YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Procedural Blueprint if Your Home Burns

October 28, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

The lethal California wildfires already have destroyed hundreds of homes and hundreds of thousands of acres.

The financial damage will be huge too: Insurance claims could total $500 million, according to an estimate Monday by a Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst, a figure some experts called conservative.

If your house has been destroyed or damaged, here are questions to consider regarding insurance coverage:

What's my first step?

After securing your family's safety, insurers suggest contacting your agent or your insurance company's customer service line as soon as possible. Most companies have toll-free lines set up. (For an updated phone list, go to the Insurance Information Network of California's Web site at and click on "Brushfire update.")

Some insurers also have personnel at disaster recovery sites to offer speedy financial aid and claims information. State Farm Insurance Cos., for example, which has 22% of California homeowner policies, has sent agents and adjusters to San Diego and San Bernardino evacuation centers, spokeswoman Ena Alcaraz said.


What documents should I be prepared to provide?

It's helpful to have copies of your insurance policy and "declarations" page, which details your specific coverage limits. An inventory of your home's contents, including photographs or video records, also may smooth the process.


What if my insurance documents were destroyed in the fire?

Your insurance company should have all of your policy information on file, so you will still be covered. But it makes sense to always keep your home's inventory at a separate location, because that might be hard to reconstruct in the aftermath of disaster.


If I have a dispute with my insurance company over the amount of damage, what do I do?

Most companies have an appeals process. At State Farm, for instance, a dispute "would go to the proper management personnel and be reviewed," Alcaraz said. Consumers can contact the state Department of Insurance at (800) 927-HELP or (213) 897-8921, or on the Internet at, to make a complaint.

Private attorneys and public adjusters are available as well, said the consumer group United Policyholders, but they typically require contingent or percentage fees that will reduce your settlement. Check references, especially if someone approaches you offering to help, because disasters always attract con artists.


What if I don't have insurance, or sufficient coverage?

Now that President Bush has designated Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego counties as disaster areas, affected homeowners and business owners can apply for low-interest loans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency phone line, at (800) 621-FEMA, will be available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week starting today.


If I'm burned out of my home, what documentation do I need to be reimbursed for expenses?

Fire victims should keep receipts for all hotel rooms, food and staples bought to "maintain their regular standard of living," Alcaraz said. Such coverage for additional living expenses is standard with homeowner's policies at State Farm and some, but not all, other insurers, so consumers may want to make sure they have it when they do their annual coverage checkups, or as soon as they contact their agent to start a claim.


What if I'm a renter?

Renters insurance typically covers the customer's personal belongings and emergency living expenses, so the same advice applies: Keep an up-to-date home inventory, and save receipts if you are forced to leave. Landlords, conversely, will generally be covered for lost rent, but they should check their policy details.


Where can I go for more information?

United Policyholders, formed in the aftermath of the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, offers an online tip sheet for fire claimants at



Numbers for Insurance Claims

The Insurance Information Network of California is collecting contact and claims information from insurance carriers and will be updating it on its Web site at throughout this crisis.

Allstate...(800) 547-8676

Auto Club of So. Calif....(800) 672-5246

Calif. Casualty...(800) 800-9410

Farmers...(800) 435-7764

Farmers (Spanish)...(877) 732-5266

Fireman's Fund...(888) 347-3428

Liberty Mutual...(800) 225-2467

Mercury Insurance...(888) 313-6372

MetLife ...(800) 854-6011

Nationwide...(877) 422-6800

Oregon Mutual...(800) 934-3809

Prudential...(800) 437-3535

USAA...(800) 531-8222

Safeco...(800) 332-3226

State Farm...(800) 732-5246

Travelers...(800) 252-4633

21st Century...(800) 322-8200

Los Angeles Times Articles