December 8, 2023

Your Money: Fighting the Insurer Over Hurricane Sandy Damage

Four months after the storm, they are waiting to collect enough money from their flood insurance policy to repair the three-story, 150-year-old building that is their home. The water filled the five-foot crawl space under the house and rose to three feet on the first floor, which Mr. Kondaks had used as a painting studio and work space.

“Until you experience it, it’s hard to conceive,” Ms. Kondaks said. “You just think, ‘Water. Water cleans things. Water doesn’t destroy an 1860s house that has been here forever.’ ”

About a month after the storm hit, an insurance adjuster, representing the flood insurance company, arrived on the scene and spent a mere 20 minutes to estimate the cost of repairs, she said. The figure he came up with, about $49,000, is a fraction of what the couple said they expected to pay to restore their home to its prestorm condition.

As a result, Ms. Kondaks, who typically assists with her husband’s business installing fine stonework in homes, has instead been working on the claim as if it were her full-time job.

They surely aren’t the first storm victims to do battle with their insurer to try to collect what they believe they are owed. In their case, they say their dispute can be traced back to the insurance adjuster.

Adjusters are typically contractors hired by the insurers in the wake of a big storm. Known as “storm troopers,” they descend from all corners of the country to estimate what is called the “scope of loss,” or what it will take to put the home to its prestorm state.

“All of these guys are different,” said Leslie L. Knox, a public adjuster, who is hired by policyholders to help resolve disputes against their insurance companies. “Some are very knowledgeable, and some lack the experience necessary to handle the claims. There is such a dichotomy of talent out there.”

Flood policyholders typically dispute one of two things — what is covered by the policy and how it should be priced. In the Kondakses’ case, their public adjuster, Michael Palmiero of American Claims Adjusters in Brooklyn, said the scope of their loss had not been properly addressed by the insurance adjuster. “It was an impossible task to get him back to say, ‘You overlooked this. You need to sit down with us and we need to go over the whole file end to end.’ ”

A soft-spoken woman, Ms. Kondaks, who lives with her husband on the top two floors of their building, acknowledges that they are lucky compared with many other victims of Hurricane Sandy. But when she speaks about the problem with her insurer, she sounds as if she has been to war. From the way the couple has been treated by their insurance company, she said, “It’s getting hard to believe we even had a flood.” The adjuster submitted his final report “without reviewing any of the painstaking amount of documentation we provided — photographs, labor sheets, receipts and real estimates,” she added.

Those documents explained that, among a long list of other items, the couple had to remove five layers of flooring. Each layer held water for weeks after the storm, compromising the joists underneath, which are still exposed. “We are having to sanitize, scrape and seal every bit of wood that was exposed to salt water,” she said. “If we don’t do this, we risk dry rot setting in, not to mention mildew.”

The adjuster, working for Colonial Claims on behalf of Fidelity National Indemnity Insurance, estimated that the work on the floor joists would cost a mere $425, compared with the $2,927 projected by the contractor hired by the homeowners. The insurance adjuster’s overall report also excluded a stone floor and fixtures in the bathroom, insulation in the basement and a subfloor in the hallway, to name a few of the other missing items, she said.

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