After the Fire Comes the Adjuster

Fire destroyed the Northwest home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who has hired a public insurance adjuster to help her prepare her homeowners insurance claim. .
Fire destroyed the Northwest home of Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who has hired a public insurance adjuster to help her prepare her homeowners insurance claim. . (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Emma L. Carew
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

In July, when fire tore through the Northwest mansion belonging to local activist and arts patron Peggy Cooper Cafritz, it set off what is likely to be a long journey toward rebuilding. Facing total loss, Cafritz hired a public insurance adjuster to estimate the dollar amount and help prepare her homeowners insurance claim.

"It would be a truly daunting experience to do something like this on your own, for this level of claim," said her nephew Casey Cooper, who is a Washington lawyer.

Though the adjuster, Harvey Goodman, president of Goodman-Gable-Gould Adjusters International in Rockville, would not comment specifically on Cafritz's claim, he said another total-loss claim he processed earlier this year took about five months to settle with the insurance company. Many people don't realize the emotional toll such a loss may take on them, Goodman said, and it can be difficult to recognize all the aspects of such a complex claim.

"People get traumatized and emotional, as they should, when their houses burn down," he said. "You've got to look at this as a business transaction, because that's how the insurance company is going to look at it."

Despite the trauma, there are steps homeowners can take when dealing with their insurance company that can minimize the chances of running into trouble with their claim.

One of the most frequent complaints against insurers arises when an insurer bases its rebuilding cost estimate on rates charged by its own contractors and a homeowner has the work done by a different contractor who charges more, said Thomas E. Hampton, commissioner of the District's Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking. That office fielded 64 complaints against homeowners insurance companies last year. (The majority of the roughly 1,000 complaints the office received last year concerned auto policies.) But Hampton said he thinks there are many more complaints that go unreported.

Several lawyers and insurance experts offered advice on ways homeowners can be more savvy when dealing with insurance companies:

-- Never agree to a recorded interview with someone else's insurance company, says Paulette Chapman, a personal-injury lawyer in the District. You might be asked for such an interview if someone fell on your steps and filed an insurance claim with their own company, for example. They might ask leading questions that can be used against you, she said.

Offer to submit a written statement instead, says Alice Wolfson, chairman of the board for United Policy Holders, a consumer group based in San Francisco. You also can request that your own lawyer be present when you speak to the insurance company.

"Most insurance policy holders want to be the most honest, forthright insurance policy holder in the world," she said. "They're going to give tons and tons of information that could possibly be used against them."

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