After the fire department has put out the flames, if you have homeowners insurance you should first:
Call Your Insurance Company to Make a Claim, and Ask if You Have Coverage for Your Living Expenses.
Your insurance company will tell you if you have Additional Living Expense coverage, or “ALE”. If you do, your insurer will pay for your emergency housing and food, as well as other necessary living expenses you incur while you are displaced from your home. Every policy is different, so either read your policy or call your insurance company to see if you have this coverage.
If you are unable to get answers from your insurance company or need immediate assistance, call the Red Cross.
Give Your Insurance Company the Opportunity to Investigate.
You also need to call your insurance company because they have the right to investigate the fire. If you wait too long to notify them, they can argue you did not honor the policy terms that require prompt notification of a loss, and then try to deny your coverage. So, call them as soon as you can.
The Fire Department has their own investigators but insurance companies often send out another special investigator to determine the “cause and origin” of the fire. If they decide to send an investigator, typically it is because they are looking for a company or individual who can be held responsible, so they can collect evidence and then insist that person/company pay for the damages. This is called subrogation.
If you (or your your family) are responsible for the fire, your insurance company will investigate to see if it was an accident or if you started the fire intentionally. If you started the fire intentionally, this is called arson and it will invalidate your insurance coverage. In fact, if you start the fire intentionally and then make an insurance claim, this is insurance fraud and can be punished as a criminal offense.
If you started the fire accidentally, you will still be able to receive your insurance benefits. If you have any doubts about the nature of the insurance company’s investigation, contact a lawyer immediately.
Get the Property Boarded Up and Secured.
Call your building contractor or consider hiring one of the contractors who visits your home after the fire, and get the property secured by having the windows, doors, and all access points covered with boards. You should also consider a safety fence. Securing the property keeps thieves, vagrants, and curious children away.
Do Not Hire Cleaning Companies.
While these services can be useful later – do NOT allow them to remove anything from the home or clean any of the structure. The insurance company needs to see all of the damage and photograph everything. If you clean walls or remove items, it will be unclear how far the smoke, fire, and water have traveled in the home. Also, any cleaning services you sign a contract for may not be approved for payment by your insurer.
Seriously Consider Hiring Help to Prepare and Manage Your Insurance Claim.
Anyone who has experienced a house fire and made an insurance claim will tell you how much work and stress the claim will cause. There is an entire field of professionals call Public Insurance Adjusters who are licensed and trained to help homeowners with their insurance claims.
Public Adjusters (or PAs) are skilled at obtaining you additional insurance benefits. Because this will cost your insurance company more money, they will advise against your hiring of a PA. They will tell you that you don’t need one because they will manage your claim for you. They may resort to questioning the credibility of PAs and their work. Do not be fooled. Insurers slander the work of PAs because they know if you hire one they will have to pay you additional benefits. Your insurance company does not act with your best interest at heart – they act in the interest of their profits and their shareholders.
Do Not Reenter the Home After the Fire and Stir up the Debris, Because it Could be Contaminated with Asbestos and/or Lead.
One of the first things the Insurance Company Adjuster or your Public Adjuster will do is order environmental testing for the presence of asbestos and lead. This is very important and will determine if your personal property inside is contaminated or not.
There Will Be Many People at Your Home After the Fire – Here is Who They Might Be:
Building Contractors – Building Contractors come to damaged homes to offer their services to “board up” the building, erect fences, and generally make sure the property is closed up from the public. They also might be wondering if they can offer their services when you rebuild your home. It is a good idea to hire someone to secure the property, and this kind of emergency service is usually covered by homeowners policies.
Emergency Services Companies / Contractors – Some companies call themselves “emergency services” and offer to secure the property in the same way as a building contractor might.
Cleaning Companies – Cleaning services offer to clean and decontaminate your clothing, personal items, and the walls inside the home. Do not hire them or allow them to perform any cleaning or remove anything from the home until a full investigation has occurred, including extensive photographs of all building structure and personal property. The insurance company adjuster (and your public adjuster) should be back on the property many times, and the conversation about the scope of damage will be ongoing for many months. Make certain nothing is removed until the adjusters have had the opportunity to photograph and document the loss extensively.
Media – The local news may arrive to see the extent of the damage and broadcast a story. This can be a bad idea because your address will be conveyed to thieves who would like to loot what is left of your belongings. Again, make certain you have the property secured well.
Insurance Company Adjusters – After you contact your insurance company, they send a Field Adjuster to assess the damage. The Field Adjuster will begin to create a report which details the measurements of the structure of your home and categorizes the cost of every building element that needs to be replaced – this is called a building estimate.
Firefighters – Firefighters often revisit the home to assess the damage and investigate.
Public Insurance Adjusters – Public Insurance Adjusters sometimes come to a home after a fire to check on the homeowner and offer their assistance with the unfolding insurance claim. You should consider the services of a Public Adjuster.
Not only does a Public Adjuster fight to recover all of your benefits, they manage most of the stress that comes with this traumatic and emotional event that has displaced you from your home. The managing of your insurance claim and the rebuilding of your home quickly becomes a full time job all on its own. Remember – your insurance company makes more profit if they pay you less.
Be Careful During the Claim Process.
At first, it may seem like you insurance company is acting quickly to ensure you can clean up and rebuild. However, you will soon notice that while your insurer seemed to be acting fairly and promptly at first, they were only quick to send you a small check for your home that is probably not enough to rebuild. After the first check is issued, insurers slow down the process, become difficult to reach, and put the burden of managing the details of the rebuild entirely on you. This is no accident – it’s by design and calculated to appear to satisfy state regulations, but then make your continuing quest to obtain all of your benefits next to impossible.
If you have personal property coverage, they will also ask you to make a list of every item you own (that was damaged in the fire), and then indicate the age and condition of each item. This is an absolutely daunting task.
After you have received the building check, your insurer will begin asking you if you have started the rebuild yet, and point out that if you are not making progress toward the rebuild, they will discontinue your Additional Living Expense coverage. This can be very unsettling, especially if you are depending on the Additional Living Expenses to sustain you during this tumultuous period.
Without enough money and faced with a rebuild, a massive inventory, and many questions about your insurance coverage, even the most experienced and capable people become overwhelmed. It can be very difficult to manage your regular life while simultaneously making certain you are receiving all of your insurance benefits and rebuilding your home.
Help is Available.
Thankfully, there are professionals available to help. Contact us at Defever Law and we will advise whether you need the advocacy of an experienced Insurance Attorney or the negotiating skills of a licensed Public Adjuster.