NEWS
05/06/2016 09:06 EDT | Updated 05/07/2017 01:12 EDT

Slave Lake's experience offers insurance lessons for Fort McMurray evacuees

Shawn Gramlich didn't have time to finish packing when he and his pregnant wife had to flee their house in Slave Lake, Alta., in May 2011 before flames engulfed their home.

What transpired after included frustrating negotiations with his insurance company, a $30,000 payment to an independent adjuster and waiting about 1 1/2 years to move into his rebuilt home.

"They beat a guy down," Gramlich says. "They lowball you, lowball you, lowball you."

Many of the more than 80,000 people recently forced to evacuate Fort McMurray, Alta., due to the ongoing wildfire will soon be filing their insurance claims.

That can be a lengthy process for some, and those who experienced the Slave Lake fires have some advice.

Most homeowners will have insurance that covers fire damage to their property, possessions and some living expenses, though the amounts differ based on the scope of damage and the maximum payout in the policy purchased. Some policies will include a clause guaranteeing funds above the maximum payout, if needed.

One factor that doesn't impact the claim is the home's market value, said Rocco Neglia, vice-president of claims with Economical Insurance. That may be a silver lining for residents of Fort McMurray, where house prices have fallen because of the waning economy.

The average sale price of a detached house in the Fort McMurray area dropped by 9.11 per cent in the first three months of 2016 compared with the same quarter last year, according to the local real estate board.

What does matter is how much it would cost to rebuild the home or repair damage, Neglia said. If the owner opts not to rebuild, he said, they are generally entitled to a cash payout minus depreciation.

But it can be difficult to receive insurance money when it's needed, say some of those who fought for their settlements after the Slave Lake fires destroyed hundreds of properties.

Gramlich said his insurance company initially offered his family about $280,000 to cover the loss of their home, car and all possessions, though he estimated it would cost hundreds of thousands more to rebuild it.

He eventually hired an independent adjuster to fight on their behalf. That earned Gramlich an extra $170,000 on top of the highest offer he managed to negotiate by himself.

Gramlich received $770,000, minus the $30,000 adjuster's fee, in the end.

"Know your policy," he said. "Don't take less than you think it's worth."

If the insurer is offering you much less, consider enlisting the help of an independent adjuster, he said.

Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman recommends everyone do that as it helps to have an insurance specialist on your side.

It often doesn't make any difference which insurer people are with, but rather the adjuster sent on the company's behalf, Warman said, adding that one may be very helpful, while another with the same company may put the business first.

It's also important to be careful during the rebuilding process once the money rolls in, he said.

"Recovery takes a lot of time and shouldn't be something that you rush into," Warman said, citing as an example the hiring of contractors.

Some contractors, mostly from out of town, swooped into Slave Lake following the fires and then made off with people's money, Warman said.

"We had a lot of fly-by-night guys come through town," said Gramlich, who knows three people who lost roughly $100,000 to a contractor.

He suggests hiring a local builder when possible.

"If your neighbour is building your house, he's got to be responsible," Gramlich said.

He echoes that suggestion for selecting an insurance provider. Gramlich's family has since switched to a local insurance provider.

The Fort McMurray fires are on track to become the most expensive insurance disaster in Canadian history. The fire could result in an insurance payout between $2.6 billion and $9 billion, said Tom MacKinnon, an equity research analyst with BMO Capital Markets, in a report this week.

 

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