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Mr. and Mrs. B

Mrs. and Mr. B’s beautiful, custom-built house, on a 2-acre lot, in rural Poway, California, was lost to raging Southern California wildfires. They, along with their children, had invested hundreds of hours in sweat equity and hundreds of thousands in cash dollars while turning this house into their dream home.

Even after losing everything they owned, to their astonishment, they found themselves caught up in months of never-ending battle with their insurance company.

"Losing our home and all our possessions was truly devastating," they recalled. "I wanted to focus my attention on my children who had just lost their entire sense of stability. However, our insurance company steered us along a very different course. Within weeks, we learned that we would have to substantiate everything and go to enormous lengths which quickly turned into a full-time job. We again felt victimized, this time, by our own insurance company.

Because of the rural area and possible fire danger, they had purchased a policy from what was recognized to be one of the best insurance companies available. Even though the insurance company sent a photographer out to take photos, when the actual policy came via mail, they were stunned to see what the company had assigned them for policy limits, roughly 50-percent undervalue. On two different occasions, the homeowners had walked into their insurance company, requesting their insurance be increased. Both times, the company’s agent assured them they had nothing to worry about, "Those numbers don’t mean anything because you have Guaranteed Replacement Cost." Unfortunately, they took him at his word.

Guaranteed replacement cost coverage allows a carrier to exceed the policy limits. In essence, the limit is artificially set at a number the carrier believes should be sufficient to replace a house. However, after a loss, if the insured can establish the cost to be more, the carrier will pay more.

The unexpected wildfire of October 2007 came with a vengeance. While Mr. B was out on town on business, Mrs. B and her children hurriedly packed-up some possessions and drove to safety. Because it was 12:30 a.m., they spent the remainder of the night at their eldest son’s office, sleeping on the floor.

The next morning, when they returned, it appeared that the fire had bypassed their neighborhood. The winds were still very strong, the air was smoky, and the power was out so they left again, not realizing it would be the last time they’d ever see their home. Later that afternoon, another tail of the fire, fueled by the ferocious Santa Ana winds, roared through and took their home.

Listening to the car radio, they heard a DJ mention the name and phone number of a motel accepting evacuated families with pets. After arriving at the motel, the four of them, along with their two large dogs, anxiously watched the news in horror.

What are the three most important lessons you learned from this experience?

1. You believe that your insurance company will take care of you – we thought we could count on them. Remember, their job is to pay out as little money as legally possible. We felt they tried to take advantage of us because of our vulnerability following such a large loss. Take your time and don’t sign anything until you have time to think about it and review it. If you have problems or are not getting answers you understand, it makes a lot of sense to get a professional Public Claims Adjuster to help you. It is definitely worth the money. Once we turned it over to Kim, I was able to finally be there for my kids.

2. Make sure you are properly insured. We are working to buy a new home right now and are seeing that insurance agents seem to have wised up and are now recommending policies that cover the true costs of rebuilding. Don’t be underinsured, even if they say, "Don’t worry. You have Guaranteed Replacement Cost." Always check your policy limits and make sure you agree with them.

3. Have an up-to-date home inventory. Know what you own, what its worth, and what it’ll cost to replace. Because we really didn’t know what we lost or its value, in our hurry to reclaim our lives, we accepted the first check the insurance company offered.

 

The following morning, their son managed to get into the neighborhood, now being guarded by police. As he walked up the driveway, while being bombarded by news reporters asking questions, he realized, almost in disbelief, that their home was gone. He called his mother with the devastating news. Everything they owned was gone.

They had joined hundreds of other San Diego County residents who no longer had a home. Qualcomm Stadium, where the San Diego Chargers played, was swiftly converted into a central meeting place and refuge for those who had been burned out and/or evacuated. At Qualcomm, Mrs. B met with representatives of her insurance company. They quickly cut two checks to help them get through the immediate disaster. Mrs. B was overwhelmed with gratitude.

Approximately three weeks later, the insurance company cut another large check – the full maximum – that was allocated to replace their personal possessions and belongings. Mrs. B was very impressed with how friendly and helpful the insurance company was. They didn’t have to show an inventory list or justify how they came up with the amount of their possessions. The insurance company made it "easy" and gave them the maximum payment as specified on their insurance plan.

About a month later, after the family had found temporary housing, they began to face very troubling issues with the insurance company. They had decided they would not rebuild on their existing lot because the possible threat of another fire at some point in time. Because of this, the insurance company was only willing to give them the policy limit, the very limit that they had been so troubled by and attempted to have doubled in the previous two years, a mere 50-percent of the value of their home.

"Working with the insurance company was very frustrating," recalled Mrs. B. "This was their home-playing field and they knew all the angles. They have their own language and their own way of doing things. It’s not a process that’s easy for a homeowner to understand or navigate their way through. The whole insurance experience was so stressful that it impacted every aspect of our daily lives and almost destroyed our marriage."

After months of jumping through hoops, she said they realized that they needed someone to help them. Following up on recommendations from the local nonprofit Fire Victims activist group, they met with Kim Cary, a Public Claims Adjuster. They had interviewed some other Public Claims Adjusters but they didn’t seem to be as knowledgeable or trustworthy as Ms. Cary. In addition, Kim Cary’s company was local and they weren’t seeking an inflated commission that the other Public Adjuster companies were.

"Kim took this huge monster off our backs and freed us up to start making the difficult decisions we were forced to put off while dealing with insurance issues," says Mrs. B. "From the moment we turned our case over to her, we were able to actually breathe for the first time in months."

According to Mr. B., "Kim was a godsend. She was calm, cool, and collected. She knew how to deal with the insurance company and its representatives – she knew what they were going to say and was able to make our voices heard and respected."

The insurance company hired a contractor to write an estimate based upon the original plans. That did not cover the improvements that they had made. They then hired their own firm to do their own scope of loss that more accurately reflected the true amount of money needed to rebuild.

However, their policy limit only covered half of the total needed to properly replace the home and its extensive and landscaping. But because they had personally spoken to the agent twice about raising the limit, and also based upon the scope of loss, the company eventually conceded to an extra payment that covered a large percentage of what was needed. However, they were still short. Kim again stepped in.

"Because of her dedication, phone calls and face-to-face meetings between the contractors and adjusters, Kim was able to settle our claim. She negotiated and successfully obtained another large check for us from the insurance company." "Our insurance company made life almost unbearable for 18 months, " explains Mrs. B. "It was bad enough that we lost everything we had – our beautiful home, antiques passed down generation to generation, the kid’s toys, everything. It’s a loss of unimaginable proportion. It happens though and we understand that. The loss is something we’ve learned to deal with. What we lacked was the energy and wherewithal when it came to dealing with our insurance company. Thank you, Kim, for a great job in getting us adequate compensation."

 

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