From Day 1 – Protect Yourself
- First, please read Part A (All Fire Survivors)
- As of this writing, California insurance laws give federally declared disaster survivors 2 years to deal with insurance. And California has some of the strongest consumer protection laws for insureds–become familiar with them.
- Ask for a complete copy of your policy, including all endorsements, from your agent or adjuster. Not just the declarations page.
- Read your policy. A lot. Get your family or friends to help. Get together with others with the same insurer to help each other understand your policies (you can do this without disclosing the $ amounts because $$ are only stated on the declarations page).
- Talk to others with the same insurance company and compare experiences. Often. See “Network,” below.
- Visit United Policyholders uphelp.org. A lot. Join their email list. If possible, visit their table at the Local Assistance Center (LAC)/Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) or attend their workshops. UP is a nonprofit organization that provides insurance information to consumers at no cost.
- Visit the California Department of Insurance Disaster Information Page. A lot. 1-800-927-4357. Contact them with any questions or for no-cost help with your insurance claim.
- GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. All communications with your adjuster should be in writing by email or postal mail. If you must have a verbal conversation with your adjuster, 1) take notes of all verbal conversations in your claims journal, and 2) follow up with a summary of your conversation in writing to your adjuster.
- NEVER SIGN ANYTHING unless you are really really sure what you are signing. Now more than ever, this is a good policy to follow. Don’t sign a waiver or anything that says you are done with your claim unless you are really positive that’s true (most total loss claims will take more than 1-2 years to finish). And if you do sign something, get copies of all paperwork.
- Insurers often employ out-of-state adjusters who do not know California insurance regulations. They may tell you the wrong thing. More than once. Some insurers will change your adjuster every two months or so (just so you are prepared for this). The more you are informed, the better you are protected. As UP says, be “assertive but polite,” keep a claims journal, and everything in writing (email is okay). And many of us in Sonoma County say, read UP resources.
- Adjusters may be friendly but they are not your friend. You may need to fight for what is rightfully yours. You paid your premiums; now read your policy and make your claim.
- You have the right to ask for a different adjuster or ask to speak to an adjuster’s supervisor.
- If you have a mortgage, dwelling insurance payouts will be payable to you and your mortgage lender. Your lender will keep the amount that represents your mortgage and must give you the rest (if any). They will keep these funds and disburse them as you rebuild (or you choose to pay off your mortgage). As long as they keep any insurance funds while you still hold a mortgage, the lender must pay you interest, “California Civil Code Section 2954.8 requires that your bank or mortgage company pay 2% simple interest on your rebuild monies that the bank or mortgage company is holding on your behalf.”
- Take your time in many things (except for starting your claim, getting an advance cash payment, obtaining housing, and others). There are many insurance and rebuilding decisions you don’t have to make right away.
- When it comes time to rebuild, read up on how to protect yourself. You can start on the Rebuilding Page (ignore the Sonoma County-specific stuff) and seek out local resources. Also see Neighborhoods.
- Be aware: Price gouging after disasters is illegal; you don’t have to decide right away whether to use a public adjuster or scope writer; not all attorneys are versed in insurance issues.
First Couple of Weeks and Ongoing – Network
- Form or join an email group for other fire survivors with the same insurance. See Insurance Groups, especially the testimonials near the bottom of the page. United Policyholders may try to facilitate the formation of these.
- Reach out to everyone you know to try to connect with other fire survivors who have the same insurance. We had a “standing” neighbor who helped several groups with setting up email groups.
* * * The above is already a lot of information. When you can, continue reading. If you can, get a friend or family member to help you read this stuff. * * *
First Couple of Weeks and Ongoing – Resources
- Visit uphelp.org. A lot. Join their email list.
- Attend the United Policyholders workshops.
- Visit the California Department of Insurance Disaster Information Page. A lot.
- Visit your City/County recovery website. A lot. Join their email list.
- Get to know your local LegalAid and attend any workshops they might offer for fire survivors. You do not need to have a “legal problem” to get no-cost help with insurance issues or simply to learn about the nature of the contract between you and your insurance company; it may not be exactly what you thought it was.
- Pepperdine Disaster Relief Clinic for the November 2018 Southern California fires
United Policyholders Help:
- Top Ten Insurance Claim Tips
- FAQs about Home Insurance Claims in California
- Insurance claim rules in California – English (Spanish)
- Survivors’ Speak (tips written by previous catastrophe survivors)
- Sample Letter Requesting A Complete Copy of Your Home Insurance Policy
- Simplified Guide to Your Declarations Page
- ALE/Loss of Use: What expenses can you claim on your homeowner’s policy?
- Sample Letter Requesting Information About Insurance Benefits for Temporary Living Expenses (“ALE” or “Loss of Use”)
- Speak UP: Tips for Communicating with your Insurance Company
- Tax tips for disaster survivors
- Mobile home claim tips
Visit United Policyholders for more insurance help.
Records: Retrieval and Management
- Keep all receipts for meals, housing, bridge tolls, laundry, incidentals (eg) etc. For many insurance policies, this is all reimbursable as part of Loss of Use or Additional Living Expense (“ALE”) coverage. Note, some ALE is “as incurred” with no cap; other policies have a cap on ALE.
- Keep track of mileage (additional distance (if any) from your temporary lodging to your job, to usual shopping (eg Costco), to doctor appointments, visiting your lot, interviewing builders, seeing your insurance agent or adjuster, etc.). See irs.gov, search term “mileage” for the appropriate mileage rate (54.5 cents per mile in 2018; some adjusters will try to pay you less than that). See sample mileage tracking form in Excel Format and in PDF Format (but use any format that works for you).
- Get all your prior year income information and tax information (if available) and your insurance payment information, before signing up with FEMA. Record in your notebook all the information including FEMA # and the Federal Declared Disaster #, and important information for getting vital records.
- Get a file organization crate with hanging folders to organize all paperwork such as housing, meals, laundry, insurance, etc.
Housing / Additional Living Expense (ALE) or Loss of Use Coverage
- Look for housing immediately. You may need immediate short-term housing, then long-term housing.
- When possible, find a nice place that you like, so that you don’t have to move around too much, which can be especially disrupting for kids, seniors, and other extra-vulnerable survivors. Insurance is supposed to pay for a rental that is similar to what you had from your ALE coverage. In state or federally declared disasters, California has been mandating up to 2 years of ALE payments up to your policy ALE limits.
- Insurance companies can also help you look for housing, but they may not find as suitable a place as you would.
- Plan on renting 1-2 years, but do not necessarily sign a lease for a full two years as circumstances can change.
- Depending on the situation, the insurance company can pay rent to the landlord directly, or they can reimburse you for the rental payments.
- Most policies allow: Renting a room from a friend or family member and charging that against ALE (but your family or friend might have tax implications; seek professional tax advice).
- Most policies allow: Purchase a new home and your insurance will pay the fair market rental price for it while you rebuild your house (again, seek professional tax advice).
- Most policies provide rental furniture and housewares for your temporary home. Usually you can choose between their vendor or you can choose your own furniture rental company. Arrange to have your insurance company pay for the rental directly.
- If you have insurance and get living expenses, ask to speak directly to the place they are sourcing furniture from. Having a direct conversation will ensure that you know what is available and that it aligns better with your needs. Don’t feel shy for asking for what you had before (if you had a large tv, ask for a large tv, or ask for the add-ons that are not part of the standard packages like blenders or carpets). You will be living with this furniture for a long-time.
- Check to see if your insurance company would be willing to pay you rent for furniture instead or a lump sum. Not many do, but some have and this way you can get slightly better quality couches and bedding and just agree upon a monthly rental value for those items. Then later, when you buy forever furniture that fits your rebuild, you can have this as extra furniture, sell it at consignment or donate it to others in need.
County Assessor/Tax Collector
- Notify the County Assessor/Tax Collector with updated mailing address, phone number, email address. If you haven’t yet paid your Property Taxes, delinquent after 5:00 p.m. on December 10, you may be able to get a forgiveness/abeyance. With everyone dispersed, make it easier on local agencies to be able to get you important information. Really.
- Check the Assessor or County Website for Disaster-related information. Here is the 2017-2019 Sonoma County Assessor Disaster Information, a lot of which is State law, but be sure to check the current rules in your County.
- If your County has not or cannot provide this information immediately, also check the California Board of Equalization Disaster Relief page.
Replacing Immediate Items
- As you buy things, tell the store owner your situation. Most stores will give you some level of discount as their way of helping you.
- If you feel up to it, start making an inventory of your home contents. You may be lucky and your personal property coverage may be paid without requiring an inventory.
- You may not want to rush to replace your things beyond the essentials. Even though it’s theoretically covered by insurance, there’s a strong chance your personal property losses will exceed your coverage and you’ll just get paid out the limits. It still makes sense to shop around and get deals where you can (but also don’t settle for something). Also, think about where you will store things you replace right away but don’t necessarily need right away. Remember that rental stuff is usually available from your insurer. And you may not feel like shopping, anyway.
Old House Plans, Etc.
- Try to get your old house plans/improvements/plot plans/prior permits from: your architect/builder; local blueprint printer; city or county planning department or assessor’s office.
- Try to get prior costs (including any improvements): from your architect/builder; from realtor (in case they have original sales materials, title reports, appraisals, contracts, comps, photos; see if your home is on one of the online home listing sites (even if these sites tend to be inaccurate–they might get you close).
- Get pictures of your home, inside and out, from: family and friends, your device or the cloud, from google maps satellite and street views)
- Communicate with your first adjuster; they don’t know your house or what has happened to its value since it was built but they have the ability to make what comes next simpler. Push that first adjuster to create a Scope of Loss (what it would cost to rebuild your home today).
More Insurance Tips
- Start a claim diary and take notes on: who you talked to, the number you called, date and time, what was said. Keep your paperwork organized.
- Talk with your insurance adjuster regarding cash advances for: Living expenses; Replacing personal property
- Keep all receipts while you are displaced. Hotel bills, clothes and pet boarding may be reimbursed but require receipts.
- Replacement Cost for personal property / coverage should be what it would cost to replace today, not on sale or with a coupon, from the kind of store you normally shop at, and not the price you paid 10 years ago from Walmart if you bought it at Macys.
- Public Adjusters/Scope Writers. You will hear about these services. Whether to hire these services to help you with your insurance claim is a personal decision, just like whether to rebuild or not. You don’t have to decide right away, and you can take your time to interview several services. Some people don’t mind paying for these services because it will help make the process less emotional. For others, their policies are so small they can’t afford these services.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. Go to uphelp.org, and if they have workshops near you, please consider going.
- Go to https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/tax-help-for-california-wildfire-victims for special rules for disaster survivors.
- Consult a tax professional who has specific knowledge and experience with disasters.
- As of this writing, you do NOT have to do a detailed contents inventory for the IRS if you are not claiming a loss for your contents, nor is any payout for contents taxable.
- See UP’s Tax tips for disaster survivors
Please Note: The information here comes from the experiences of the 2017 Sonoma Complex Fire Siege fire survivors, 2015 Valley Fire (Lake County), other fire survivors, United Policyholders, Neighbors Together Strong and Resilient, and other sources. Thank you, neighbors, for sharing your knowledge. Some items in this post (originally written in Nov 2018) only apply to State-declared and/or Federally declared disasters; however, much of it applies to most fire survivors. The Kincade Fire (Oct 2019) is a State-declared emergency as of 10/29/19.
August 20, 2020 – Some of the below applies only if a fire has been declared an emergency and government-sponsored responses such as FEMA, or Local Assistance Center (“LAC”), or Disaster Recovery Center (“DRC”) are activated only under certain situations. The LNU and the CZU Lightning Complex Fires have been declared a federal disaster and the recovery does qualify for federal assistance. (press release)
Part A is applicable to total loss fire survivors (renters and homeowners with or without insurance), and some of it is applicable to partial loss/smoke damage fire survivors with or without insurance.
Part B is specific to those with insurance and is in addition to Part A.
- This information is based on prior fire survivor experiences; your experience may be different.
- Things change; this information is not meant to be comprehensive.
- Please always be cautious and also check current agencies and laws.
Coffey Strong does not provide any advice or endorse any service provider or agency.
Coffey Strong does not provide any advice or endorse any service provider or agency.