Storm Damage

A Letter to a College Classmate: Thoughts on Insurance Repairs


I’m sorry I don’t work in your State, I would be more than happy to help you out with your recent “kitchen flood”.   Hopefully, I can answer some of your questions about the process you are going through from the perspective of a Professional Remodeling Contractor that has been involved in his share of insurance restorations over the years (Four Hurricanes to date, not to mention all the other things that “happen” to homes)

All flooring and drywall had to be removed because of water heater failing in attic
Water Heater in Attic Failed – all materials that could not be dried were removed

I’d like to start this discussion with a saying that my very close friends who are in insurance and I share: “99% of insurance adjusters and contractors give the rest a bad name”.  I have great friends in the insurance business who are ethical and honorable people. We all have very strong opinions on the matter and theirs are every bit as valid.  I hope they don’t get too mad at my opinions, here.

Insurance adjusting is done by an entirely separate department of the insurance company.  The agent has little to no interaction and the personal relationship between the agent and the customer is usually not in play.  The “Adjustment” or estimating the value of insurance losses has become “a game” in the home repair world.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, the game stinks.

This is what your house looks like after all the moisture damaged materials are removed
This is what your house looks like after all the moisture damaged materials are removed

Insurance Adjustment for repairs is a silly game that some contractors refuse to play.  I know of ZERO Award Winning Professional Remodeling Contractors who specialize in insurance restoration or repairs.  All of us have to do them from time to time because crap happens to people we care about and we want to help our friends and neighbors.  The insurance “game” is so tedious that most of us contractors run from it.  Unfortunately, homeowners are the ones who suffer.   Here are a few of my thoughts from my experiences with insurance repairs:

There is no "refurbishing" a fireplace insert that has been damaged this badly. Replace it.
There is no “refurbishing” a fireplace insert that has been damaged this badly. Replace it.

I. Insurance Adjusters and Professional Contractors Estimate Projects Using Different Methods.

The insurance companies all use a program called Xactimate to estimate the cost of repairs. Without going into a long, boring explanation, suffice to say a legit pro can’t do the repairs for the amount that Xactimate allows for.  No builders or remodelers I know use Xactimate for their estimating  (I know a few contractors that specialize in insurance restoration that use it). Therefore, the homeowner is left with a few options:

  1.  Use the contractor the insurance company recommends. This is a contractor that has agreed to “choke down” the slop that the insurance company will feed them.  They believe they can:
    1.  Make it up on volume of work that the insurance company will graciously bestow upon them or play games with the Xactimate program to find hidden charges that the insurance company must eat.
    2.  Cut enough corners that they can lower their labor and material cost on the job in order to make a decent margin under the “fixed” price they have agreed to .
    3.  Needless to say, I am often called in afterwards to fix what the other contractor fixed…of course it’s a year or so later, out of warranty and out of the owner’s pocket.
      1. Case in point, here are the my office’s notes for my 4pm appointment today – “needs structural, electrical, and plumbing repairs. had a full renovation under insurance and it was not done correctly. needs it redone up to proper codes and standards”
  2. Get their own contractor and pay for the difference between what the insurance company will allow for and what the contractor will do the job for.
  3. Get their own contractor and fight with the insurance company to pay the right price for the right job with their choice of contractor.
    1. This happens to be the law by the way: The homeowner has the right to chose the contractor they want.
    2. But the insurance adjusters are adept at pulling the wool over the homeowner’s eyes. It usually sounds something like
      1. “We are committed to paying you for your full loss, Mr. Jones, but this contractor’s prices do not appear to be in alignment with the current market. I can bring in another contractor right now to do it for what we are allowing”
      2. Or my favorite: “It’s no problem, Mr. Jones. If you find that the repairs exceed what we’ve allowed after the job is complete just file a SUPPLEMENTAL claim.”  (Read: pay for it out of your pocket, go through this whole nightmare claim process again and we’ll send another guy out here to start all over.)
        1. The only way I’ve ever seen this work is when the homeowner stands firm about their choice of contractor and says “THIS is my contractor, I’m not using ANYONE else. THIS is the price. PAY IT.”
        2. Unfortunately, most homeowners don’t have enough trust & confidence in one contractor to stand up for themselves to the savvy insurance adjuster.
Flood damaged home's electrical panel
Flood damaged home’s electrical panel

II. The biggest problem: Adjuster and Contractor are not on same page as to the Scope of Work:

  1. For what it’s worth, I have learned a technique that works quite well when I have to compare an insurance adjuster’s estimate with mine.
  2. If you can imagine the two estimates usually come in quite far apart pricewise, which usually prompts the less “seasoned” adjusters and contractors to call each other “crazy” – basically because each of them are confident that they priced their project very carefully and how could anyone in their right mind be that far off??
  3. So, what I’ve learned to do is sit down with the insurance adjuster and say “let’s put price aside for the moment and just focus on:
    1. Scope of work – exactly what work is being performed in each of our estimates.
    2. Specifications – to what standards & quantities the work is being performed. (i.e. “install soaking tub”  vs. “install 6 ft porcelain on cast iron 89 gal tub”)
    3. Selections – what fixtures are being used for plumbing? What fixtures are being used for electrical? What type of tile?
    4. I have found that when the two estimates are lined up with those three things, the prices are almost dead even every time.
      1. How does this happen? Xactimate doesn’t work this way – it takes time and effort to develop an estimate with this detail.
      2.  Therefore, I know in the beginning, if the prices are way off, the two estimates are not pricing the same job (scope, specifications & selections).
        What kind of bathroom vanity will the insurance allow for?  What kind of sinks? What kind of fixtures? How do you know?
        What kind of bathroom vanity will the insurance allow for? What kind of sinks? What kind of fixtures? How do you know?


        III. Moisture –

        1. The good thing is that you had a remediation company come out to do the demo and dry-out and they probably documented the areas that had higher moisture levels. That documentation is critical towards getting the insurance company to agree to the scope of the work that is performed.  Anytime you need some leverage as to the adjuster agreeing to what moisture damaged areas should be removed and replaced, merely say “I’m fine with not replacing that as long as I get in writing from you that you are liable for any mold that may develop in the future.”
          1. The word “mold” strikes blind fear in the hearts of insurance adjusters. They will never take a chance on it.  Any liability to the insurance company because of their negligence will mean their job.
        2. If you had a flood and you have to demo the kitchen floor, it would be in your best interests to have an independent person get in the crawlspace and ensure that there is no additional hidden moisture damage or mold growth on subflooring, framing or any standing water.
          mold growth on AC ducts in crawl space due to water heater flood
          mold growth on AC ducts in crawl space due to water heater flood


          IV. Practical Money Tips –

          1. If there was ever a time you thought about improving or changing your kitchen, now would be the time to do it. However, a few tips:
            1. Settle the insurance scope of work and financial compensation with your insurance first. Don’t mix the “estimate to repair the old stuff” with the “estimate to change it”
            2. Keep the insurance company completely out of the discussion about any changes. Only speak to them about the cost to restore your home as it was with “like kind and quality”.
            3. Write a completely separate contract and detailed scope of work with the contractor about how the area will be changed, put back together and finished. It is as important to define what is “excluded” from their scope of work as it is to define what is “included”.
              This is Key

              V. Rules to Remember:

              1. “The faintest ink beats the best memory”
              2. “It doesn’t matter, until it matters”
              3. “Unmet expectations lead to friction and trouble.” (ensure all expectations are defined up front in writing)
              4. The most important decision you will make in this entire process is the selection of the contractor. The right contractor will make the process go as smoothly as possible, with the least disruption to your life and family as possible and provide you with a quality job with quality materials that will serve your family well while you live in the home and that will appreciate in value with your home and eventually pay for the job itself.
              5. Only the truly wealthy can afford the “low bid” contractor, because only the truly wealthy can afford to pay to have it fixed properly a second time.

This weekend in 2003 Hurricane Isabel hit Hampton Roads

Hurricane Isabel was the hardest hit that Hampton Roads Virginia has taken from a storm in over 20 years. It caused devastation from Virginia Beach to Yorktown, Virginia.

The majority of the damage that we experienced resulted from falling trees. Tree hits house due to Hurricane Isabel

Because of the widespread flooding, many homes in low lying areas have since been raised so that they are not flooded again. This house on Beach Road in Hampton was raised due to the damage it suffered during Hurricane Isabel.
Beach Road in the Fox Hill Area of Hampton, Virginia

The damage inside the home was so extensive that the interior had to be completely restored. To ensure that the trim matched the original architecture of the home, the carpenters milled all of it onsite.
Custom Trim


Custom Trim Milled Onsite


On this, the 10th anniversary, we had many friends share memories of the storm and the aftermath:

“My parents were given a wraparound porch courtesy of my neighbors 100 yard long floating dock. It actually helped them and protected their house from all the debris and waves. Their other neighbors house? Not so much. Everything bounced off the dock and into theirs and part of the dock knocked the house off of its foundation.”  – Doug Jaeger, Washington D.C.

” My parents neighbor that lost his house was a crotchety old man from my first memories of him until his dying days. He was an alcoholic who probably suffered PTSD. Almost all of their worldly possessions were destroyed. I was talking with him the day after and people were driving through the neighborhood looking at all the destruction, taking pictures and gasping at people who lost their homes. He snapped and started yelling and cursing at them for staring at people who had just lost everything, telling them they weren’t some circus side show freak here for their viewing pleasure. For that one moment, I was one of the few friends that he had. Any negative feelings I had towards him disappeared. He was a fighter pilot in Korea and I think the early part of Vietnam. I hope he has found his peace not that he has passed.”  – Doug Jaeger, Washington D.C.

“The hurricane and the damage were terrible but, even worse, were the low lifes who parked in front of our house and went through our ruined possessions at the curb. I was crying and they were anxiously waiting to see what else they could score. Sick. ” Kim Hannah, Hampton Virginia

“It was nerve-wracking for sure, but some of our best memories from where we lived in Hampton then were of all of us neighbors coming together to help each other out. I have some funny photos of extension cords running from the neighbors house to our generator…” – Jeanne Fiocca, Yorktown Virginia

“Olde Wythe looked like Armageddon. And we lived like the Amish for 13 days. You knew everyday after work & on weekends, all you could do was join the sympathetic gatherings for watching the endless tree removal … cut out of and off of our neighbors’ houses. Ironically, it put life on pause with a lasting positive impact … we all came out of our little abodes, shared stories of loved ones, distributed thawing freezer food for cookouts, and my ex-husband created fire hazards by jerry rigging all our generators to central electrical panels. When those generators stopped humming & the street lights illuminated again, our brains had trouble adapting to the eery silence but our hearts embraced new found friendships that have lasted 10 years now.” – Anne Shuford, Hampton Virginia

“Mom was at my brother’s when Isabel hit. He was living in Toano at the time. I called her a few days before Isabel hit and suggested that she pack up as many grandkids as she could and bring them to Florida so they could avoid the storm. Let the adults weather that crap. She hemmed and hawed and ended up not doing it. She wished she had after!” – Jim Fidler, Middleburg Florida

“It hit 09/18/03. G & I were on our way to Hawaii to get married & didn’t know if we’d come back to a house or pile of rubble since we live in Poquoson. We had 15″ of water in our garage. G lost some tools but that’s it.” – Crystal Sullivan

“You don’t have to remind me, Jim. I lost my home in Willoughby because of that storm. Watched my deck break off the house in the storm surge and float out to sea. Then the house broke in half after the waves undermined the foundation. Nightmare.” – Markus Hopkins,  Virginia Beach Virginia

“It was right after my family came back from NYC where there was a power outage. Then, there was a two-week power outage for Isabel. It was a real sucky month.” – Gail Kent, Newport News Virginia.

YouTube video




Remember Hurricane Irene?

It was 2 years ago today that Hampton Roads, Virginia got slammed by Hurricane Irene.  It was the hardest we’ve been hit by a Hurricane since Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  If you were here, you’ll remember that Sandbridge in Virginia Beach suffered several tornadoes that were spawned by the storm and Newport News had major damage to an apartment complex due to falling trees. Many low lying areas were flooded and 1.2 million homes and businesses lost power. Three people in Virginia were killed due to the storm

Most of the major damage caused by the last several hurricanes have been from trees hitting roofs: tearing shingles, crushing plywood and rafters, and piercing straight through homes leaving the owners with the need for major water remediation, restoration and remodeling.
Home Damage by Hurricane Irene
The most damage that we have suffered in the last 20 years, here in Hampton Roads Virginia was from Hurricane Irene.  Again the trees were a major factor.  The earlier part of the year we experienced much higher than normal rainfall that left the ground very soft.  This resulted in many trees being pushed over by Isabel’s high winds and many of these trees caused major damage to homes.  I personally remember responding to calls and being able to stand in the front yard, looking right through the house that had been cut in two by a falling pine tree, and seeing the back yard.

This year, many of the contractors and remodelers in Yorktown and Newport News Virginia have been talking about how heavy the rains have been and that they have been very reminiscent of  the kind the Hampton Roads Area experienced in 2003 .  Hopefully, if this Hurricane Season proves to be an active one, we won’t experience the same type of damage that we saw in 2003.

Looking back to 2011, I thought I’d share a video or two of Shawn and I tarping roofs in Hampton, Yorktown and Williamsburg that had suffered damage from the storm.   Not really oscar worthy stuff here, but a walk down memory lane all the same!

YouTube video


Success Profile for Jim Hicks in Hampton Roads Magazine

"I just want to see my smiling face on the cover of The Rolling Stone"
“I just want to see my smiling face on the cover of The Rolling Stone”  (click on image to enlarge)


Justice Denied for Roof Customer in Hampton

The following is a true story:

Mr. Miller had a steep roof. It was so steep that he couldn’t walk on it. After a large storm, he needed a new roof. He contracted with a local roofing contractor to replace the roof for an amount over $10,000.

The contractors replaced his roof and he paid them. He trusted that the contractor had done the job he had contracted for. At the end of the job, from as far as he could tell, it looked OK from the ground.

Two months after Mr. Miller paid the contractor, the roof started to leak in several areas.

The contractor came back but could not fix the leaks.
(What would you have done at this point?)

Frustrated, Mr. Miller decided to take the contractor to court. Mr. Miller called us to inspect the job and serve as an expert witness.

We found that the contract said that all of the metal roofing was to be replaced. As you can see in the picture, the old rusty metal was still there. We also found they used the wrong shingles. Part of the shingle roof wasn’t replaced and the areas that were replaced were installed improperly.

When Mr. Miller checked with the City, he found that the contractor did not pull a permit. After Mr. Miller filed his lawsuit against them, they pulled a permit for a lesser amount than the roof cost and the City Inspector did a “cursory” inspection (the inspector’s words) from his truck. The City Inspector didn’t get up on the roof and in fact never carries a ladder on his truck.

It was inherently obvious to the most casual of observers that the contractor was negligent.

What was the result in court? The judge told the homeowner that if he paid for the job, he accepted it and the contractor was not responsible for anything!

The following is the text from an email that I received from Mr. Miller this week when getting his permission to tell his story:

“40 year shingles (they used 30 years), replacement of all metal roofing (none was replaced), new felt (it appears that none was installed), replacement of all shingle roofing ( they did not replace the back porch roof), replacement of all metal flashing (none was replaced; used all flashing bended over the new shingles).
I did not become aware of these items until about two months later when the new roof developed leaks. As you know, the judge declared that I accepted the roof as it was when I paid for it, I am no roofer and did not find out until I hired an inspector about these issues. Also, they never got a permit for the job. In 2005 I went to the City Hall and found out about it on a Friday. The next Monday the contractor came and applied for a permit and inspection. They declared the cost of the roof about 1/2 of what I paid for it ( a violation of the law). Who tipped them as to my inquiries I really do not know but this was no coincidence. The inspector visited the site and found items as “uncovered nail” and returned the next day and issued a permit after an alleged inspection. The inspection that you conducted found the same issues. When the inspector was questioned about his report, he stated that he only did a “cursory inspection.”