Heavy branches from a neighbor's silver maple snapped off during Friday's violent storm and plunged onto power lines connected to Tom MacDougall's house in Northeast Baltimore.
The wires ripped from the dwelling, damaging its vinyl siding. The branches chipped MacDougall's roof shingles, destroyed gutter guards and shattered a white wooden trellis behind the house.
"I've had minor things over the years, you know, but I just fixed them myself," said MacDougall as he watched two representatives from Travelers Insurance — one wielding a tape measure, the other a clipboard — as they climbed on his roof Tuesday afternoon. "This is the first time I've ever made a claim."
MacDougall, still without power Tuesday in the century-old Hamilton home he shares with his wife, Karin, is one of many homeowners tapping their insurance policies. The end of a storm is often the beginning of a homeowner's contact with an insurer.
By midday Tuesday, at least 18,000 insurance claims had been filed by Maryland residents, according to the state's insurance administration.
MacDougall, a welder, said that until Monday he wouldn't have been able to name the company that insures his house. His insurance agent put him in touch with Travelers, which arranged for representatives to come out within a day.
"We're going to try to write up an estimate and give the homeowner a check today," said Sandra Biagini, a claims representative for Travelers, after she descended from the MacDougalls' roof. "Then it's his responsibility to go out and find a contractor and have the work done."
Requesting a visit from an insurance company representative is a crucial step in ensuring that a home does not lose value after violent weather, said David Fox, executive director of the National Storm Damage Center, a Colorado-based company that certifies contractors who perform storm repairs.
It's better to be safe than sorry, Fox said. If there's any chance that damage was done, have an insurance company inspect your home.
"A lot of people get to the other end of these storms and look at their house and say, 'Well, my house is OK.' And then five years later, after their statute of limitations to file a claim has passed ... they realize they have $10,000 worth of roofing damage from the storm," Fox said.
Homeowners typically lose the ability to file a storm damage claim within two years, Fox added.
A few broken shingles — like the ones on the MacDougalls' roof — could easily go unnoticed but could let in water over a period of months or years, Fox said. Water can lead to mold, rot and structural damage.
"Sometimes we catch things the homeowner didn't even know they have wrong," said Tom Scherrer Jr., a property claim services manager for Travelers, who reviewed the MacDougalls' home with Biagini.
Fortunately, MacDougall had checked the situation himself and knew the extent of the damage. He'd gone up on the roof and removed branches and debris.
Some homeowners, fearful that their actions might void a claim, are hesitant to touch anything before an insurance representative arrives, Scherrer said.
As long as the damage is documented and not exacerbated, making repairs or temporary fixes — such as covering a hole in the roof with a tarp — is fine, Scherrer said.
Even having permanent repair work done before an insurance agent gets to a home is fine — as long as the homeowner documents the damage with photographs, he said.
"When we get into problems is when we get out to a home and everything's all done, there's no documentation and we have to re-create it," Scherrer said.
Said Biagini: "Just make sure I can tell what happened."
Biagini — who usually reviews workers' compensation claims but was deployed to investigate homeowners' damage after the storm — had an office set up in her car: a laptop computer in the passenger's seat connected to a printer in the back.
Software provides the approximate cost of contractors in a specific area as well as the market cost of repair supplies, such as shingles or siding, Biagini said. The computer program then calculates the amount owed each customer.
For most houses, an inspection takes about 30 minutes, Scherrer said. If damage is severe, an investigation can take up to half a day.
Biagini presented her findings to MacDougall at his dining room table.
She broke up her estimate into sections: labor and supplies for roof repairs, labor to fix the vinyl siding and haul off tree debris, and the replacement cost for the trellis and gutter guards.
The MacDougalls also were reimbursed $200 for spoiled food.
Minus the couple's $500 deductible, Biagini estimated the cost of restoring the home to its pre-storm state at $1,825.28. She handed Tom MacDougall a check in that amount.
If the contractors MacDougall hires to make repairs contest her estimates, Biagini said, she's willing to hear their case for increasing the claim amount.
"I'm more than satisfied," MacDougall said. "I just wanted the stuff fixed to the way it was before."
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