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Repair problems can double storm losses
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Most people just want to get their life back together quickly after a storm deals a devastating blow to their house, but rushing too fast can compound the problem.
Homeowners across the Southeast are trying to reassemble the pieces of their homes and belongings after Hurricane Ivan tore through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida early Thursday. The urge is to clean up quickly and get things back to normal as soon as possible.
But Bobbie Shaffett, Extension associate professor of human sciences at Mississippi State University, said residents should not move so fast that they make mistakes.
"The main thing is to avoid home repair fraud and rip-offs," Shaffett said. "Make temporary repairs for emergency things like covering a hole in the roof with plastic. Take pictures of everything to document the damage, and contact your insurance agent. Only then do you begin cleanup and start looking to hire work done."
Check with the company providing the homeowners insurance to learn specific filing and claims procedures. Proceed as directed by these individuals. With widespread damage such as occurred in Ivan's path, it may take a while before an insurance adjuster can make it to every claim site. A photo provides evidence of the damage after work has started.
Some people try to take advantage of victims in the wake of a storm. Common scams involve people driving around in unmarked vehicles offering to help with cleanup work, especially tree removal and home repairs. Payment may be demanded in advance for services that are never rendered or excessive fees may be charged for inferior work.
"After a disaster, there may be people driving around neighborhoods and going door-to-door offering to help," Shaffett said. "If you don't know who they are, be very wary. Get the address and telephone number of the contractor and call the office to see if they are legitimate."
Shaffett, who specializes in family resource management in MSU's School of Human Sciences, said even in a disaster, people should shop around for long-term, big projects to make sure they hire a reputable individual or company.
"We don't let doctors do major surgery on our bodies without a second opinion, so don't let people do major surgery on your pocketbook without a second opinion," Shaffett said.
She cautioned storm victims to never pay in advance and get a contract in writing for the work. This contract can be a formal document or it can be handwritten. Both parties should sign the document.
The Better Business Bureau suggests what should be included in this contract.
"It should delineate the work to be done, the materials to be used, and the price breakdown for both labor and materials. Review it carefully before signing. Never pay for all repairs in advance, and don't pay cash," the organization states online.
"A professional should have a contract in their vehicle. If they are legitimate yet more informal, they should not mind signing one that includes this information," Shaffett said.
If the outside of the house is damaged, there's often damage inside, too. Take photos inside before cleanup begins and catalog losses. Determine what things are unharmed, what things can be salvaged and what things are a total loss.
Wet mattresses, upholstered furniture and wood veneer items usually cannot be salvaged. Clothing and solid wood furniture can sometimes be saved, especially if they were not submerged. The key to saving as much property as possible is to prevent further damage from exposure and to let things start drying out.
"Discard items that are easily replaced, and give first priority to antiques and things that cannot be replaced," Shaffett said.
Save all receipts, including those for materials, services, temporary housing costs, restaurant meals, cleaning supplies and more. More information on each of these subjects is available online at MSUcares.com.
Shaffett said the bottom line is to document everything and don't be in a hurry to settle a claim.
"We make mistakes when we don't take the time to think through the situation and make a wise decision," she said.