House fires are extremely common, but their frequent occurrence does not make them any easier to deal with. One of the most frustrating and confusing aspects of the recovery process is dealing with the insurance company. Because of that, we’ve formulated the top five tips for navigating insurance after a fire to make this part of the recovery as painless as possible.
Tip #1: Mitigate Further Damage
In terms of insurance, mitigating further damage should be one of the first actions you take after a fire. If your whole home burned to the ground, you obviously can’t prevent further damage. However, a lot of the time, house fires only leave behind partial damage to a few concentrated rooms. In this case, homeowners must make an effort to prevent further damage and loss.
For example, let’s say the fire department had to cut a hole in the roof or break the windows. You’ll need to patch up both of those areas to keep outside elements from causing more issues. This may seem like just one more annoying thing you have to remember: however, most insurance policies won’t cover extra damage caused by a lack of homeowner prevention. If there are undamaged belongings that might be ruined if they remain where they are, move them.
It’s in your best interest to protect the home from looters, weather, and any other outside elements that could further the original fire damage. If you don’t make reasonable efforts to do so, you might have to pay for the extra damages out of pocket. Even worse, you could lose coverage for the entire fire altogether. Hire a reputable contractor to help if you can’t patch the areas yourself. Whether you hire them or do it alone, keep your receipts to obtain reimbursement from your insurance.
Tip #2: Document EVERYTHING
This brings us to our next tip, which is to record everything. Keep receipts, write down important information, and immediately start making a list of all the contents lost in the fire. You’ll remember it best right after it happens. Though it’s smart to take a photo or video tour of the home before something like this happens, not everyone has the foresight. So, take pictures of damaged contents and DON’T throw anything away until your insurance adjuster sees it. It’s also helpful to find receipts or other proof of purchase for the items you’re listing. Doing so can help expedite the process by quickly confirming the cost of the replacements and proving their existence.
If your house is completely destroyed, keep track of all your receipts for meals, temporary housing, etc. so your insurance company can reimburse you under your “Loss of Use” clause in your policy. This will allow you to maintain your normal quality of living without spending a lot more than usual to do it. Additional Living Expenses can be any cost incurred as a result of your home being uninhabitable.
Keep all quotes from contractors for costs of what it will take to repair or rebuild your damaged home. If your insurance company tries to undercut you on your claim, you can show them your bid.
Lastly, you need to record any communication with your insurance company. If they require you to send certain documents for your claim, keep the original and send them a photocopy. This will help you avoid “lost documents” that your insurance company claims they never received.
Tip #3: Move Quickly to Start, but Don’t Feel Rushed to Finish
Be sure to open your claim as soon as possible so you can get the ball rolling. Being on top of things will put more pressure on the insurance company to be timely. When you file your claim, be sure to include all the necessary items to prevent delays. The typical information required by your insurance company is as follows:
- Date of Loss
- Type of Loss/Damage
- Location of Damage
- Any Related Injuries
- Others Involved
- Condition of the Home
- Description of Damaged Contents (“Proof of Loss”)
- Whether or Not Temporary Repairs are Necessary
- Police Report
If your insurance company is not moving along in a reasonably timely manner, you have options. You could threaten to go to your state’s Department of Insurance. They know most states have a timeline in which insurance companies are expected to move forward for policy holders. The fear of government intervention will add pressure for them to proceed quickly like they’re supposed to. Insurance companies are kind of like kids… They always behave better when they know their parents are watching.
While it’s important to begin the claims process as soon as possible, there should be no pressure on you to close the claim if you don’t feel ready. Many times, insurance companies push hard to close a claim after offering a settlement. They know the longer it takes to close a claim, the better chance the homeowner has to remember items they previously forgot. For example, let’s say in the chaos of everything happening, you totally forgot about a very expensive family heirloom and didn’t include it on your content loss page. If you close your claim before remembering, you will not be able to get compensation for it.
Be careful of sneaky terms as well. Some insurance companies try to hide claim closing in their payments by saying things like “upon deposit of this check, the claim will be closed.” In many cases, you do not have to agree to these terms. If you don’t feel the compensation is fair or that you can’t rebuild with the amount offered, wait it out. Remember this if nothing else… YOU decide when it’s over!
Tip #4: Get Independent Opinions
If, at any point, you feel your insurance company is undervaluing your home, your possessions, etc., feel free to get estimates from a third party. When choosing the contractor/person to give you their opinion on costs to repair and rebuild, make sure you choose someone reputable. They’ll be much more likely to assess costs correctly without gouging or missing anything. If possible, find someone who is used to working with insurance companies. They’ll have a better idea of what your insurance company is likely to concede to and what they won’t.
Though it may not be worth it for most people, if you feel your insurance company is trying to undercut you severely, hiring a public adjuster can be helpful. They’re independent from the insurance company and their sole purpose is to negotiate your settlement to help you get more money than you’re being offered. All of this sounds great, but because they’re usually paid based on a certain percentage of the settlement, you’d really have to increase the amount originally offered for it to be worth it.
Tip #5: Keep Paying Your Insurance and Mortgage
Just because the main disaster is behind you does not mean you can drop your insurance. This is one of the biggest mistakes a homeowner can make. Let’s say you stop paying your insurance premiums after the fire and while you’re working that out, a tornado comes and wipes the rest of it out. Your insurance wouldn’t cover anything past the original fire damage. It’s in your best interest to keep paying those premiums. If you’re concerned about money, talk to your agent about changing the coverage to account for the loss that already happened.
You also still have to pay your mortgage as normal even after a disaster. Keep making those payments and use your Additional Living Expenses we mentioned earlier to help cover any temporary housing costs you have.
Bottom Line: Stay Organized and Calm
It may feel like your brain is spinning and there are 100 things to remember at a time. Just remember that no one is out to get you. If you need clarification about what you need to do or give to your insurance company, talk to your agent. If they give you inaccurate information at that point, it’s on them. For some reason, if you’re not getting the help you need, you can also reach out to your state’s Department of Insurance for help. If you feel your insurance company is not providing the coverage outlined in the terms of your policy, seek help from a lawyer or public adjuster.
Please remember our content is solely an informational resource rather than specific advice. We wish you luck in your disaster recovery process.