As a general contractor who specializes in insurance repairs, Larry Steimel with Pequannock-based LA Design and Construction has had a front-row seat to some of the problems people have had rebuilding their homes. The biggest hurdle after Sandy, he says, has been the inflexibility of insurance adjusters when it comes to paying people’s claims.
Take the case of Judy Hickerson, one of his clients who lives in the Waretown section of Ocean Township in Ocean County. An adjuster from a firm called Colonial Claims — which was hired by Hickerson’s insurance company — calculated that it would cost $73,000 to repair the flooded home. But when Steimel did his own inspection, using a similar software program and tabulating the damage using industry-set rates, his figure totaled nearly twice that amount.
Looking at a line-by-line comparison of the estimates, he said Colonial appeared to have come up with its numbers by cutting corners wherever it could. What’s more, he said Hickerson’s case is hardly unique. Of the 25 or 30 Sandy victims he’s worked with, nearly everyone had similar problems.
FEMA agreed last month to reopen up to 144 thousand flood-insurance claims from Sandy victims who feel they weren’t paid enough for their damage. Since flood insurance settlements are paid using federal taxpayer money, private insurers handling the claims have little incentive to deny payouts, so it’s unclear even to many closely following the developments why companies would unfairly deny claims. Regardless, there’s a growing acknowledgement that it’s a matter of concern.
The widening scandal has focused so far on engineering reports that were allegedly rewritten to reduce or deny coverage. But Steimel and others involved with the storm recovery worry there may be a much larger issue with people’s insurance adjuster estimates, where problems may be harder to prove. Policyholder advocates say it’s important that the federal government is thorough in its investigations so all such cases of policyholders being shortchanged are identified and remedied.
Steimel says he’s seen all sorts of issues. Often, insurance companies only agreed to pay for damage below the water line, even if the entire house was filled with mold. In another instance, the adjuster refused to include payment for debris removal, even though the town had stopped picking up storm debris.
“You could go to two claims right next door to each other and find two different adjusters and two different ways that they settled things,” he said. “Same kinds of damage. Two different logics. There was just no consistency.”