United Policyholders, founded in 1991, is a 501(c)(3)nonprofit insurance consumer education organization with headquarters in San Francisco. It publishes a newsletter, What’s UP, from which much of the information for this section was obtained. For further information, go to www.unitedpolicyholders.com.
The most important thing you can do is before the earthquake: make an inventory. List everything you own, room by room, showing the number of items, their description, age, and cost of replacement. Take photos. Keep all bills and receipts. Keep your inventory and supporting documents someplace other than your house, such as a safe deposit box. Jack Watts of State Farm Insurance Co. told me that “It is difficult to overstate the value of an inventory, photos, and receipts. The adjuster is there to work with the claimant in establishing the claim, but it is so much easier when these documents have been kept updated and stored in a separate location from the residence.”
After the earthquake, tell your agent that you have damage and are submitting a claim. Do this even if you are not sure you have an earthquake policy; some losses might still be covered. Review the fine print in your policy, especially the “Declarations” page with categories of coverage and dollar limits. Categories include dwelling, contents, loss of use (or additional living expenses), other structures, etc. Annual inflation factors increase your limits. You might need advice from an independent professional. If your policy and declarations page were destroyed in the earthquake, contact your insurance agent in writing for a duplicate copy.
Don’t give a sworn statement, and don’t sign over a final “Proof of Loss” form to your insurer until you are convinced that you understand your coverage, your rights, and the full extent of your claim. Don’t be rushed into a quick settlement. Documenting a major loss requires comparing cost estimates from at least two or three reputable contractors, including the one you intend to hire for the actual repairs. Contractors might suggest various repair methods, and if your home or foundation is seriously damaged, you should consult a structural engineer. Keep a diary and record the name and phone number of each person you talk to. It is better, of course, to have photos or receipts to claim destroyed property, but it’s recognized that these might have been destroyed during the earthquake. After the earthquake, take photos and keep all receipts.
In rebuilding your home, you’re entitled to “like kind and quality.” If you have “guaranteed” or “extended” replacement-cost coverage, you’re entitled to the same style and quality home even if the replacement exceeds the amount of your policy. For compensation of additional living expenses or loss of use, keep all receipts for meals, lodging, and purchases from the time of the earthquake until your house is rebuilt. For additional information, contact United Policyholders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even if your damage was from an earthquake, your coverage might be from other policies. For example, a fire in your home might be covered by fire insurance. Tsunami damage might be covered by flood insurance. On the other hand, landslides are commonly not covered by any type of insurance, whether earthquake-related or not.