Insurance errors sink Sandy victims
NEW YORK - Many homeowners who got slammed by Superstorm Sandy are finding their flood-insurance checks are nowhere near large enough to cover their repairs, and consumer advocates put some of the blame on errors by the multitude of adjusters who were hired in a hurry after the disaster.
They say policyholders are being shortchanged - sometimes by tens of thousands of dollars - because of adjusters' inexperience and their overreliance on computer programs, rather than construction know-how, to estimate rebuilding costs.
Those critics point to policyholders like John Lambert and Lee Ann Newland, whose house in Neptune, N.J., is still a moldy wreck a year after Sandy filled it with 4 1/2 feet of water.
If you buy drywall, flooring or a new boiler in New Jersey, you have to pay sales tax. But when the insurance adjuster was using computer software to calculate the cost of repairing the home, he neglected to click a box adding taxes to the estimate, according to a consultant hired by the couple.
That error alone cost the family $11,000, and they say it wasn't the only thing left out of their claim: The adjuster failed to account for phone jacks that needed to be replaced, ceiling paint in one room, pipes that rusted because of contact with salt water, baseboard heating in places and other items.
"It was stupid things. Little things. But it added up to be a huge amount of money," Newland said. She is trying to get the insurance company handling her claim to add $49,000 to her settlement. "In our case, that is the difference between us rebuilding, or not."
A similar pattern has been repeated up and down the East Coast as insurance companies working with the federal government have processed nearly 144,000 claims filed with the National Flood Insurance Program after the storm.
Insurance companies dispute that large numbers of customers are being paid less than what they are owed. They say the vast majority of adjusters do a methodical, professional job, and any oversights are easily corrected if homeowners can produce proof that a covered expense has been overlooked.
Immediately after the storm, insurance companies brought in an army of adjusters from all corners of the country. They arrived with varying degrees of expertise. All would have had to have passed a certification test in at least one state. Many were veterans of past floods and hurricanes, but not all.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the flood insurance program, requires adjusters to have four years' experience. But newcomers with no track record can start work after a brief training period under certain circumstances, if they are working for one of the major insurance carriers that handle the bulk of flood claims.