Houghtaling’s first tip for homeowners was to get an independent inspection of the damage. Legally, the insurance company’s inspection is not the final word, he said, explaining that homeowners can get an independent inspection from a licensed contractor, an engineer, an estimator or a public adjuster.
“Take [the insurance company’s] estimate and throw it in the garbage,” he said.
According to Houghtaling, New York state has a statute to regulate insurance response, known as the 15/15-day rule. Within 15 days after a policyholder files a claim, the insurance company is required to send an itemization of everything the policyholder must do for the company to assess the claim. Once the company receives those materials, it must respond within 15 days — saying yes or no to the amount of damages the policyholder is claiming, or countering with a lower offer.
This explanation was met with laughter, with many people saying that they have been waiting weeks for insurance companies to respond to their claims.
“The way they play the game is they delay, they deny and defend,” Houghtaling said. “They will tell you you’re excluded or lowball your payment, and the hope is that they wait you out enough that the federal government will come and pay the amount and bail you out.”
He also said that it is important to document the chronology of the damage. There are two categories of storm damage, wind and flood, and, he said, insurance adjusters will try to categorize as much as they can as flood damage, because that isn’t their responsibility, but rather is covered by the Federal Flood Insurance Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In most hurricanes, wind comes before flooding, but Sandy was unique in that there wasn’t much time between the two, Houghtaling said. That can make it more difficult to determine what caused what damage. But for people who remained in their homes during the storm, an eyewitness account in court trumps an adjuster’s best guess, he said.