After Sandy, the adjuster comes, but not the cash

NEW YORK Fri Dec 14, 2012 1:14pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - When your home is destroyed, your first urge is to fix it. You want to rebuild, remove the smell of saturated insulation and the sight of mud-stained floors with the new, the clean, the livable.

When we first came back to our Rockaway Beach, New York, home two days after Superstorm Sandy hit, my husband smiled as he ripped out soaked carpet. Watching our contractor haul away pieces of drywall filled us with relief.

We were making progress. We would rebuild. We would move back home. Life would get back to normal.

In that plan, we forgot to factor in one important variable: insurance. We have flood insurance and because we lack large cash reserves, we will need that money to rebuild. But we have no idea how large our settlement will be, or when it will arrive. (link.reuters.com/nyf64t)

And so the rebuilding process has turned into a high-stakes bet. The best way to win is to know what is in the other guy's hand.

Suddenly, you are talking with your neighbors about the most taboo subject of all: Money. Did you get an advance on your settlement? How much? What is your contractor's estimate? Did you get a settlement offer yet?

In my neighborhood, the answers to these questions are especially relevant because not only do we all have identical damage, we pretty much have identical homes.

I live in a planned development called Arverne by the Sea in Rockaway Beach. My neighbors and I all bought our homes new about six years ago.

Our layouts are basically the same. Some people upgraded their interiors with a new kitchen, flooring or built-in wall units.

Others had more extensive damage to siding and roofs that would result in higher claims. In terms of things that would need to be fixed, we were all in the same boat: New entry doors, windows, floors, kitchens, bathrooms, walls, garages doors and heating and cooling systems.

I spoke with eight of my neighbors. Almost everyone has a different insurance company. One person had an appointment with her adjuster within a week of the storm and a month later had her final settlement check in hand. But that is the anomaly.

Most people waited weeks for an appointment for the initial on-site inspection by an adjuster, who surveys the damage on behalf of the insurance company. Advance payments ranged from $10,000 to $40,000.

Many have not been able to cash their checks because they are made out to the insured as well as the mortgage company - yet another hassle that delays getting money in the bank.

Except for that one neighbor, no one else has received a final settlement offer. Contractor repair estimates range from $70,000 to $210,000.

I was hoping for a $40,000 advance. After all, we'd already shelled out $20,000 of our own money to purchase a new heating and cooling system and pay for the demolition and sanitizing work. Once the renovation starts, our contractor will need a big chunk of cash upfront.

Our rebuilding estimate, on top of what we've already spent, is $108,000. Would the insurance company agree? Our meeting with the adjuster would give us some idea.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. the day of the adjuster's visit. My alarm would not go off for another 90 minutes, but already my mind was racing. Please let him give us a generous advance. Please let the final settlement be fair. Please God, don't make this any harder than it has to be.

My neighbors all told me how nice, pleasant and understanding their adjusters were. Well, every group has its outlier. And we found ours.

Our adjuster was irked that we didn't have our old appliances on hand for him to inspect. "But we have pictures," we assured him. He grunted.

We, like our neighbors, heeded New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's order that homeowners throw out damaged goods because the six-foot mounds of trash that filled our peninsula had become safety hazards.

"This receipt is not itemized," he grumbled in response to our heating and cooling invoice. "This means nothing to me."

Our adjuster was rude, belligerent and condescending. But we took it. We didn't mention that we had waited more than a month for his arrival.

At the end of the visit, he sat in his truck and sent his assistant to give us his offer: $20,000 in advance, based on an initial assessment of $45,000 in damages.

I didn't know whether to cry or throw up. The total figure was less than half of our contractor's estimate for the reconstruction. We'd already spent $20,000. How could the total estimate possibly be $45,000?

I started to sob on the front stoop. I guess that was better than throwing up. It was the first relentless gush of tears since the whole debacle began. My destroyed house, my stained wedding dress, my soaked scrapbook of my firstborn's early years had overwhelmed me but did not overtake me. This experience did.

In what seemed like an attempt to calm me down, he explained that the $45,000 was just an initial value. It did not mean anything because he had not been able to review all of our documentation. Once we submitted our contents list and photographs he would be able to give us a more accurate number.

He left that day with our agreement on the $20,000 as an advance on our flood damage and an extra $5,000 as part of our $11,000 in contents coverage. The check came within a week, along with an apology from my insurance company regarding the treatment from our adjuster after I lodged a complaint.

The most challenging aspect still lies ahead: We have no idea whether our settlements will be enough to cover our costs.

Halting the work until that is answered would likely be the more prudent thing to do. But how long can you suspend your life? How long can you rely on the generosity of others or sleep on a strange bed before your patience runs out?

You do it with a hope and a prayer. It's definitely not the best financial strategy. But for right now, it's all we've got.

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by Lauren Young and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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