Your homeowner's policy will enable you to rebuild or repair your home. If you have an "actual cash value" policy, you're entitled to the amount of money it will take to return your home or its contents to its market value before the fire -- which, if it was run down and needed a new roof, may be significantly less than what you'll need for a quality rebuild.
If you have "replacement cost" coverage, you're entitled to the amount it would take to replace the home or contents, up to a limit that was fixed in your policy in advance. (Only a rare type of policy, called "guaranteed replacement" coverage, actually lets you claim all of your actual rebuilding costs.)
For either type of coverage, you'll need an estimate of the prior market value or the cost to replace the damaged items or parts. Your insurance company will offer its own estimates, supplied by its own adjustors. Because these adjustors work for the insurance company, it's in their best interests to get you to quickly accept a modest settlement. You're under no obligation to accept these numbers.
Instead, hire an independent estimator who will work for (and be paid by) you. Choose a contractor who is experienced not only in building, but in how insurance companies respond to typical issues. Be sure that you and the insurance company agree on the scope of work to be done if you're replacing or repairing. If you're dealing with an actual cash value policy, don't accept the insurance company's number unless you are satisfied that it's a fair estimate of what a buyer would have paid for your home just before the disaster (not including the value of the land).
It may seem ridiculous to continue paying homeowners' insurance premiums to protect property that's severely damaged or gone, but stopping your payments can be a big mistake. Remember, your homeowners' policy includes liability protection for you and your household, including your pets. This may come in handy if, for example, your stressed-out dog chews up an expensive Oriental rug while you're camped out at your brother-in-law's house.
If you'll be staying somewhere for a while, call your agent and ask for that address to be added as a second location for purposes of liability coverage. If your home has been destroyed, ask your insurance company to cut back on the part of the policy that covers the structure, and ask for a corresponding reduction in premiums.
Your insurance company will want to close your claim as soon as possible. The longer it's open, the greater the chance that you'll discover and file a claim for an additional loss. But homeowners often discover losses that they initially overlooked, perhaps because of the stress of living through the disaster. Protect against this possibility by waiting at least a few months before allowing your claim to be closed.
Don't be surprised if you receive a check from the insurance company saying that you're accepting the payment "in full release of" your claim. Don't believe it, and don't let it stand. Cross-out that language (and initial it), then send a letter to the company, politely thanking them for the check and telling them that you do not consider the matter to be closed.
Despite hiring your own estimator or contractor, you may not be able to reach an acceptable settlement of your claim. In that event, consider hiring a "public adjustor:" an independent, licensed adjustor whom you pay to negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf. You'll typically pay the adjustor between 9-15% of what you recover from the insurance company, but that can be well worth it if the adjustor succeeds in significantly increasing the settlement. To find a public adjustor, start with the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, the national organization that regulates public adjusters, at www.napia.com.
You probably know that drivers who've had an accident or two commonly face higher car insurance premiums or even lose their coverage. Fortunately, this isn't a realistic fear for homeowners who file legitimate damage claims following a disaster such as a fire. As long as you're not what the industry calls a "habitual claimant" and there's no proof of fraud in connection with your claim, you won't see an increase in your premiums or lose your coverage.
Check out these websites for information that disaster victims can use immediately:
For detailed information about all aspects of homeowners' insurance, see Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).
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