When to use a public ad­juster for in­sur­ance claims

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - BY BAR­BARA MARQUAND NerdWal­let

Any­one who suf­fered dam­age from hur­ri­canes Har­vey or Irma will be thank­ful if they have home­own­ers or wind­storm coverage and flood in­sur­ance. But much work lies ahead. Fil­ing claims for ma­jor dam­age can be a full-time job be­cause you must doc­u­ment ev­ery loss and ne­go­ti­ate a fair set­tle­ment. Omis­sions and mis­steps you make can mean a lower pay­out.

If you have a claim, re­port it to your in­surer right away so they can send their ad­juster. But while in­sur­ance com­pany ad­justers rep­re­sent the in­surer's in­ter­ests, public in­sur­ance ad­justers rep­re­sent you. Th­ese pro­fes­sion­als man­age the claim for you in ex­change for a fee or per­cent­age of the in­sur­ance pay­out. Their job is to get you ev­ery dol­lar to which you're en­ti­tled.

"We pro­vide a ser­vice so you can get back to your kids and your jobs," says Diane Sw­er­ling, vice pres­i­dent of Sw­er­ling Mil­ton Win­nick Public In­sur­ance Ad­justers Inc. in Welles­ley Hills, Mas­sachusetts.

When to con­sider hir­ing help

Public ad­justers gen­er­ally work on large, com­plex claims. Re­cov­er­ing af­ter a hur­ri­cane can be es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing be­cause it of­ten means fil­ing claims on dif­fer­ent poli­cies. If the wind ripped your roof off as flood­wa­ters rose, you'd file a home­own­ers or wind­storm in­sur­ance claim and a flood in­sur­ance claim.

You could also face tricky ques­tions like this: How much of the water dam­age was due to rain com­ing in through the torn-up roof and how much was due to flood­ing? The water dam­age re­lated to the roof would fall un­der a home­own­ers or wind­storm pol­icy; the flood dam­age would fall un­der a flood in­sur­ance pol­icy.

"It can be very, very com­pli­cated," says Darin Chec­chia, re­gional vice pres­i­dent of Ad­justers In­ter­na­tional/Basloe, Levin & Cuc­caro. "We would work to get the best use out of both poli­cies."

Some claims are too small and sim­ple to war­rant hir­ing a public ad­juster. And, if you don't have enough in­sur­ance to cover all the dam­age, some are too big, Sw­er­ling says.

It wouldn't make sense to hire an ad­juster for a few dam­aged roof shin­gles, Chec­chia says. And it's bet­ter to han­dle the claim your­self if the dam­age far ex­ceeds your in­sur­ance lim­its. In that case, the in­surer likely would pay the max­i­mum amount al­lowed un­der the pol­icy.

The most a Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram pol­icy pays out is $250,000 for the struc­ture and $100,000 for per­sonal be­long­ings. Lim­its on home­own­ers and wind­storm poli­cies vary.

Pro­fes­sional help, not mir­a­cles

Fil­ing a large in­sur­ance claim re­quires more time and en­ergy than most peo­ple re­al­ize, ac­cord­ing to United Pol­i­cy­hold­ers, a con­sumer ad­vo­cacy group in San Fran­cisco. Public ad­justers help level the play­ing field be­cause they know how to doc­u­ment claims, in­ter­pret the poli­cies and ar­gue for a fair set­tle­ment.

But they can't per­form mir­a­cles. A public ad­juster can't ex­tract more money from the in­surer than you're en­ti­tled to re­ceive un­der the pol­icy.

Public ad­justers usu­ally charge 5 per­cent to 15 per­cent of the to­tal set­tle­ment, ac­cord­ing to United Pol­i­cy­hold­ers. Some states cap the fees, and they're gen­er­ally ne­go­tiable.

Find­ing a good public ad­juster

Qual­ity and ex­pe­ri­ence of public ad­justers vary, so choose care­fully. Fol­low th­ese tips:

•Get re­fer­rals. You can find ad­justers in your area through the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Public In­sur­ance Ad­justers.

•Make sure the ad­juster is li­censed in your state. Many state in­sur­ance de­part­ments, which reg­u­late public in­sur­ance ad­justers, let you ver­ify li­censes on­line.

•Check if any com­plaints have been filed with the Bet­ter Busi­ness Bureau.

•Ask for ref­er­ences and check at least three if pos­si­ble.

•Read the con­tract and un­der­stand the fees be­fore hir­ing the ad­juster.

•Stay away from any­one de­mand­ing an up­front fee or pres­sur­ing you to sign a con­tract. Dis­as­ters bring out scam artists — un­qual­i­fied peo­ple who pose as public ad­justers and take ad­van­tage of vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

[AP PHOTO]

De­bris sur­rounds a de­stroyed struc­ture in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Irma on Wed­nes­day in Big Pine Key, Fla.

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