What homeowners can do now to prepare for insurance claims after Hurricane Florence

  • Taking photos of your belongings and your house can help document both what you own and their condition before the storm.
  • Understanding your insurance policy helps you know what is and isn't covered and how much your deductible is. It also can prevent a mistake when an insurance adjuster arrives to evaluate the damage.
  • If claims are widespread in your area, be prepared to face delays in the claims process.

If you're among the millions of East Coast residents in the path of Hurricane Florence and still have time to prepare before it reaches you, consider adding this to your to-do list: insurance claim preparation.

The slow-moving, massive Category 1 hurricane made landfall Friday morning in North Carolina, bringing with it damaging winds, life-threatening storm surges and torrential downpour. Some spots could see as much as 40 inches of rain over the next few days, which means flooding will be a major threat across a broad swath of the region — including further inland even after the storm weakens, according to the National Hurricane Center.

A man uses a drill to install storm shutters on a home in Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina on September 11, 2018. 
Alex Edelman | AFP | Getty Images
A man uses a drill to install storm shutters on a home in Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks of North Carolina on September 11, 2018. 

If the storm is heading your way, it can be worth taking a few minutes to consider the insurance aspect of recovery. Last year's three monster hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — caused $265 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Heavy winds and flooding caused by Florence could leave behind a trail of destruction that would mean months of cleanup and recovery in some areas. In the midst of dealing with the emotional upheaval caused by disasters, anticipating an insurance claim can be one less stressor.

Here are some expert tips to help you prepare.

Take photos

One of the easiest ways to document your house, your belongings and their condition is to take pictures of them.

"Just get your cell phone out and take hundreds of photos," said Daniel Odess, founder and president of GlobalPro Recovery in Coral Gables, Florida.

"Take photos from every corner of the room and capture the condition of the floor, the walls and ceiling," said Odess, who, as a public adjuster, helps homeowners and businesses navigate the claims process. "Walk around the outside of the house to get all angles, and then take photos of the area around the house."

You can even got shots of the contents in your drawers, cabinets and closets if you want to be thorough, he said.

The idea is to have proof not only of what you own, but also what kind of shape it was in before the storm. If you can't prove the prior condition of, say, your now-missing side door, it could cause snags or denials in the claims process if the insurance company has reason to question whether it was maintained properly.

For purposes of documenting before and after, video generally doesn't work as well, Odess said.

"Some people do it because it's quick and easy, but it's difficult to search and bookmark," he said, adding that photos can be sorted and cataloged easily.

Once you've taken the pictures, back them up online if possible.

Know your policy

Make sure you have a copy of your policy and understand it.

For starters, it likely includes a phone number for starting the claims process. Additionally, you should prepare yourself for what's covered and what's not.

Homeowners' policies generally exclude damage caused from flooding, which means separate coverage would be needed. Likewise, most homeowners insurance comes with a hurricane deductible.

It typically ranges from about 1 percent to 5 percent, depending on the specifics of your insurance contract. Some homeowners also opt for an even higher deductible if it's available.

It's important to note that the percentage is based on your insured value, not the damage caused. So if your home is insured for $200,000 and you have a 2 percent hurricane deductible, you'll pay $4,000 even if the damage is only, say, $10,000.

Policies also have coverage exclusions and limits that are helpful to know.

Remember, your local agent might not be easily available after the storm.

"If you're evacuating, and your agent is local, they'll be evacuating as well," Odess said. "And if there's a roadblock or something after the storm and they can't get back, you're not getting anything from them until they get their business back up and running."

Understanding your coverage also can be useful when the insurance adjustor arrives.

More from Personal Finance:
These countries top the US when it comes to retirement
Dodd-Frank changed consumer protections after the financial crisis — here's how that's shaking out today
The best things in life may not be free, if you spend a lot of time on social media

If there's widespread damage, adjustors will be handling an overwhelming number of claims, Odess said. They also might not be familiar with local laws that affect your coverage or they might make inaccurate assumptions.

"This is done by humans, and they can make mistakes," Odess said.

Be prepared to wait

Depending on the number of claims your insurer is fielding and the specifics of your situation, the process could take about four to eight months, Odell said.

"Go into this with the mindset that you have to be patient," Odell said.

Additionally, he said, plan to avoid spending out of pocket on rebuilding until you know what your insurance will cover.

"Some people overextend on rebuilding, thinking they will recover it all from insurance but then they don't," Odell said. "Until you have a full and final settlement, it's not a done deal."