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posted: 3/16/2012 5:41 AM

About real estate: How to speed insurance claims after a natural disaster

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Owners whose homes are damaged or destroyed by a tornado or other acts of nature can take several steps to collect their insurance reimbursement faster.

Q. Our home suffered several thousand dollars in damage from the high winds that accompanied the series of tornadoes that hit the U.S. several weeks ago. We obviously want to make the needed repairs quickly, but our insurance agent says adjusters across the entire area are backed up because so many claims have been filed. When the adjuster finally gets here, what can we do to speed the claims process?

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A. You were wise to contact your agent quickly to schedule a visit from an adjuster. Thousands of homes in several Midwest and Southern states were damaged or destroyed by the tornadoes and high winds that ripped through the areas about a few weeks ago, and property owners who haven't contacted their insurers yet may be forced to wait several days or even weeks before an adjuster can show up and repairs can begin.

To speed the claims process, the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, (212) 346-5500 and www.iii.org, says you should start by making a detailed list of the damage to your home. Take photos of the damage if it's safe to access the property, because photos can help the adjuster with his or her investigation.

Make whatever temporary repairs you can to prevent further damage. At the minimum, cover all broken windows with plywood and, if possible, try to patch any leaks in the roof. Save all receipts for materials, because the insurer will reimburse you for reasonable costs involved in making the short-term repairs.

Also prepare a list of any furniture, clothes and other personal items that were damaged or destroyed. The detailed list should include a description of each item, its approximate age, how much you originally paid for it and an estimate of what it would cost to replace. Include any receipts, canceled checks or other documents you have to help the adjuster establish the value of each item.

Also, most insurers will reimburse you for hotel expenses and restaurant meals if your home is uninhabitable, so save those receipts too. But remember, those expenses also must be reasonable -- the company won't spring to put you up at the Ritz and eat lobster every night, but probably won't fuss if you stay at Motel 6 and eat at Denny's or McDonald's. Check with your agent for details.

Finally, get written estimates for the permanent work that needs to be done from two or three licensed contractors. The bids will help the adjuster arrive at a final settlement amount, and could be invaluable if you eventually appeal his ruling because you believe the amount is too low to make adequate repairs.

Q. Are homeowners expected to tip their house painters? My neighbor thinks so, but I think she's wrong.

A. Professional house painters generally don't expect to receive tips when a job is completed, according to tipping experts at Real Simple magazine (www.realsimple.com). But if you're especially pleased with their work, the experts say you should consider tipping each one of them $20 or some other relatively modest sum.

The magazine notes that although most painters don't expect to be tipped, they're always appreciative if the homeowner provides food and drinks while they are working on the job.

Q. I am a widower with no children, so I would like my longtime home to pass to the university I graduated from after I die. Could I form the type of living trust that you often write about to achieve this goal so the school could get the home quickly instead of going through lengthy probate proceedings?

A. Yes. An inexpensive living trust can be created to pass a home or other assets to a university or other nonprofit just as easily as a trust can pass property to individual people.

Make sure to discuss your plans with a representative of the school itself. Many colleges and universities operate special programs for such generous donations, and will pay to arrange all the necessary paperwork. Some even operate plans that will pay the homeowner a lump sum or monthly stipend until they die and title to the property is transferred to the school.

Note: All net proceeds from the sale of our informational "Straight Talk about Living Trusts" booklet this month will be donated to the American Red Cross to help victims of the recent tornadoes.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Trust, P.O. Box 2960, Culver City, CA 90231-2960.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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