What you need to know about insurance for your losses

With wildfires raging in the Bay Area, many wonder how to deal with the practicalities of having to be evacuated – or worse, if their home is lost or damaged. Find answers to common questions about insurance, money, and real estate.

Q: I had to evacuate and I do not yet know the status of my house. What should I do?

ON: The first, said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a nonprofit that helps consumers navigate the insurance maze, is to get a copy of your full insurance policy to see what it does and what it doesn’t. You can ask your agent, call the company, or log on to the company’s website to download a copy. She recommends printing one out so you can highlight it and take notes.

Q: What should I look for in my policy?

ON: Find out the maximum utility available, any restrictions that will affect the flow of those funds, how much money you have to spend on repairs or rebuilds, when you can access that money, and what you need to do to access it.

Q: My home is lost or damaged. What am I doing?

ON: After reviewing your policies, notify your agent and file a claim. If your home is uninhabitable, focus on securing temporary housing as soon as possible. However, Bach warns that you shouldn’t make any major financial decisions in the first month.

“People are not in the best of mental health after experiencing such profound trauma,” she said. “You don’t sleep well; It is not a good time to make big decisions. “

The California Department of Insurance has a helpful list of 10 tips for forest fire applicants.

Q: Will insurance pay the cost of living while I am evacuated?

ON: Most homeowner policies cover evacuation costs if you are unable to use your home due to an covered hazard such as wildfire or mandatory evacuation. This includes spending money on temporary housing, moving expenses, feeding pets, buying clothes, and eating out when you don’t have access to the kitchen. Make sure you keep receipts for each expense.

Q: How long is the displacement coverage?

ON: People complained to the California Department of Insurance after the forest fires this summer that their additional living expenses were cut after two weeks unless they could prove that their property was still uninhabitable even if they were still under evacuation orders. Others complained that these services were stopped even though there was no electricity or water in their homes. California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara issued a notice earlier this month urging insurers to cover living expenses for more than two weeks, as well as expenses for those without water or electricity.

SB872, which passed the legislation with broad support from both parties, would fix this by extending the two-week limit and providing coverage when an undamaged home cannot be inhabited for other reasons, such as water or electricity loss due to a covered risk. Governor Gavin Newsom has until Wednesday to sign the bill. His office did not respond to a query about his plans.

Q: When do I get displacement money?

ON: Insurers sometimes prefer to reimburse the cost after paying out of pocket, which can be a hardship. SB872 (see above) would require insurance companies to pay four months upfront living expenses plus 25% of payments for lost content without submitting an inventory form.

Two firefighters stand by a tangled house as the shady fire burns in Santa Rosa on Monday. Many people are concerned about recovering insurance money to cover damage to their property.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Meanwhile, Lara issued an emergency notice urging insurance companies to give survivors flexibility with deadlines and documentation, and to cover a quarter of the lost possessions with no supplies. “It’s a request, not an order,” said Michael Soller, a spokesman for the California Department of Insurance. “Anyone whose insurance company does not comply should call us” at 800-927-4357.

Q: My insurance company says my home is now habitable, but I think it’s not safe yet. What should I do?

ON: This is an increasingly common problem, Bach said, noting that what was essentially said to some in Boulder Creek who suffered the CZU Complex fires in Santa Cruz County, “Here is a sponge and bottle of cleaner.”

An air quality expert – not an adjuster – should determine when it is safe to move back in, she said. Homeowners should obtain a professional estimate of the cost of restoring smoke and other damage.

Q: I am a renter and have tenant insurance. What am I doing?

ON: Get a copy of your policy. Make an inventory and evaluate all losses, including possessions, moving costs, additional rent. Notify your insurer and file a claim.

Q: I am a renter and I do not have rental insurance. What are my options for help?

ON: The Red Cross often offers cash cards for around $ 300 and two or three nights in a hotel, Bach said. Places can offer protection. You can also apply for an individual FEMA grant.

Q: What if I am worried that my insurance company will drop me?

ON: Companies generally cannot cancel their policy before it expires and must cancel a non-renewal with 45 days’ notice. If your policy is canceled or not renewed, ask your insurer about steps you can take to keep it, then look for other options.

Video: San Francisco Chronicle

“We hear the same stories over and over again: people struggling to find insurance, keeping insurance even if they can find it, and seeing costs rise due to the risk of forest fire,” Soller said.

If you can’t find insurance, the state offers one last resort: the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) plan, 800-339-4099. It’s expensive and limited to just fire and smoke. For example, it doesn’t cover water damage, mold, theft, or liability. You can purchase an add-on policy called “Misc. Terms” to fix deficiencies.

Q: How can I protect my home from forest fires?

ON: Experts recommend removing the Perimeter Brush for a “defensible barrier” of 5 feet, preferably 10. Remove leaves and debris from gutters, and screen or cover eaves, vents, and other openings that allow embers to land. If you can afford it, it is recommended that you switch to a metal roof.

Both the Department of Insurance and United’s policyholders hope to convince insurers to incentivize these moves.

In an earlier version of this story, FEMA assistance eligibility was incorrectly stated. People of all income levels are eligible.

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Consider increasing your coverage.

“Two thirds of forest fire victims are severely underinsured,” said Bach.

If you are a tenant, especially in an area hit by a forest fire, you should consider getting the renter’s insurance.

“People don’t know that if you don’t have tenant insurance, you aren’t insured for your possessions,” Soller said.

Q: What insurance resources should I use?

ON: The California Department of Insurance encourages consumers to call 800-927-4357 with any questions.

“We have people ready to help,” said Soller. “We can help people get the most out of their policies.”

On October 19, there will be a virtual hearing on forest fire insurance from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

United Policyholders has a library of information on the California forest fires in 2020 and regularly hosts webinars on topics such as navigating claims and what tenants can do. Questions at [email protected] are welcome.

Carolyn Said is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid

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