How to file a homeowners insurance claim after a natural disaster

A step-by-step guide to filing a homeowners insurance claim after a natural disaster strikes.

Pat Howard 1600

Pat Howard

Published September 21, 2018

If you live in an area susceptible to natural disasters, chances are you’re going to need to file a homeowners insurance claim at some point.

Filing a disaster claim requires that you provide a lot of information to the insurance company and that you do it in a timely manner. Remember, everyone else in your neighborhood whose home was wind-damaged by that Category Five hurricane is filing a claim too, so don’t wait.

When your claim is approved, the insurance company will submit a payment to you. How quickly your claim is approved with your desired reimbursement really depends on the insurer and the nature of the claim.

Read on for our step-by-step guide on filing claims after natural disasters:

Step one: Before filing a claim

After the storm has cleared and you’ve returned home to assess everything, the first thing you’re going to want to do is document all the damage. In the wake of a weather catastrophe, it’ll be tempting to throw out ruined or damaged items – don’t do this. Leave everything in place as if its a crime scene so that there can be no mistakes about how much was lost or damaged when the insurance inspector comes by to assess everything.

Contact your insurance company immediately

Pull up your homeowners insurance policy and find the contact information for your carrier. That could be a phone number or the company website if they have a chat function for claims. Your company may also have a smartphone app that you can file claims through. When you contact them you’ll want to find out:

  • Whether the damage is covered by your policy
  • How long you have to file the claim
  • Whether your claim exceeds your policy’s deductible, which is the amount you pay out of pocket before your insurance kicks in
  • How long it will take for the claim to be processed
  • Whether or not you’ll need to obtain estimates from local contractors, roofing companies, appraisers and so on

Make temporary repairs

If your roof caved in or large sections of your home’s foundation or electrical are damaged and at risk of causing further damage, you’ll want to take steps to make sure the potential hazards are minimized and get them repaired immediately.

A couple things you’ll want to remembers with temporary repairs: hold on to your receipts so you can be reimbursed by your carrier, and don’t pay too much for a temporary repair job. Since the costs to repair technically go toward your policy limits, you’ll want to make sure you have enough insurance money left for the permanent repairs later on.

If you’re forced to relocate, hold on to your receipts

Your policy’s loss-of-use coverage reimburses you for temporary living expenses if a hurricane or tornado sacks your home and you need to relocate to a hotel or temporary housing for an extended period of time.

But your hotel invoice isn’t the only thing you’ll want to put in your records. Since you may not have a kitchen to cook in while you’re in housing limbo, you’ll presumably be eating out more; keep those restaurant receipts and keep records of all expenses while you’re away.

Step two: Fill out your claim forms

After you speak to your insurance company and file your claim, they’ll give you a claim reference number – make sure you hold onto that. If you ever need to call your insurer and speak to them while your claim is in progress, having your reference number on hand makes finding your claim and answering any questions related to it easier, as they’ll be able to pull up all the information related to your situation instantaneously.

From there, your insurance company will send you the necessary forms where you provide your personal information, loss or damage details, descriptions of damaged and claimed property along with its value, and more. Make sure you’re documenting all the damage in the claim form completely and accurately and consider overestimating the amount you should be reimbursed for, especially if you have a replacement cost value (RCV) policy that guarantees a full value replacement of damaged property.

By law, the claim forms must be sent to you within a specified time period. After completion, return the forms as quickly as possible to avoid delays.

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Step three: Prepare for the insurance inspector

After you send in your forms and your claims have been processed by your insurance company, they’ll most likely send an insurance inspector, or adjuster, to your home to inspect the damage and determine if the company is liable to cover your claim.

Substantiate your loss: You’ll want to make a list of everything you own that was damaged, and then make a copy for the adjuster. You’ll also want to supply the adjuster with copies of any receipts you still have from damaged items; having a home inventory will also expedite this part of the claims process. The more information you have about what you owned, like a description of the items, date of purchase, and photographs, the faster you’ll be reimbursed for your claim.

Do a little vetting: In the wake of natural disasters, company adjusters are probably going to be overbooked, so your insurer may send a “representative” instead of one of their full-time employees. Be sure to ask if the adjuster is an employee of the insurance company or an independent adjuster (IA) who was hired by them on a temporary basis. If they’re an IA, ask if they’re authorized to make claim decisions and payments on behalf of your carrier and ask for the name of the insurance company’s adjuster whom the IA’s inspection will be sent to.

Hold on to all paperwork: Keep copies of whatever lists, records, or documents you send to your insurance company. You should also hold onto and make copies of whatever paperwork your insurance company gives you. Additionally, record the names and get the phone numbers and email of everyone you speak with about your claim.

Step four: Getting reimbursed

There are two types of reimbursement provisions that determine how much you get paid for a covered loss: a replacement cost value policy, which essentially pays for the damaged item (if your $1,500 TV is damaged in the storm, you’ll get $1,500 from the company) and an actual cash value policy, which pays out the depreciated cost of an item (if your $1,500 TV is seven years old and is only worth $200 today, you’ll get $200 from the company).

Adjuster estimate

After natural disasters, insurance company claim departments are in high demand and personnel is limited. There’s also some bureaucracy involved, as states often work with insurers to make sure that everyone who filed a claim in the wake of a hurricane or flood is getting a visit from an adjuster before a certain date. While this is good for you, the policyholder, it can create some havoc in the property and casualty industry and doesn’t always lead to the best results.

With such a limited amount of time and ostensibly overworked personnel, it's common for the damage estimates to be inaccurate. If the first inspection isn’t complete or it feels incomplete, schedule a second visit. The first check you receive is often an advance, so if you happen to find additional damage that wasn’t accounted for, you can reopen your claim and file an additional amount.

Most policies stipulate that you have a year to file your claim after a disaster.

Proof of loss form

Some insurance companies require that you fill out a form documenting your losses and the amount of money you’re claiming for legal purposes. Your insurer may waive this requirement after a disaster if you’ve already met with the adjuster or your claim isn’t complicated.

Choose a repair company and start building

The next step is choosing a contractor and getting your beautiful home back to the way it used to be. Your adjuster or mortgage company may recommend a firm, but the choice is ultimately yours. Once you receive a bid from a company for repairs, you’ll show it to the adjuster. If the adjuster approves, then the repairs or rebuilding process can finally begin.

Your mortgage company also has some skin in the game, as they’re technically a “named insured” in the policy and need to sign off on whatever insurance payments are allocated toward. You’ll typically get separate checks for every provision that needs coverage (dwelling, property, loss-of-use, and so on) and your insurer will most likely put your dwelling coverage check in an escrow account and may only release the funds after inspecting the finished job.

Replacing damaged property

Under most circumstances if you have a replacement cost value policy, you’re going to need to replace your damaged property out of pocket before the insurance company will pay you for their full replacement cost. If you decide not to replace certain items, you’ll be paid their actual cash value.

You’ll generally be given several months from the date of the cash value payment to replace the items yourself and receive the subsequent replacement cost from your insurer; find out how many months you’re allowed. Companies may help you find vendors that can help you replace your stuff, and some insurers even offer to replace items themselves.

Step five: Repair work has started, now what?

While your repairs are in progress, take the time to go over your homeowners insurance policy and evaluate your level of coverage for the specific claim you filed and ensure that everything matches up and you’re adequately covered. Damage estimates for natural disasters are notoriously low before the storm, and that miscalculation can often rear its head into actual damage estimates after a natural disaster. You’ll also want to be sure you have replacement cost coverage for personal property.

If your home was recently damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster, talk to a licensed representative at Policygenius before you file a claim. We can walk you through how to make this misfortune as painless as possible and get you on your way to getting the coverage and repairs you need.

Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.