News Column

Storm Victims, Insurance Adjusters Getting Down to Business

April 29, 2011

Jim Gallagher


Roddy Gill rolled in from Slidell, La., part of a small army of insurance adjusters flocking to the St. Louis region bearing checks and explanations of policies many local homeowners are only now coming to fully understand.

In Maryland Heights on Tuesday, Gill ran into Rick and Kim Dent, who told a tale of saving their dog but losing their home.

"Where are you staying?" asked Gill, in an accent that sounds like The Bronx via Mississippi.

"With our son," Rick Dent told him.

"You don't have to stay with your son," Gill told them. "We'll put you in temporary housing."

Gill, who works for State Farm, is one among the large squads of adjusters getting down to the details of the destruction that befell large swaths of the region over the weekend. State Farm alone has brought in more than 100 adjusters; they are the ones who get the money flowing, and their visits are the first big step in rebuilding shattered neighborhoods.

State Farm, the biggest home insurer in Missouri, with a market share of about 28 percent, said it had received 1,800 claims from the storm by Tuesday. Those included 1,300 damaged homes and 500 vehicles.

Like many homeowners, the Dents didn't know the intricate details of their policy until they needed it -- like the fact that they could stay in an extended-stay hotel or a furnished apartment on the company's dime. Such provisions are a standard part of most homeowners' policies. Insurers will cover housing costs while a home is repaired. The same goes for other extra expenses, such as eating at restaurants because the family can't cook.

damage survey

Rick Dent walked Gill and adjuster Mark Hancock around the home to survey the wreckage. Their dog was rescued by firefighters. But the tornado ripped off much of the roof and shattered the windows of their modest ranch house. The wind threw a neighbor's lawn furniture with such force that it bent one wall of the house into the bedroom. The ceiling caved into the living room, leaving the floor strewn with rubble and broken glass.

Kim Dent recalled crawling over that rubble in the dark on the night of the disaster. "I really wanted to find my wedding album," she said. It would turn up later.

Hancock looked at the roofless garage and noted the walls bent off-center. A big tree had fallen on it. "That will have to come down," said Hancock, a part-time adjuster and high school football coach from central Illinois.

The adjusters explained the process. They handed the Dents a form and asked them to list their damaged possessions and estimate their value. Like most homeowners, they have "replacement value" coverage. That means an old couch will be replaced with a new one of like kind.

If they had "actual cash value" coverage, they'd get only the depreciated value of their property -- what they'd get at a garage sale.

Explaining one of the odd quirks of insurance, Hancock said that he'll initially give them a check only for the depreciated value. Once they actually buy a replacement, he'll make up the difference.

The Dents had already talked with a contractor. Hancock said he wants to meet with him at the house to agree on the work. Once that's done, State Farm will write another check to get the work going.

beware storm chasers

Homeowners, not insurance companies, hire the contractors -- and that's caused problems in the past.

Bands of tradesmen, especially roofers, chase tornadoes and hurricanes, then disappear when the work is done. That makes it hard for a homeowner to get relief after paying for shoddy work.

It is best to hire local contractors, said Angela Nelson, director of consumer affairs for the Missouri Department of Insurance. The Better Business Bureau is a "really good resource" for checking a contractor's reputation, she said. Also, look in the Yellow Pages. A company with an ad there wasn't formed yesterday.

Nelson recommends getting three or four estimates before signing a contract.

"Ask for four references, not three. Three he has in his back pocket," said Tony Brakefield, who runs State Farm's disaster operation in St. Louis.

Insurance company adjusters sometimes knock heads with "public adjusters." These are adjusters hired by property owners to negotiate with insurance companies.

Public adjusters often solicit business from disaster victims. They usually charge the owners 10 percent of the insurance payment.

They say they earn that by getting insurance companies to pay more. "You may have an insurance company come out, and say they'll pay for one slope of the roof. We'll point out that the damage was a little more extensive -- the gutters, the windows, sometimes the deck and the garage doors," said Will Harris, of Statewide Public Adjusters in University City. "It's just a matter of knowing what to look for and how to let them know."

Nelson, from the Insurance Department, recommends seeing what the insurance company will offer before deciding whether to hire a public adjuster. Public adjusters must be licensed by the state, she noted.

Homeowners aren't always satisfied with insurance settlements. After a 2001 hail storm in north St. Louis County, many complained that insurers replaced damaged siding with colors that didn't match the rest of the siding. The state Insurance Department intervened.

The Insurance Department pledges to investigate consumer complaints against insurance companies related to the tornado. "We will make sure every claim gets the attention it's due," Nelson said.

Source: Copyright (c) 2011, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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