After a fire, homes may be damaged from both the flames and smoke of the blaze. Walls, windows, and carpets may need to be washed or replaced, and walls must be repainted. Even upholstered furniture may need to be cleaned or repaired. Sadly, sometimes a fire entirely consumes a home, in which case homeowners must rebuild and replace their lost belongings.
Fortunately, most homeowners’ insurance policies cover damage and destruction caused by fires and smoke, including wildfires. Policies may even cover personal items lost in the blaze and the cost of temporary housing while a home is being repaired. However, limits on coverage and deductibles vary widely from policy to policy, so homeowners should always read and understand their policies before a disaster strikes.
Specific examples of what homeowners’ insurance may cover in the event of a loss from fire or smoke include the costs of a total loss of the home, repairs to the damaged structure and interior (including those performed by a restoration or mitigation company), and lost personal possessions such as furniture, clothing, and appliances.
Like other homeowners’ insurance claims, filing a claim for fire damage or destruction can be complicated. Homeowners must take extra care to document all injuries, including damage done to personal belongings and the structure or interior of the home. Insurance companies will need photos or videos of the damage, a written description of the damage, the date of loss, the type of loss, the home’s general condition, the location, any injuries, and the police report, if applicable.
The insurance company will also ask if any temporary repairs were needed to secure the property, like boarding up a broken window. If quick maintenance must be made, keep all receipts and document the actual damage. Policies differ on whether or not they cover temporary care.
In general, homeowners should not throw out any damaged property until an insurance adjuster has been to the home to assess the damage and draft their report. Adjustors need to see the harm in as much of its original state as possible to process the claim efficiently and accurately.
Lastly, homeowners should keep all correspondence between them and their insurance companies if there is a dispute later in the claims process. Homeowners should also keep any bills and receipts associated with the damage.
Homeowners whose property has been damaged or destroyed will look to their insurance for relief — with varying degrees of success. Here are ten tips to keep in mind as you interact with your insurance company and its adjusters.
If you were forced to evacuate your home, you might not have grabbed necessities — from a toothbrush to clothes that you can wear to work. Your homeowners’ policy will cover the cost of replacing these items, but you don’t have to file a claim and have it approved before heading to a department store to purchase what suits you need for the office.
Instead, ask your company for an advance against your eventual claim. Ask a company representative to bring a check to you wherever you’re staying, whether at a hotel or a friend’s house. Save the receipts for everything you buy, and be reasonable — if you lost khakis and a blazer, don’t head for the Armani suits (you’ll end up paying the difference).
Check your policy — even if you have “replacement” coverage for the house itself, you may have only “actual cash value” for the personal items in your home. A good agent will alert you to this and suggest buying an endorsement to cover your content under a replacement policy.
Every policy requires you to take reasonable steps to minimize harm to your property. This is known as your duty to “mitigate damages in legalese.” It includes such common-sense steps as covering a section of your leaky roof with a plastic tarp until you can get it repaired or turning off the water when you discover a burst pipe. Your insurance company will pay these costs when you make your claim. Other steps you might need to take to mitigate damages include:
All policies require homeowners to report their losses as soon as is reasonably possible. You can comply by calling your agent or sending an email. After that, you’ll be asked to submit a “proof of loss claim,” in which you itemize your losses and list the value. If you delay notifying your company, you may find yourself far down on the list when it comes time for the company to send an adjuster to deal with your claim.
Fortunately, insurance companies are required to handle claims promptly. For example, they must send you a “notice of intentions” within 30 days of receiving your claim. If there’s no dispute over your coverage, you’re entitled to payment within that time, too. If you haven’t heard from your company and feel that it’s unnecessarily dragging its heels, write to it (and consider sending a copy to the state’s Department of Insurance). Insurance companies are less likely to string you along when they’re amidst a disaster and know that all eyes are on them.
Your policy will include a “loss of use” clause, which entitles you to reimbursement for living expenses while you’re out of your home. However, you’re allowed only additional living expenses — the difference between what it costs you to live daily at home and what it costs now. For example, if you ate most meals at home before the fire and regularly spent $300 a week on groceries but now spend $400 per week at restaurants, you can claim only $100.
However, when it comes to the motel bill, you can probably claim the whole thing. Even though you can’t live at home, you still have to pay your mortgage, taxes, and insurance.
Your homeowner’s policy will enable you to rebuild or repair your home. Suppose you have an “actual cash value” policy. In that case, you’re entitled to the amount of money it will take to return your home or its contents to its market value before the fire — which, if it was run down and needed a new roof, may be significantly less than what you’ll need for a quality rebuild.
If you have “replacement cost” coverage, you’re entitled to the amount it would take to replace the home or contents, up to a fixed limit in your policy in advance. (Only a rare type of policy, called “guaranteed replacement” coverage, actually lets you claim all of your actual rebuilding costs.)
For either type of coverage, you’ll need an estimate of the initial market value or the cost to replace the damaged items or parts. Your insurance company will offer its estimates, supplied by its adjustors. Because these adjusters work for the insurance company, it’s in their best interests to get you to accept a modest settlement quickly. You’re under no obligation to accept these numbers.
Instead, hire an independent estimator who will work for (and be paid by) you. Choose a contractor who is experienced in building and how insurance companies respond to typical issues. Be sure that you and the insurance company agree on the scope of work to be done if you’re replacing or repairing it. If you’re dealing with an actual cash value policy, don’t accept the insurance company’s number unless you are satisfied that it’s a fair estimate of what a buyer would have paid for your home just before the disaster (not including the value of the land).
It may seem ridiculous to continue paying homeowners’ insurance premiums to protect property that’s severely damaged or gone, but stopping your payments can be a big mistake. Remember, your homeowners’ policy includes liability protection for you and your household, including your pets. This may come in handy if, for example, your stressed-out dog chews up an expensive Oriental rug while you’re camped out at your brother-in-law’s house.
If you’ll be staying somewhere for a while, call your agent and ask for that address to be added as a second location for liability coverage. If your home has been destroyed, ask your insurance company to cut back on the part of the policy that covers the structure and ask for a corresponding reduction in premiums.
Your insurance company will want to close your claim as soon as possible. The longer it’s open, the greater the chance you’ll discover and file a claim for an additional loss. But homeowners often find losses that they initially overlooked, perhaps because of the stress of living through the disaster. Protect against this possibility by waiting at least a few months before allowing your claim to be closed.
Don’t be surprised if you receive a check from the insurance company saying that you’re accepting the payment “in full release of” your claim. Please don’t believe it, and don’t let it stand. Cross-out that language (and initial it), then send a letter to the company, politely thanking them for the check and telling them that you do not consider the matter closed.
Despite hiring your estimator or contractor, you may not be able to reach an acceptable settlement of your claim. In that event, consider hiring a “public adjuster:” an independent, licensed adjustor whom you pay to negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf. You’ll typically pay the adjustor between 9-15% of what you recover from the insurance company, but that can be well worth it if the adjustor significantly increases the settlement.
You probably know that drivers who’ve had an accident or two commonly face higher car insurance premiums or even lose coverage. Fortunately, this isn’t a realistic fear for homeowners who file legitimate damage claims following a disaster such as a fire. As long as you’re not what the industry calls a “habitual claimant” and there’s no proof of fraud in connection with your claim, you won’t see an increase in your premiums or lose your coverage.