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If a storm damages your house, homeowners insurance can mean the difference between repairing your house and facing a financial disaster. After storms strike, you can improve your chances of getting money from the insurance company quickly, if you follow certain steps.

Mike Kreidler, insurance commissioner for the state of Washington, suggests the following steps to make the claims process following severe weather as streamlined as possible:

  • Check with your agent to see if the insurance company would prefer to send an adjuster to your home. The insurer might first send you a claim form ("proof of loss" form) to complete. Even if the adjuster comes first, the more information you can provide — descriptions of damaged items, photographs, dates of purchase, replacement costs, and so on — the faster your claim can be processed.
  • Take photographs of the damaged items if possible. Write down brand names and model numbers of appliances and electronic equipment. If your home suffered extensive damage and you do not have an inventory of contents, sit down and list the different things of value that were in different rooms. In fact, it's a good idea to take pictures or videotape your house contents before a storm hits you. Most people can't remember everything they have, particularly after a disaster strikes. Keep the pictures or videotape in a safe place, one that is not likely to be damaged by the same storm that hits your house (e.g., safe deposit box or in a relative's home).
  • Examine your property: Carefully check for damage in your home and on your property. Prepare a thorough list of damage to show the insurance adjuster.
  • Don't try to pass off previous damage as something that just occurred. Adjusters can tell the difference. If you aren't certain, point it out and make it clear you had NOT noticed it before.

Evaluate the structure

Make sure your home is structurally safe. Don't enter your home, unless you're certain its safe. You should arrange to make temporary repairs to prevent further damage. Keep your receipts for temporary repairs, because your insurance company is likely to reimburse you for them. Call your insurance company immediately after the storm and get advice about what to do next. If your home is uninhabitable, find out what living expenses the insurance company will pay for.

Take an inventory

Take an inventory of your possessions and property. If you have a list or videotape that was prepared before the disaster, compare that to your new list. Record any damage and document it with photographs or videotape. If you have canceled checks or receipts that prove the value of damaged items, collect them to give them to your insurance company when you file a claim. Give yourself time to add to your list as the days and weeks go by.

Call creditors

Notify creditors if bills have been lost or you're unable to pay. Ask your utility company to stop billing you if your home is uninhabitable or if it has been destroyed. Some insurance companies will declare a moratorium on homeowners premiums in areas that have sustained widespread storm damage, so policyholders can spend their money on repairs instead.

Gather policies

Prepare to file an insurance claim by gathering copies of your homeowners or renters policy, or track down your policy numbers. Get instructions from your insurer on what to do next. In a situation where a widespread disaster has occurred, the insurance company might establish special procedures.

Flood insurance

Kreidler warns standard homeowners policies usually don't cover flood damage, which includes runoff and seepage. Standard homeowners policies do cover some other kinds of water damage. Damage caused by rain that enters the home through a broken window or hole in the roof caused by a listed peril (such as wind or falling tree limbs) is covered. Check with your agent or your insurance company if you have questions. Many homeowners don't realize their insurance won't cover flood damage, until it's too late.

Larry Culbertson is consumer assistance manager for the Oregon Insurance Division. Culbertson says after a flood his office frequently hears from consumers who have filed flood claims with insurers, only to learn their losses werent covered.

"Many people dont know that coverage for flood damage is usually excluded from standard homeowners or business insurance policies," Culbertson says. "But they can protect their property by purchasing flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), as long as their community participates in the program."

The NFIP recommends buying flood insurance even in areas with low or moderate flood risks. Flood insurance can be purchased from private insurance companies and agents that participate in the program. Coverage is available for homeowners, renters and businesses.

Culbertson says there is usually a 30-day waiting period before flood coverage becomes effective.

More information about flood insurance, including cost, is available from participating insurance companies and agents, or on NFIPs web site

Research financial help

Find out about any special loans or grants that might be available. Possible sources may include:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • The Small Business Administration (homeowners might qualify)
  • Local governments
  • Private lenders
  • The American Red Cross

Check contractor credentials

New York Insurance Commissioner Gregory Serio says homeowners must be extremely cautious when hiring contractors to repair storm damage. Serio says homeowners should take special care to hire reputable firms, take their time in choosing a contractor and follow this advice:

  • Get estimates from several licensed, bonded contractors.
  • Check the credentials of contractors with your local Better Business Bureau.
  • Ask your neighbors what they're paying for similar work.
  • Inspect contractors' licenses and proof of liability insurance.
  • Get a contract in writing.
  • Follow local building codes and inspection procedures.

Serio adds it's important to contact your insurance company quickly to find out what steps you need to take to file a claim. "If property damage occurs [homeowners] should contact their individual insurer representatives as soon as possible. Also, every effort should be taken to protect their homes from further damage, such as covering any roof damage that has occurred as a result of the storms. Permanent repairs should wait until the insurance company's adjuster has inspected the property," Serio says.