Hurricane Sandy has inflicted unprecedented damage on New Jersey. Homes have been destroyed. Businesses, homes and schools have lost power. Tens of thousands of people in New Jersey are homeless. Homes and buildings were destroyed by fire, trees, waves and other casualties. Many homes, especially in the evacuated Shore communities, have been looted. Losses in the Tri-State area expected to exceed fifty billion dollars.
That, of course is the big picture. On the ground, however, the storm had a devastating impact on individual homeowners, renters, and small businesses. The first thing each of these homeowners, renters and small businesses should do is make a claim with their insurance companies.
This first question is, will there be coverage? This depends on two things: First, the type of insurance policies you have and, second, the type of damages you incurred. For instance, many homeowners and business policies exclude coverage for damage caused by flooding. However, flood insurance should obviously cover this.
Therefore, you should get a copy of your insurance policy, including the declaration page. The declaration page is a one or two page summary of the types of coverage you have, the amounts of coverage, and the amounts paid for each type of coverage. The policy itself, to which the declaration page is usually attached, is much larger, often twenty pages or more. If you do not have a copy of your policy, or if your policy was destroyed in the storm, you should contact your insurance agent or broker, or the company with whom you have the insurance.
In the meantime, you should make a claim. The sooner you make a claim, the sooner an adjuster can be appointed (the adjuster is an employee of the insurance company who investigates your claim and makes a decision, all of which are necessary first steps before any claim is paid). Indeed, insurance policies often require swift notice of any potential claim.
You should also document the damage. The first step is to take photographs of everything. Take more pictures than you think you need, from every conceivable angle. The more you take, the better shape you will be in. If you have “before” photos to go with your “after” photos, this will also assist your claim but it is not absolutely necessary.
You should also document how the damage was incurred. This is especially important. For instance, if you have a policy which excludes flooding, you might nonetheless be covered if the damage was caused by, for example, a tree falling on the roof and rain coming in through the hole. Likewise, a policy which excluded flooding could likely well cover damage caused by looters. It will depend on the policy itself.
Hopefully the insurance company will determine that coverage is appropriate, approve your claim, and provide you with funds to make repairs or hire contractors. However, if the process drags on or the claim is denied, you will need to make repairs yourself, whether it is by you actually doing repairs or through a contractor you have hired. It is important, no matter which way you go, to keep receipts for every expense, whether it is a box of nails from Home Depot, or a contractor to repair your roof.
While there are some good insurance companies out there, insurance companies are not in the business of paying claims, they are in the business of making profits for their shareholders. Therefore, it is in the company’s interest to either deny the claim or lower the amount for the claim which they will allow. There are several ways to combat this. The first is to document the need for each expense. The second, especially if you are hiring a contractor, is to get several bids for the work. This will also have the advantage of getting you the best price, although in the aftermath of the Sandy his may be difficult. You can also retain a public adjuster to counter the insurance company’s low valuation.
If the insurance company denies your claim, or will only pay a limited amount of reimbursement, you should seek legal help immediately. Be sure to bring all the items discussed above, including the policy, declaration page, photos and receipts, to the extent that you can get them together. Our attorneys are experienced in representing homeowners and businesses in insurance coverage disputes. In some cases, it is even possible to prove a “bad faith” denial, which could lead to the insurance company being responsible for your attorneys fees.