Home Insurance Tips From Legal Expert

Coral Gables attorney Ben Alvarez says his law firm has helped 5,000 South Floridians who felt they were wrongfully denied coverage

Senen Jimenez is fighting his insurance company over damage to his Miramar home from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. And he's not alone.

"We probably still have approximately 3,000 open cases from Hurricane Wilma," said Ben Alvarez, a partner at the Coral Gables law firm Alvarez, Carbonell, Feltman, Jimenez and Gomez. 

The law firm said they helped 5,000 South Floridians like Jimenez, who felt like they were wrongfully denied coverage by insurance companies.

But Alvarez says they all could've been avoided.

"They're not the good hands people, they're not your friendly neighbor. State Farm, AllState, Nationwide is not on your side, ” Alvarez said. "Whatever you think they may be, they're there to deny claims and they do it over and over and over."  

The Insurance Information Institute, which is funded by insurance companies to do research, to educate and to publicize the industry, said the thousands of claims dating back to Wilma are a product of the Florida law that allowed people to file a claim five years after a storm. The law has since been changed to three years. The institute also said no other state allows that much time.

Alvarez's claims "are not indicative of the way it works for the majority of people," said  Lynne McChristian, the Florida representative for the institute. 

When contacted, Nationwide said they have paid millions of dollars in claims this year alone, and AllState didn't immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. State Farm referred to the institute for comment. 

After  Wilma, Jimenez says he saw roof tiles, debris, and a neighbor's screen door in his pool. He called his insurance company, but claimed they weren't much help.

"They basically kind of brushed me off, saying if you don't have the expense to cover your minimum deductible, we're not going to pay you anything anyways,” Jimenez said.

Alvarez said “it's common knowledge that agents from many carriers get a bonus at the end of the year if no claims are made upon those policies."

That's why, home owners have to be prompt and persistent, according to Alvarez said. He recommends that they must keep calling and keep records, the more photos and documentation, the better.

Jimenez grew impatient waiting for his insurance company, so he hired a roofer on his own, and paid cash.

"It's OK to do it, nothing precludes you from doing it, but the problem is if you do it wrong, they're going to come back and say 'it was a faulty repair, so we're not going to pay you because of that'," Alvarez said.

Another tip from Alvarez comes straight from any standard insurance policy.

"You've got to protect property from further damage, if your roof is damaged, go out and get a blue tarp, put it on there. If your windows are cracked, buy some plywood," he said.

Just a few months ago, Jimenez discovered new water damage and mold throughout his home.

Alvarez said this is a common issue among his clients. He added the most basic, but maybe most important tip is to be familiar with your policy, and you don't have a copy, request one immediately.

"I ended up losing out of pocket, and I could stand to lose more because now I have major damage,” said Jimenez.

Alvarez said 98 percent of his property insurance cases have settled favorably. And when the client wins the case, attorney fees are paid by the insurance carrier. If the client loses the case, the attorney doesn't collect a fee, he said.

Tips from  law firm Alvarez, Carbonell, Feltman, Jimenez and Gomez on things to before and after a loss:
Before a hurricane or windstorm
Have a camera with batteries fully charged
Locate a copy of your insurance policy.  If you do not have a copy, request a copy from the carrier or your agent.   
Create a file (digital or hard copy) in your records wherein you will maintain all storm related materials, i.e., photos, receipts, documents, notes, etc.
After a hurricane or windstorm
Protect the property from further damage (aka, “mitigate the damages”)
Clean up any debris
Dry up any water
Cover roof with a tarp
Read your insurance policy
Call insurance company no matter how minimal the damage may appear at the time.  You need to create a record that damage has in fact taken place.
Take notes on the date that you called; keep an accurate record of all phone call and/or communications you make with the carrier, agents or representatives of the carrier. 
Get a name of the person you spoke with.
Insist that the carrier send a representative to your home to inspect your damage. 
Take photographs of the property and surroundings.
Keep a record of any repairs made, including any materials purchased for repairs
Make photocopies of receipts, invoices, proposals, estimates and any and all documents related to storm damage (receipts from retailers tend to fade or turn black after only a few weeks)
Call a public adjuster to assist you with the reporting of the claim should you experience any resistance from the carrier or if you believe you have not been treated or compensated fairly by your carrier.
Call an attorney familiar with insurance claim litigation.
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