Q: We just experienced a strong thunderstorm, during which a tree blew over on our house! We have no experience with this sort of thing. What should we do now? Help!
A: A tree falling on a home-for any reason, whether due to high winds, an ice storm, or a rotted tree simply toppling-can cause extensive structural damage. Immediately get your family out of harm's way, and then focus on minimizing additional damage and having the damage repaired.
Call 911 and the electrical company if power lines are down. When a tree falls on the house, there's always a chance it'll take electrical power lines down with it. This creates a hazardous situation with an increased risk of fire or deadly electrical shock. Signs that a power line is down include no electrical power in the house or flickering lights. From outside, you may be able to actually see if a power line is trapped in the fallen tree. In some cases, a downed line may still be functioning, but it still creates a risk, so shut off the power at your breaker box if you know or even suspect that the tree took a line down with it.
Call the authorities and your local electrical company. If you smell smoke, get your family out of the house and call from your neighbor's. The electrical company will dispatch technicians to repair the lines. Local law enforcement may need to block traffic on your street, and the fire department may send a unit to stand by as a precaution until safety is restored.
Prevent further immediate damage. A fallen tree can cause broken windows as well as a hole in your roof or siding; even brick and stone can be damaged by the impact. You could also potentially have damaged gas lines. While gas lines are buried, there's a chance they could be affected if the tree fell in the area where they enter your home. As a precaution, it's a good idea to shut off the gas at the meter until you're sure the lines weren't damaged. You'll find a shut-off valve near the meter. To shut off the gas, use a wrench to turn the valve a quarter of a turn to the right.
Call a reputable contractor to tarp or board up broken windows and any holes in the roof or sides of your home. This step will protect your home's interior and your belongings from additional weather damage. If you want to take part in covering broken windows, do so carefully, to avoid sharp glass, but it's best to leave roof-tarping to the pros. Parts of the roof may not be stable enough to walk on safely.
Obtain accurate documentation for insurance claims. Take photos or a video of the damage-both outdoors and indoors-as soon as all immediate danger has passed. Remain on the ground and let a roofing professional take pictures of the roof. Document broken windows, damaged siding, structural damage, and damage to the contents of your home. Don't leave anything out; the pictures you take now are vital as evidence for your insurance claim.
Call your homeowner's insurance agent to start the claims process. You may be asked to consult two or three local contractors to get estimates for the repair work. Or, depending on your insurance company, a claims adjuster may be sent out to examine your home. In that case, the adjuster will determine the extent of the damage and the corresponding repair costs.
Consult your homeowner's insurance policy to understand your financial obligation. You will probably be required to pay a deductible, after which the insurance company will kick in for the balance of the repair costs-up to a certain amount, based on your individual policy terms. Common deductibles range from around $500 to $2,000, and sometimes even more, depending on amount of premiums and the coverage limits. If you're like most homeowners, you probably haven't read all the fine print in your policy, so go through it now so you know what to expect.
If an “Act of Nature”-such as thunderstorms, ice storms, and high winds-caused the tree to fall on the house, in most cases, your policy will cover the repair expenses, minus your deductible. Your policy will pay even if the fallen tree belongs to a neighbor or a municipality in an “Act of Nature” situation. Your claim might be denied, however, if you caused the tree to fall through reckless action, such as attempting to cut it down without professional assistance.
Hold off on permanent repairs until you and your insurer agree on the amount of your claim. Depending on your policy, your insurer might impose limits on specific repairs, such as the price of tree removal. If costs are beyond the permitted amount to, you may be liable for the balance.
If the total amount offered by your insurer does not cover the cost of the estimated repairs, you have the right to appeal their decision and have them reevaluate your claim. If this happens, submit bids from contractors showing that the costs are higher than your insurer is allowing.
Keep track of expenses you incur related to the damage. Expenses incurred for emergency damage control are almost always covered, so save your receipts if you had a contractor tarp your roof or board-up windows. If your home is not habitable, your insurance company may also reimburse you for some of the expense of temporarily renting an apartment or staying in a hotel. Don't just assume, however, that all your expenses will be covered-call your agent to make sure.
Make your final payment only when satisfied with the contractor's work. Legitimate contractors often request payment for materials before they start work, but they should not ask for prepayment for their labor to make the repairs. If the repairs are extensive and will take more than a few weeks to complete, the contractor may reasonably ask for partial payments to be made on an agreed-upon schedule, but the final payment should be made only when the repairs are complete to your satisfaction.