Hundreds of Southern Californians lost their homes in last week's fires, many of which continue to burn. Dealing with such a heartbreaking loss is severe enough, but for homeowners who are already struggling, there's another complication: navigating their fire insurance policies.
For some tips, Take Two spoke with Mark Hancock, an attorney in Ventura who helps with insurance disputes.
Call your insurance company
There are so many people affected by these fires that I think you want to be closer to the front of the line than the rear of it. There are only so many places that displaced people can be housed, and some places might be closer than others. Your insurance company might also help pay for the cost of living somewhere else and for the clothing that you need to wear.
If you don't know where your insurance policy is:
People should always try to keep their policies in a safe deposit box. If you didn't do that, ask your company for a certified copy of your policy right away. You're entitled to it. You do want to see what coverages you had, what limits you had, and what your time limits are.
Inventory what you have
It would be smart to go through your house and video what you have in place and to keep that video in a safe place like a safe deposit box where your policy is. That shows what you had, and it shows the condition of what you had.
If you have no photo evidence:
Hancock says that it's the homeowner's burden to prove ownership of possessions. If no pictures or video exists, he suggests using credit card records.
Know when to call a lawyer
I think people ought to give the insurance company a chance to do the right thing, but people should also know that they have a right to consult with a lawyer if they feel the insurance company is being unreasonable or unfair.
I certainly think they should see a lawyer immediately before anything like an exam under oath or if they send a denial letter because of a policy time limit. The sooner that you have a lawyer involved, the more they can do for you.
Take notes when dealing with insurance:
The insurance company keeps a claims file, and they'll note what happens, but I think people should also make a record of their conversations with the insurance people and what happens.
Options for renters:
It's always a good idea for renters — especially if they have a lot of personal property — to have a renter's policy.
If they don't have insurance, one of the things that they might want to do is look at their lease to see what happens if there is a destruction of the property or some major damage to it. That might give them the ability to get out of the rental agreement or the lease.
Unfortunately, that doesn't take care of what happens to their contents, but it might help with the idea of having to pay for a place you can't live in anymore.
With property insurance, there are short time limits. People whose homes have been damaged should look at their policies and make sure that they and their contractor are aware of those time limits and try to abide by them.
Answers have been edited for clarity.