Consumer Wise: Hurricane insurance hassles? Here are your rights

By Angie Moreschi, Consumer Wise Reporter
Last Updated: Tuesday, January 16, 2018, 6:04 PM EST

The water pouring into the kitchen was just the beginning of a long, frustrating ordeal for Cheryl and Brian Hoffman.

  • Homeowners complain of insurance company headaches after Irma
  • Many people say they can't get in touch with companies
  • Under Florida law, homeowners have certain rights

“We just heard a loud noise and then a big boom, and it just fell into the house,” Clearwater homeowner Cheryl Hoffman said, as she described the giant tree in her backyard that split in half during Hurricane Irma and came crashing down on her roof.

“The tree was in the kitchen,” she said. “I was absolutely petrified.”

But her saga had just begun.

“Your first thought is, ‘Call your insurance company. They will help and guide you,’ and then, absolutely nothing. Nothing from them,” she said. “It was like they became worse than the storm.”

The blue tarp put on her roof by the Army Corps of Engineers remains, and buckets sit on her kitchen counter and floor to collect water that leaks from the hole in her roof when it rains.

Widespread problems

Home insurance coverage attorney Amy Boggs said she’s been contacted by dozens of homeowners since Hurricane Irma who have had big problems with their insurance companies.

“People can’t get in touch with the adjuster, they’ve changed adjusters five times, or they are two months after the loss and nobody’s come out to the property, lowball offers, delayed payments, failed to timely respond,” Boggs said, listing a litany of problems people have reported.

Boggs said homeowners have a right to better treatment.

“This isn’t some sort of free program you’ve signed up, for hoping to get a handout. You have paid for this insurance,” she said.

Lack of communication

One of the biggest problems people have faced is lack of communication from their insurance company.

Hoffman made a claim to her company, Florida Peninsula, the day after the storm but said she could not get anyone to call her back.

“I called them daily, every single day, and there was absolutely nothing. Nothing from them,” she said.

Florida Peninsula spokesperson Don Silver apologized for the service the Hoffmans received and attributed the problems to the extreme circumstances of this past hurricane season. He sent this statement on behalf of the company:

“Irma was an unprecedented storm in that it hit virtually every region of the state resulting in more than 700,000 claims to date. With so many claims, so quickly, coupled with the catastrophic flooding in Texas from Hurricane Harvey, the entire insurance industry was faced with a nationwide shortage of licensed insurance adjustors. We always strive to deliver the very best service and continue our work to address claims around the state.

"To put it in perspective, almost 70 percent of our company’s claims were received within two weeks after the storm hit, and 99 percent of these claims were inspected and adjusted in less than 90 days,” said Don Silver of Boardroom PR (on behalf of Florida Peninsula).

What to do

Many homeowners like the Hoffmans who say they have not been treated fairly are turning to attorneys such as Boggs for help.

Boggs said it's important for homeowners to be persistent with their insurance companies when they file a claim. In addition to calling, she suggests you put things in writing — with emails, text messages or letters — so you have written documentation.

Also, be sure to take pictures and video when it happens, so you have a visual record of the damage.

Under Florida law, you have several rights you need to be aware of:

  • Insurers are required to put your property back into pre-loss condition, if your claim is covered.
  • It’s your right to use materials of “like kind and quality” to do repairs. That means if you have more expensive paint on the walls or more expensive tiles, you’re entitled to have that same quality used during the repair -- not just builder’s grade.
  • You’re entitled to have a licensed adjuster sent from the company to inspect your property. You also have the right to have your own adjuster or contractor provide an estimate.
  • The insurance company has 90 days, after you report the loss, to accept or deny coverage and then make payment.
  • “That’s all by law,” Boggs said. “That’s not them doing you any favors.”

As a homeowner, you have a duty to cooperate with the insurance company when it asks you to do something, or you could jeopardize your claim. That includes being questioned under oath and opening your property up for inspection.

Pay attention to your company's requests and deadlines, so it can’t deny your claim based on lack of cooperation. If you can’t meet a deadline, be sure to ask for an extension in writing.

Lowball offers

An adjuster finally came out to the Hoffman’s home about a month after the storm, but then, she said she could not get a hold of them again.

“The holidays were coming, and I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “The day before I hired Amy, I called the insurance company five times. I said, ‘Please, I beg you, call me back. I need help.’ Nothing,” Hoffman said.

Finally, in early December, a few weeks after the 90-day deadline, the Hoffmans received checks from Florida Peninsula, but they said the amounts were not enough to cover all the damage.

“They’re hoping by offering a certain amount of money, so many days after the storm, when people are at their wits' end, that people will accept that and go away,” Boggs said.

She cautions homeowners to be careful about what they sign, so they don’t unknowingly give up their rights.

“The back of those checks often say that signing the check and endorsing it means that you’re accepting this as payment in full for your entire claim,” she said. “So, if you think ‘I’ll get the rest of the money I need later,’ that might not happen. You must be aware of what you’re signing.”

Boggs said to help preserve your rights — before you deposit a check from the insurance company — send a certified letter saying you’ll cash the check but are not accepting it as full payment.

The Hoffmans have now filed a lawsuit to try to get their claim resolved and say they're sad it had to come to this.

“I’m very disappointed and I’m confused,” Hoffman said. “I don’t understand. I begged them to call me.”