NEW YORK (Reuters) - If a tree falls, how do you get your insurer to listen?
Tree damage is plaguing many homeowners and businesses after Sandy blasted through the Northeast, inflicting much of her damage on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. As of Friday morning, New York City, received more than 6,700 calls for downed trees, according to the Joint Information Center at the Office of Emergency Management.
“We are seeing a lot of tree-related damage, and it is widespread,” says Nicole Alley, a spokeswoman at insurer USAA, which is based in San Antonio, Texas.
Insurance coverage varies for trees, depending on the scope of damage.
“If a tree hits your house, you are covered for the damage it does to the house and the stuff in it, as well as cost of removing the tree,” explains Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute. “If it falls in your backyard and makes a mess, generally speaking, it’s not going to be covered by homeowner’s insurance.”
Cars damaged by trees fall into a different insurance bucket - they’re typically covered by automobile policies.
Thousands of trees got knocked down by Sandy and many of them still haven’t been removed. Here’s some advice on what to do next:
If you still haven’t filed an insurance claim for a downed tree, do it now to get the process started. Even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal in light of some major catastrophes, you need to alert your insurer.
Be sure to take photographs of the tree as well as video, if possible.
When you call to make a claim, be sure to give your insurer an assessment of the situation.
“Is it still dangerous that it could fall and kill someone - or is it just minor damage to the roof?” Salvatore says. Insurers are prioritizing cases, so be honest, she says.
In many cases, insurance adjusters work with tree removal companies to get rid of unwanted limbs as quickly as possible. A spokeswoman at Bartlett Tree Experts, which is a national tree care company, says she doesn’t have data on removal wait times in the Northeast. “But I can tell you our offices are quite busy right now,” she says.
Some homeowners aren’t so patient. A lawyer by trade, Jack Yoskowitz of Long Island has morphed into a modern day Paul Bunyon in the past week, cutting down damaged trees with a chainsaw. Seven trees fell on his property - one hit a swing set and the other knocked out part of a fence, he says.
On Friday Yoskowitz helped a neighbor remove a tree from a driveway.
“I‘m not going to wait,” Yoskowitz says, noting that neighbors who have got in touch with tree removal services are reporting wait times of three weeks.
If you do need to work with a professional tree removal firm, be sure to use your insurer as a resource, and ask for referrals. In addition, your insurer should provide an estimate how much you can expect tree removal to cost.
Don’t expect your insurance policy to cover the cost of replacing that prized Weeping Willow, though. While homeowners’ policies cover items lost due to theft and fire, they typically won’t cover the cost of replacing expensive shrubbery hit by wind damage, Salvatore says.
After a 75-foot maple fell on Michelle Leder’s Peekskill, New York, home Monday evening, she filed a claim and tweeted photographs of it to her insurer, Liberty Mutual.
On Friday afternoon, an adjuster came to assess the damage - and cut a check for $3,200 to replace half of the roof. Leder has more than 12,000 followers via her @footnoted feed.
“I‘m pretty sure (tweeting) helped,” Leder says.
The Twitter handles of some big insurers include @libertymutual, @Allstate, @usaa, @StateFarm, @FiremansFund, and @TRV_Insurance.
Although it’s been several days since Sandy hit, it doesn’t seem like many customers are using this form of communication.
Some consumers are bypassing the insurance route, entirely.
Pat Sullivan of Rutherford, New Jersey, has given up hope. Though a 25-foot tree branch “weighing a ton” damaged the foundation of his home along with some siding during Hurricane Sandy, he’s not calling his insurer this time around.
During Hurricane Irene, a tree ripped a plastic conduit holding power wires off his home. Sullivan dutifully called his insurance company - and regretted it later. While the repairs cost $5,000, the insurance company only reimbursed him for $1,500, which Sullivan says was small compensation for the delays, the time involved with meeting with insurance experts - and the paperwork.
“It just wasn’t worth it,” says Sullivan. “Somewhere down the line I‘m going to see an increase in my rates and that will wipe out what I get.”
Additional reporting by Chelsea Emery in New Jersey; editing by Andrew Hay