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Surviving the Loss of Your Home

I lost my home in the 1991 firestorm in Oakland, CA. With wildfires now destroying others’ homes in California, my heart goes out to the homeowners whose homes are damaged or destroyed by fire or other disasters, to the firefighters and to others who have risked and are risking their lives. I also feel for the communities that will experience the devastating aftermath.

While I am an attorney who specializes in handling insurance claims for policyholders, the loss of my home showed me the stresses and challenges of handling my claim with my insurer, as well as those facing many other Oakland firestorm survivors whom I assisted with their claims.

Those whose homes are damaged or destroyed will face many challenges in the coming days and months — temporary shelter, replacement of necessary items, disruption of their lives caused by having to relocate, and the repair and rebuilding of their lives and homes.  I would like to offer some professional as well as personal advice in the hope I can be of some assistance.

Likely, none of you have read your homeowners insurance policies previously.  I am embarrassed to say that I had not read mine prior to the Oakland firestorm, and I am, as they say, in the business.  Do not be surprised when you attempt to read your policies if you have difficulty understanding them, despite their claims of being written in “plain English” or “easy to read” format.  Even professionals do not agree on every policy interpretation, and no one is born with an innate understanding of insurance or how to pursue their personal insurance claim.

Your homeowners policies provide a few basic coverages for your home, other structures, additional living expenses, and personal property.  Initially, you will want to focus on obtaining an advance from your insurer to cover immediate necessities, including food and lodging.  Most insurers involved in a catastrophic loss will readily issue advances from your contents and additional living expense coverages, usually in the $5,000-$15,000 range.  In fact, many insurers will set up local catastrophic loss command centers to handle requests in your community.  The easiest way to communicate or locate your insurer is to contact your insurance agent or broker.

Additional living expense coverage covers your expenses when you are dislocated from your residence as a result of its being destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.  This coverage is usually limited by a dollar limit or a maximum time. Such coverage typically covers either your actual out-of-pocket expenses, such as increased meal costs, increased cost of commuting from a different location, cost of temporary residence, etc., or the reasonable rental value of your former residence.  Most insureds opt for the latter method of determining their additional expense coverage as it is simpler, less time consuming to document and usually yields a greater dollar recovery.

You will need to immediately replace certain essential items, such as toiletries and clothes.  Most insurers will give you an advance on your contents claim with no specific proof of loss other than proof that your home was damaged or destroyed.  As time progresses, you will be required to document your loss on an itemized basis.  Most of you will have replacement cost coverage, which means you will, upon proof of replacement, be entitled to the cost of replacing lost items up to the limits shown in your policy.  For items that you do not immediately replace, the insurer usually will pay you “actual cash” value for those items.

This means that the insurer will determine the replacement cost of the item and then depreciate it for use, age or obsolescence.  If you subsequently replace the item, you can then send the insurer a copy of the receipt and receive the difference between what you were paid by the insurer shortly after the loss and what you spent to replace it.

A frequently asked question is:  What is the replacement cost of an item that is no longer made?  You are entitled to replace such items, subject to your contents limits, with items of like kind and quality.

Eventually, you will be dealing with the cost of repairing or replacing your home.  The first item you will likely have to deal with is removal of debris.  Almost all policies provide coverage for debris removal as either a percentage of the limits for the house or in addition to the limits for replacement of your house.

Next, the insurer and you will be working on determining the cost of rebuilding your former home.  Many of you will have a form of replacement cost coverage that will give you the replacement cost of your home up to some percentage in excess of your stated policy limits.  Such an increase in coverage is typically 125% of stated limits.  Additionally, most of you will have coverage for other structures, such as detached garages, decks and fences, with an additional coverage limit, usually referred to as “other structures” coverage.  Many of you will also have coverage for code upgrades, although such coverages will also have limits.  You will likely have coverage for landscaping.  Even if you had native or natural landscaping, you are entitled to have it replaced subject to the terms of your policy.

An issue that many of us dealt with in the Oakland firestorm is that policies that provide replacement cost coverage usually require you to replace the structure before you are fully compensated, although you are provided some monies on an actual cash value basis in the interim. This posed a significant challenge for those who were less affluent, because they were financially incapable of fronting the monies necessary to complete their homes.  After some negotiations and with considerable help from the then Insurance Commissioner, now U.S. Congressman, John Garamendi, the insurers agreed to either finance reconstruction costs as building progressed or advanced funds.  Most insurers will reach similar agreements in response to the current situation.

Some of you may not wish to rebuild, but may wish to relocate.  There are many considerations that go into such a decision, and it can only be made by you in the best interests of you and your family.  At the time of the Oakland firestorm, most insurance policies required that you rebuild your homes at their current sites.  However, most insurers waived this requirement, and now most policies no longer have these requirements.  If you wish to relocate, let your insurer know as soon as possible.  Even if the policy requires building on your lot, most insurers will waive that requirement as you will be in temporary quarters for a shorter time, which decreases the amount they have to pay in additional living expenses.  Most insurers are ecstatic if the insured wishes to relocate, as it decreases the amount they ultimately have to pay.  If you choose such an option, the insurer still pays you the cost of rebuilding/replacing your former home.  You will also retain title to your lot and can sell it later.

I was asked by many homeowners in the Oakland firestorm and in subsequent disasters whether they need to hire an attorney.  This is my response:  1) most homeowners insurance claims are resolved over a period of time through negotiation and with assistance from claims adjusters and contractors; and 2) most insurers are helpful and sympathetic to their insureds and will make every effort to guide insureds through the process.  However, for most homeowners, their home and its contents are their largest and most important investments.  Consequently, it is advisable to consult with an attorney who specializes in handling insurance matters to make sure that you avail yourself of all benefits you are entitled to under your policy.  Additionally, if you feel at any time you are not being fairly treated by your insurer you should either consult with an insurance coverage attorney or seek assistance from your state's Department of Insurance.

When the Oakland firestorm destroyed my home, I had two daughters: Katy, then 6, and Noelle, who was just shy of her 3rd birthday.  My now-former husband and I were lawyers, and, heck, we were insurance coverage lawyers.  We knew we could handle our claim and the situation.  We relocated our family within a week into temporary housing and shortly thereafter went into contract to purchase a new home.  We had no idea what lay ahead.

Replacing even the bare necessities was a huge project.  We were shopping both days of every weekend and almost every evening.  I wanted to keep my oldest in her school and my youngest in her preschool, so I drove a long commute from our temporary housing every morning and evening.  When I wasn’t driving, I was working on the claim or shopping to replace basic necessities.  My youngest cried every night and begged to go home.  Even though we knew how to handle an insurance claim, it was physically and emotionally exhausting.

About a month after the fire, my older daughter came home with a flyer inviting all firestorm survivors to a special day at Marine World hosted by the Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont fire departments.  I indicated that we probably wouldn’t be able to go because we needed to go shopping for “stuff” for our soon-to-be new home.  Within an hour, Katy had organized Noelle into a joint protest.  They let their father and me have it.  They told us we had become the “no fun” family.  They were tired of not doing anything.  They missed their friends, who now lived away from them, and they missed us.

They were right!  From that day forward, we made sure that we had family day every weekend.  We went to the event at Marine World and reconnected with other relocated friends.  Katy and Noelle got to play with their friends.  We learned to be nicer to each other.  We also learned that not everything had to get done on a certain schedule, and sometimes it was better if it didn’t get done at all.  We learned that we had gotten the most important things out of the fire: ourselves.  We also learned that only those things that had memories attached were truly important, for anything else could be replaced.  None of us has ever placed the same importance on possessions.  For a long time, I resisted replacing many items, as I simply did not want as many things, and frankly still don’t.  Most importantly, we learned the importance of family and community and that we could survive a major loss in our lives and be the better for it.

Claims In A Catastrophe, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series on claims management in the wake of a disaster. Part 1 of this series can be found here.

Protect All Property From Further Damage
Every policy requires that the insured protect the property from further loss. Therefore, you should turn off any water flow to broken appliances or pipes, arrange to have openings in roofs or walls covered to protect from rain damage, and seek help from the adjuster to further protect your property from losses of all types.

Take any necessary emergency measures to protect the building and personal property from any further damage. Do not throw anything away until permission of the insurance company is obtained in writing and you have documented its condition unless the damaged property presents a hazard to the health or safety of your family or others.

If the insurer delays or refuses to authorize measures to prevent further loss, confirm the insurer’s delay in a fax, email, and a letter, and take whatever reasonable measures you can afford to protect the property. If your loss is covered, the insurance company should also cover the cost of any reasonable emergency measures you took to protect your property. It is not unusual for an insurer to deny coverage for damage resulting after the initial claim on the grounds that an insured failed to comply with the policy condition to protect the property from further damage.

Document The Loss
If you were prudent and prepared, before the catastrophe, an inventory of your contents or took pictures of your contents, provide the adjuster with the inventory and photographs or videotape. Photograph, videotape, and inventory all damaged property after the loss. Make sure you record the date of the photos and videotape. It is important to document the source and the extent of damage whether by fire or water intrusion.

In most states, a material misrepresentation, concealment, or omission made in connection with the claim will give the insurer a valid reason to reject the entire claim. For example, claiming that an item was destroyed that really wasn’t or substantially overstating the value of a damaged item is fraud. In most states insurance fraud is a felony that can place you in state prison if convicted.

No catastrophe is so bad as to cause you to attempt to defraud your insurer to make up for uninsured losses. You should never exaggerate, speculate, or guess about the loss or value of any particular piece of property. Make it clear to your insurer when recollection may not be accurate, when you are estimating value, and the basis for your estimate. For the value of items you are not sure about on a claim presentation, use the phrase “To Be Determined.” If you do not have receipts to show the price of an item, information can be found in catalogs, statements from retail clerks, bank statements, credit card statements, or statements from family members or friends.

If all else fails, a formal appraisal can be obtained from a professional personal property appraiser. Save this as a last resort, since the insurer will usually refuse to reimburse you for the costs of hiring an appraiser, but may hire one at no cost to you if asked courteously.

You Must Cooperate With The Insurance Company’s Investigation And Handling Of The Claim
You have a contractual obligation to cooperate with the insurer in its investigation and handling of the claim. However, you never have an obligation to allow yourself to be abused. In most states the insured and the insurance company have a mutual obligation to act in good faith and deal fairly with each other to investigate and process the claim. This means that both should avoid taking any unreasonable position or doing or saying anything that would in any way frustrate each other’s rights under the policy.

The insurer may require one or more recorded statements from you. Always request a copy of the recording and a transcript of the statement to review. You have a right to review and correct the transcript of any recorded statement.

You may also be required to appear for an “Examination Under Oath” (EUO). The insurer may, but is not required to, hire an attorney to take the Examination Under Oath to represent the insured. Since a lawyer is not required, however, the insurer will not pay for the attorney that is representing you. The Examination Under Oath is a contractual obligation and there is usually no clause in the insurance policy promising to pay a lawyer to help the insured make a claim against an insurer. You should not appear for an Examination Under Oath until you understand all rights, the insurance coverage, and the full extent of the claim, or until counsel is retained. Do not refuse to appear at an Examination Under Oath or the insurer may reject the claim because such refusal is a breach of a material condition of the policy. You may reasonably request a delay in appearance at an Examination Under Oath to obtain the services of counsel or a public insurance adjuster.

The insurer may ask you to make available various documents related to the claim, including banking statements, investment reports, receipts, and other personal financial documents. You are required to produce any documentation reasonably related to the insurer’s investigation of the claim that can include tax returns. In some states, tax returns are considered privileged and the insured cannot be compelled to produce them, while in other states the failure to produce tax returns is sufficient cause to deny the claim. [See Barry Zalma, Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide, (Specialty Technical Publishers, 2002): Chapter II-5.]

The insurer can require you to produce these kinds of documents as long as they are reasonably related to its investigation. You should not provide these documents to the insurer until you understand the rights, duties, and obligations imposed by the insurance coverage and the full extent of the claim. You should never refuse to produce documents unreasonably since the requirement for document production is a condition precedent to the insurer’s obligation to provide a defense and/or indemnity to you.

Proof Of Loss Requirement
Most first party property policies require that you submit a sworn proof of loss form to the insurer within a certain amount of time, either after the loss or after being provided the proof of loss form. During a catastrophe, especially when total losses are involved, insurers will often waive this requirement.

Flood insurance policies require the proof of loss within sixty days of the loss and are applied in a draconian fashion. If you cannot produce a proof of flood loss within 60 days of the loss, obtain an extension of time, in writing from the adjuster, or you will lose all rights under the policy to indemnity.

In most states you are contractually obligated to submit the sworn proof of loss within the time limit (usually 60 days from the date of request), or at least to substantially comply with the requirement, unless the insurer agrees to dispense with the sworn proof of loss or extend the time. You should not submit the sworn proof of loss to the insurer until you understand all of the rights and obligations imposed by the policy, the insurance coverages, and the full extent of the claim. It is not unusual for an insurer to consider mistakes in the sworn proof of loss (since they are sworn to under oath) as intentional misrepresentations sufficient to allow it to reject coverage for a claim. A statement made under oath cannot, by definition, contain an innocent misrepresentation. Never sign a sworn proof of loss, even if your lawyer or professional public insurance adjuster prepares it, until you have carefully read every word and are certain that the statements made are true.

Some insurers believe that, at some point, you will refuse to comply with their requests. If you refuse to comply with reasonable requests for a recorded statement, an Examination Under Oath, a sworn proof of loss, or documents reasonably related to the insurer’s investigation, you may give the insurer a valid excuse to deny the claim based on your breach of the duty to cooperate.

If you believe that any requests made by the insurer are unreasonable, ask the insurer to explain the reason(s) for the requests in writing. Err on the side of caution and provide all documents that have some reasonable connection to the policy or loss. Before giving an insurer a reason to deny a claim because of your failure to cooperate, consult with a policyholder attorney, a public adjuster, or the state Department of Insurance before refusing a request that may, in retrospect, turn out to have been reasonable.

Get A Second Opinion
Many insureds believe that insurers make a practice of making inadequate (sometimes called “lowball”) offers of settlement. They are wary of what they think are estimates from insurance-company-friendly contractors. Whether true or not, it is a good practice to get a second, or even a third, written estimate to repair and replace damaged property from reputable, independent professionals that you would hire to do the repairs if there was no insurance.

You are entitled to have the damaged property replaced with “like kind and quality.” This means that you should insist that the amount determined to be the amount of loss is sufficient to replace the property with property of like kind and quality to the damaged property. When you cannot match the remaining undamaged tile, wallpaper, carpeting, or other portions of undamaged property, you are usually entitled to have the entire “line of sight” replaced to match. For example, if a broken water pipe destroys the hardwood floor in a kitchen and does no damage to the contiguous hardwood floor in the adjoining family room, the insurer is required to replace both the damaged and undamaged floors so that they match as long as they are in a continuous line of sight.

Some losses are paid on an actual cash value (ACTUAL CASH VALUE) basis, which in some states means either the fair market value of the property at the time of loss unless the policy defines ACTUAL CASH VALUE differently. Many policies will define ACTUAL CASH VALUE as replacement cost less physical depreciation for age and wear and tear.

Some losses are paid out on a replacement cost value (REPLACEMENT COST VALUE), where the insured is paid the difference between actual cash value and replacement cost value after the insured has actual sums necessary to complete the replacement.

You may collect the ACTUAL CASH VALUE loss immediately and advise the insurer you intend to make claim for the difference between ACTUAL CASH VALUE and REPLACEMENT COST VALUE when the structure is rebuilt. If your policy has a time-limit for rebuilding be sure to get a written extension of time since, after a catastrophe, the rebuilding process is often severely delayed.

When fire and water-damage reconstruction contractors write estimates for insurance companies they always add at the end of their estimate a sum equal to 10% of the basic contract price for “overhead,” and an additional 10% of the basic contract price for “profit.”

This technique is a fiction believed only by contractors and adjusters. Knowledgeable construction people know that no contractor could survive on 10% profit and that contractors build overhead and profit into their basic unit costs (paint, plaster, roofing, etc) and add the “profit and overhead” numbers as a fee for the extra service they provide to insurers.

In recent years, some insurers have attempted to withhold 20%, an amount equal to the contractor’s “profit and overhead” numbers to arrive at an ACTUAL CASH VALUE amount. There is no basis in the policy that allows withholding profit and overhead as a means of calculating ACTUAL CASH VALUE. In fact, ACTUAL CASH VALUE is defined either as the difference in the fair market value of the property before the loss and the fair market value of the property after the loss or the full cost of replacement using like kind and quality, less physical depreciation.

You should insist that any amounts withheld from payment pending completion of the work, be documented in writing and justified by the adjuster objectively. Policyholder attorneys and some insurance regulators have successfully prevented insurers from withholding these amounts.

Investigate Contractors
Thoroughly investigate the qualifications, license, and references of your insurance company’s approved contractor before agreeing to hire them to perform the repairs. The State Contractors Licensing Board will usually provide the consumer, by telephone or over the Internet, with the contractor’s license status and history of discipline. At a minimum, the licensing entity and a reference should be checked before a contract is signed. You do not have to use consultants or contractors recommended or approved by the insurer to perform repairs. Approved contractors are typically contractors who have agreed to discount their labor and costs and follow insurer guidelines in exchange for a volume of business from the insurance company. If your insurer promises to guarantee the approved contractor’s work, the guarantee is generally limited to replacing any defective materials or correcting faulty workmanship. The insurer is not insuring against any contractor delays, negligence, or liability. Accordingly, do not use the approved contractor unless it is a contractor that you would independently hire to do the work after a thorough screening. Check that each contractor’s license is valid and for any complaints against the license. Ensure that the contractor is bonded and insured.

Seek Proper Legal Advice
Never sign a release, waiver, indemnity, or “hold harmless” agreement without proper legal advice. If the insurer, adjuster, consultant, or contractor asks you to sign a release, waiver, indemnity, or hold harmless agreement, ask them to explain why in writing. These kinds of agreements can be used to deprive an insured of rights and benefits and may obligate you to pay thousands of extra dollars for issues that arise. Consult a policyholder attorney to determine your rights before signing any such agreement.

Seek professional help, if needed. If you reach an impasse with the insurer, document the dispute fully in writing. Explain your position and why the insurance company’s position is unreasonable. If the dispute does not require legal advice, you may be able to resolve it by calling your state’s Department of Insurance or by hiring a lawyer or public adjuster. If the dispute does require legal advice, contact a lawyer who is experienced and specializes in representing policyholders. There are many consultants who claim to be “insurance claims experts” who do not have adequate training, skill, or experience. Before you retain one, investigate the person diligently by contacting licensing bodies and references.

Be Aware Of Deadlines
Make sure you know all the deadlines that may cut off the right to file a lawsuit. California has a four-year statute of limitations for breaches of written contracts but most insurance policies require suit within one or two years of the loss or the denial of a claim. If your claim is denied, seek legal advice promptly.

In most states the insurance company is required to tell you, in writing, that the claim is denied, and that the limitations clock is running. That is, if you disagree with the insurer’s conclusion to deny your claim you have a limited time to file suit. Make sure you understand all possible deadlines. Consult with a policyholder attorney as soon as possible. The time limitation can be as short as one year from the date the loss occurred and can be put on hold by actions of the insurer. If you wish to sue, it is best to contact counsel as soon as possible before the expiration of the time limit.

Report all Unfair Claims Handling to the Department of Insurance or an Insurance Regulator
The state Insurance Department tracks policyholder complaints about their insurers and compiles the results. Most states have proactive consumer advocates in their insurance departments who will jump in to help you if they believe the insurer is not treating you fairly.

Conclusion
Many insurers involved in catastrophes provide their adjusters with policy limits authority and instruct the adjuster to be generous. If your house was one of those totally destroyed and coverage is available, there is a good probability that you will receive the full policy limits immediately.

If you did not carry sufficient insurance to totally rebuild your house and replace your contents consider the acquisition of a factory built home which can be trucked to your site and completed, with all appliances included, for much less than a conventionally constructed home.
Almost all claims will be handled promptly and fairly. A person knowledgeable about insurance claims can better deal with an insurance company. Don’t take advantage of your insurer and don’t let an insurer take advantage of you. You are entitled to indemnity. You and your insurer should work together to make you whole.

This article is adapted from Barry Zalma’s book, “Insurance Claims: A Comprehensive Guide” and his book “Mold: A Comprehensive Claims Guide” published by Specialty Technical Publishers, Vancouver, BC, Canada; 800-251-0381; http://www.stpub.com.