Last Aug. 3, Richard L. Hughes and his wife Daryl came home to their $120,000 colonial-style home in Brookeville after visiting a relative.
At first glance, Hughes said, he thought someone had straffed the house with a machine gun.
"I couldn't believe it," said the 38-year-old Hughes after eying the pockmarked south and southeast sides of the green aluminum siding that covers his home.
The Hughes house had been severely damaged in a freakish hailstorm that wreaked havoc on 200 homes in the Olney and Brookeville area.
Powered by 50-mile-an-hour winds, hailstones that Hughes said were bigger than golf balls pelted the area, piercing siding, breaking windows and denting shutters.
Hughes immediately called his insurance company, State Farm Insurance and, within 30 minutes, the agent arrived -- just like they do on television.
Hughes said he was sure his policy would cover the cost of repairing his damaged home. But the State Farm agent said he could not resolve Hughes' claim on the spot. Instead, the regional office in Rockville would have to review the case and make a decision, the agent said.
Hughes, a data processor, said he received a check in partial payment for the estimated $3,500 in storm damage. Then his agent gave him the names of three independent siding contractors and told Hughes to obtain repair estimates.
The company that manufactured the aluminum siding on Hughes' home had gone out of business, and he was unable to find siding that matched. State Farm told Hughes that his policy would cover only the cost of replacing the damaged siding, not the siding on the entire house.
After checking with his neighbors, Hughes discovered that some companies were willing to pay the cost of replacing all siding, damaged and undamaged, and some were not.
Hughes and about 50 of his disgruntled neighbors, who reported an estimated total of $100,000 in damages to their dwellings, decided to fight the reluctant insurance companies. By September, the Olney and Brookeville homeowners had formed HAIL -- Homeowners Against Insurance Loopholes. HAIL presented the Maryland Insurance Commission with a stack of 50 complaints.
Bob Hunter, president of the nonprofit National Insurance Consumer Oranization, a consumer-assistance office formed in October, said he was contacted by Homeowners Against Insurance Loopholes. "I reviewed their policies and told them they had a very strong case," said Hunter.
Hunter said he advised the homeowners organization to seek help from the Maryland Insurance Commission.
Within a week, Homeowners Against Insurance Loopholes had filed its complaint with Commissioner Edward J. Birrane.
After investigating the homeowner's claims, Birrane directed the insurance companies to negotiate with the homeowners and pay for the cost of restoring the homes covered by full-risk policies to their original condition, with new siding jobs.
Although Hughes expects State Farm to pay the $6,000 cost of a new aluminum-siding job, the insurance companies can appeal the commissioner's decision at a hearing before Birrane.