurance adjuster challenge you on when they were taken? Probably not in the field, but someone back at the office will. Oh yes, they will!
- If you evacuate, film yourself locking all the doors and windows. If even one window is open, then damages will be your responsibility (depending on your policy, of course, but generally speaking I saw this happen more than a few times with claims). You can challenge that and probably win, but that means bringing in a lawyer.
- Receipts of purchase costs will do nothing for your claim, so don’t worry about it. “Replacement costs” basically mean how much that item would sell for on craigslist – and yes, insurance adjusters WILL go to craigslist to find the basement price on items. They won’t admit that and it’s not “best practices” but I assure you, they do. With that in mind, make sure the photos you take show that everything is in excellent condition. Am I saying lighting matters in how much you get on your claim? I am indeed. Better photos = more money. Period.
- Scan/photograph your original policy papers and also have them with you. Adjusters in the field don’t know your policy and will tell you just about anything that makes their job easier, and just knowing that you have the policy on hand makes them more cautious. If they know you don’t know your policy and don’t have it close by, you will get railroaded.
- Make temporary repairs as needed to keep damages from getting worse, and save receipts. Depending on your policy, you may get reimbursed for costs. Take photos, too. Do not actually start fixing/remodeling until your claim is filed and approved and the money is in the bank, because the insurance company will come out and re-inspect and if the damage is not there they will cross it off the claim. Yes, they will. They have.
- In the wake of a catastrophe, there are not enough insurance adjusters in the field to do the work, so companies hire contractors by the hundreds. Some of those folk are good people who have worked their entire lives in construction and insurance and can stand in front of a house and give you a flat number for repair costs and be damn near on the penny. Those people are rare. The majority are either part timers come out of the wood work or newbies whose license is still shiny from being printed. They don’t know building codes and they barely know what damages to look for. DO NOT ASSUME THEY HAVE YOUR BEST INTERESTS AT HEART. They do not. You are #15 on a list of thirty houses they are scheduled to visit that day alone. They will be looking at hundreds of houses, they won’t remember you nor care. Get their name(s), take photographs of them INSIDE your home (so they cannot later say they never went in), and do not sign ANYTHING.
- Repeat: DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING. They will sound sympathetic. They will tell you that the sooner you sign off, the sooner you get your money. That’s true enough, but it also means you are signing away your rights. Insurance companies do not negotiate until you hire a lawyer and file suit. If you sign off on the insurance adjuster’s initial damages estimate, you cannot come back later and add in an extra $10k to fix mold damage (maybe you can, depending on the company and your policy, but please, do not bet on it). Tell them to email you the estimate, tell them to come back the next day (they will, if only to get you to sign off so they can complete the claim), tell them you need to call your lawyer (even if you don’t have one). Whatever you need to do to buy time, do it. If they get aggressive, call your insurance agent right there and tell them you need a different adjuster sent out.
- Honestly be really suspicious of any adjuster trying to get you to sign off on an estimate on the spot, even if they say the word “preliminary.” Estimates have to go back to the office to be vetted and matched against your policy. Anyone pushing that process along is not someone you want to put your trust in.
- If you can afford an independent estimate and can find someone reputable to do it, if the damages are severe enough, then do it. The insurance company won’t recognize that estimate but it is information in your corner. If you end up filing suit, the fact that you did get that independent estimate will usually work in your favor for a settlement. I am not a lawyer, so I can’t say for sure, but what I am saying is: get back up, if you can.
- I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: No one is on your side. Not the field adjuster, not the office adjusters reviewing the claim, not the insurance company administration, no one. They will low ball, pressure you, threaten you, and all with a smile on their faces. Please keep that in mind during all interactions with them. Their job is not to help you, although they frame it that way. Their job is to keep payouts to a minimum because their loyalty is the company paying THEM. I don’t care how nice they are. You are not their priority. You are claim #233,567 out of 500,000+ claims. That’s all you mean to them.
- The flip side is that I still encourage you not to be rude or threatening to insurance adjusters, because, again, they are visiting a lot of properties and are under a lot of stress and it’s very possible that the person they visited before you yelled and screamed at them. I’ve known adjusters who ended up facing off with a gun when home owners became unhinged, and then had to just move on to the next house on their list. Being a field agent after a catastrophe is not for the meek or the faint hearted! But you are the home owner, and you have rights. Be firm, but professional.
I know this all sounds pretty negative, but try to keep in mind that this is your home and your property on the line. You are fighting for your future, and you deserve to get the full amount of money your insurance policy allows.
Also published on Medium.