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NEW YORK With superstorm Sandy causing an estimated $50 billion in damages, residents of the U.S. Northeast region face untold months of home repair and rebuilding. Even home improvement experts like Tom Kraeutler were affected, although the New Jersey shore resident fared much better than his neighbors.
"Thankfully, we had installed a natural gas-powered standby generator years ago," says Kraeutler, an author and co-host of "The Money Pit" radio program. "It ran for seven days straight and kept most of the home's essential circuits going."
In an interview with Reuters, Kraeutler shared some practical advice for handling the tough tasks of cleanup, restoration and the inevitable paperwork that comes with insurance claims.
Q: Walk us through some ways to get the most out of your insurance company after a disaster like this one hits.
A: Ugh! There's rarely anything pleasant about dealing with an insurance company, so you'd best just accept that the process can sometimes be adversarial and prepare for it.
Consider hiring a public adjuster to assess your claim. Look for someone who's a member of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters. Public adjusters work for you and not the insurance company. Plus, they work on a commission based on the percentage of the claim, so as opposed to the insurance company's adjuster, they are motivated to find as much wrong as possible.
Whatever you do, don't sign off on any documents (including checks) that stipulate your acceptance of the insurance company adjuster's damage estimate.
Q: Once you get your settlement money, how can you spend it in the most efficient way?
A: There's a smart saying that goes: "Plan your work, then work your plan." If there's major damage, find an architect or design professional to help you develop a plan and specifications for the project. Having a plan that lays out everything you expect is invaluable, as then you can submit it to several contractors for quotes, and be sure they're all bidding apples-to-apples for the same project.
Now is also a good time to take advantage of developments in building materials that make them less susceptible to disaster. Instead of using standard paper-faced drywall, consider the new fiberglass-faced drywall, which is not susceptible to mold growth. Likewise, new fiberglass doors are far more airtight and watertight than wood or metal doors, and windows are available with shatterproof laminated glass that can offer better protection from flying debris.
Q: What advice would you have for folks looking at generators, and how do you maintain them between uses?
A: If you're going to invest in a generator, you have to decide whether it's worth it to get a portable one that runs on gasoline, or a standby generator that runs on natural gas or propane.
With gas generators, you have to run extension cords to whatever you want to power. And gasoline only lasts 30 days before it goes bad, so you have to add fuel stabilizer to the gas so that you can have it last for a year instead of a month. If you run the generator for extended periods of time during a storm, be sure to replace the oil.
A standby generator is outside your house; it's a permanent fixture about the size of a central air conditioner. And you don't have to buy gasoline; it's always on. It has a component called a transfer switch, which is either built into the electrical panel or is adjacent to it, as it is in my house.
You also have to think about what you want to power, and there's a great website called Electric Generators Direct (electricgeneratorsdirect.com). It has sizing tools on it so you can count up how many devices you want to power to figure out what size generator you'll need.
You won't want to power large air conditioners on it, but if you can live with that, you can get something that delivers between 8 and 12 kilowatt-hours. If you can't get a standby generator locally because of a crisis or disaster, there are plenty of places you can buy them online.
Q: Damaged wiring and electrical lines have presented major hurdles for folks whose houses were hit by Sandy. What can you do to work around specific rooms that have issues, and plan efficiently for total repair?
A: All the wiring systems in damaged homes have to be re-inspected, but you don't have to replace the wiring right away where you had damage. You can de-energize those lines and disconnect them from the electrical panel. It's a quick process that some overbooked electricians can fit into their schedules. Then when electricians are more available, you can get someone to come to your home and replace all the bad wiring. That will also give you an opportunity to budget things out, and in the meantime, you can report to the power company that you're safe to power back up.
Q: Some desperate homeowners might be dealing with contractors for the first time. What are some ways to avoid unnecessary and exorbitant fees from contractors as you begin the rebuilding process?
A: It's really important to be aware of conflicts of interest. Contractors too often find problems and offer to fix them when it is in their best financial interest to do so.
If you have a big project, I'd strongly advise you to get an architect or professional home inspector to help manage the job. The cost of having a pro on board can be far, far cheaper than the mistakes I see when well-meaning homeowners try to do it all themselves.
To the snake contractors out there who are gouging victims, I say beware. The governors of both New Jersey and New York are targeting you, and the rest of us would like to see nothing less than for you to be punished.
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(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Lisa Von Ahn)