Know your insurance policy and document your home’s contents pre-storm

By Laura Isensee

Besides the bottled water, canned food, flashlights and extra batteries, there’s another major item on the checklist to prepare for storm season: Checking if your insurance coverage is adequate.

The first step, according to experts, is to find the policy, read it and evaluate it.

David Bierman, a veteran insurance litigation attorney, said property owners should check if the policy includes flood insurance — which is separate from windstorm coverage. “No two homeowner policies are alike anymore,” Bierman said.

It’s important to get the certified, sworn copy of the policy from the insurance company itself — not from an agent or broker, said Dan Odess, who is a licensed public adjuster with East Coast Public Adjusters. Public adjusters represent homeowners, business owners and condo associations who file claims with their insurance company.

That certified copy will have the latest policy provisions that can add or exclude coverage, Odess said.

To determine if the policy provides enough coverage, Odess offered this rule of thumb: if there is a total loss, would you be OK? To answer that question, Odess said homeowners can go to the declaration page of the policy, check the total amount and then compare it to the value of the home in the latest tax records.

“They should be somewhere around each other,” Odess said.

In addition, he said homeowners can conduct a full valuation with a contractor or engineer to determine if that assessment is out of date.

The declaration page will also list all the forms included in the policy. Odess recommended homeowners check the list and make sure they have all the forms.

Odess said it’s important to store copies in multiple places. That means putting paper copies in a water-proof case and scanning and uploading important documents to an online storage site. “That way in the event of a total loss, you can access that information at a later date,” he said.

Here are other steps to take to make sure you’re properly insured in case of a storm:

• Document personal property.

That includes video or photos of your home’s exterior and interior, plus items inside the home. Bierman said this step is especially important if a homeowner has made an insurance claim on damage from a previous storm, like Hurricane Wilma. Documentation is also crucial if receipts for repairs are missing. Photos and video can be stored on the Internet through cloud-computing, like the free service from Google Docs.

“That way you’re ahead of the game,” Bierman said, who is a former member of the Allstate political action team and certified insurance fraud investigator.

“The main thing is documenting what you have before the storm,” Bierman said. “So when you have any claim, you can say this is what my property looked like before the storm. Otherwise, you’re going to be battling the insurance companies for years,” added Bierman, who has clients still fighting for claims from damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

While documenting, a homeowner can also create an inventory of personal items, Odess said. For the inventory, collect old receipts or note the market value listed on shopping websites.

For big-ticket personal items, write down their serial numbers and document them. Bierman suggested putting some items, like jewelry, in safety deposit boxes at a bank for safe-keeping during storm season. There is a limit on most insurance policies on coverage for personal items inside the home, although additional insurance for items like an engagement ring or piece of art are available, Odess said. “When it comes to your contents, it’s like legalized gambling. You’re paying a price for a lot of insurance,” he said.

• Line up contractors, other vendors and a public adjuster.

Contacting vendors — like contractors, roofers, window repair companies and contractors who clean up water damage — can ease the repair process after the storm.

“We all remember the blue tarps from [Hurricane] Wilma. It was hard to get a roofer,” Bierman said.

Odess said homeowners can gain peace of mind, lessen delays if repairs are needed and even land on a contractor’s preferred client list by contacting vendors before the storm season and perhaps having them assess their property. Odess said homeowners should ask the vendors if they are on the preferred list of insurance companies, which may mean they cater to the insurance company’s interest.

Odess said homeowners should avoid the mistake of rebuilding before they recover all the money they are entitled to from the insurance company.

When sorting through possible vendors, Bierman recommended checking where their supplies come from. He noted some homeowners after Wilma got Chinese drywall installed in their home, which caused even more damage.

• Stock up on supplies. Just in case a hurricane hits, be prepared with a tarp for the roof and covering for the windows, like shutters or old-fashioned plywood. Bierman said homeowners have the responsibility to mitigate damage after a storm.

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