With the recent outbreak of fires in Butte County and Southern California, it seemed like an appropriate time to address the best course of conduct for those who have been hit with tragedy.
For this article, we will assume you have insurance that covers the cause of damage. If you do not have insurance, you may still be able to recover from the person or entity causing the fire, but that is a topic for another day. Moreover, we will assume your home, if it is still standing, has been secured and any existing threats have been dealt with (this would include taking steps to prevent intruders or further damage, ie by shutting off the water so as to prevent a water leak or having any areas prone to further damage, such as a damaged room, protected). Your insurance agent should be able to help you secure your property and offer recommendations for cleaning up or restoring salvageable items.
As with most issues in our lives, advance preparation can significantly assist and ensure you are in the best position possible. It is obviously not on our minds to do any sort of inventory of our property with any sort of regularity, but doing so can make recovery after a disaster that much easier. In a perfect world, we would all have neatly organized receipts of every item in our homes, but obviously that is not likely or practical. However, there are less restrictive steps you can take to help. The most common option is to photograph or video (or both!) your home and its contents. You want to pay particular attention to any personal property of value and any improvements or fixtures that would be costly to replace (such as flooring, bathrooms, chandeliers and the like).
After the disaster has hit, you need to immediately, or as soon as possible, contact your insurer and open a claim. Most policies require claims be made within a specified number of days. ‘Loss of use’ funds under your policy will typically cover living and other daily expenses. You should consider seeking an immediate advance to cover such costs in the short term.
Whether you receive an advance or not, save all receipts and keep a detailed record of all purchases. This should include everything from clothes, meals, gas/additional mileage required due to the displacement, hotel or other living expenses, toiletries and the like. In addition to keeping a folder or binder with all receipts, it is a good idea to scan all documents and begin organizing soft copies of all receipts, as you will likely need to eventually send this over via email and it provides a back up in case you lose the originals.
Keep a receipt of all letters, emails etc. with your agent, as well as any competing bids you receive for repairs. Do not necessarily rely on bids or estimates the insurer may provide, and strongly consider having your own contractor provide an estimate.
Keep in mind that your insurance claim representative (or anyone else you contact with the company) is an employee with the insurer’s best interests in mind. The insurer’s goal is to pay you as little as possible, but you are entitled to ensure you get the full amount you are owed. Do not sign any sort of release unless and until you are sure that you have been fully compensated and no unexpected additional expenses may arise, as once the release is signed, you cannot expect to receive any more money. So, if you are concerned that the insurer is not fulfilling their obligations or you have questions about what those obligations may be, consulting an attorney is strongly recommended (there are certain and specific requirements the insurer is supposed to comply with related to their response deadlines and the like, as well as deadlines for the insured to act, so keeping track of these deadlines is critical to both sides).
Finally, we are hopeful this article can provide some helpful tips, but more importantly, the thoughts of our firm are with the victims of these terrible tragedies. The devastation and deaths that they have caused are unthinkable, and we wish all those who have been impacted the best of luck in their recovery. Our firm and employees of the firm have and will contribute to the recovery effort, as we have strong connections Butte County, Southern California and even specific individuals and clients who have been impacted by the devastation.
[Note, the focus on this article was recovering from your insurer. There may be instances where your policy does not cover the full extent of your damages, and/or other liable persons or entities can be pursued for coverage. An example of this would be the person or entity that caused the fire. In these instances, consulting an attorney as to claims against the third party is advised].
Below are a list of organization who are actively supporting victims and survivors of the recent Camp Fire in California. Our firm members have contributed to several of these funds, which are focused on Camp Fire relief:
California Association of REALTORS® Disaster Relief Fund
North Valley Community Foundation
United Way of Northern California
North Valley Animal Disaster Group