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The hail storm that blew through the St. Louis region on May 11 left thousands of our neighbors with leaky roofs and pockmarked siding on their houses, along with dents and busted glass on their cars.

So, let’s look at the best ways to deal with insurance issues and contractors after a big blow.

State Farm and American Family, the two biggest insurers in the St. Louis region, reported claims for 4,140 damaged cars and 2,400 damaged houses and structures.

Judging by those companies’ market share, the total number of damaged houses in the St. Louis region is at least double that figure, and auto claims may be triple the number.

Claims are still coming in. And some people won’t know they have hail damage until the ceiling leaks, and that may take a while.

We’ll look at house damage claims first, then move on to cars.

Up on the roof

Don’t like ladders? You can get a clue about possible damage by looking for pockmarks on decks, dents in gutters and holes in screens or vinyl siding, says Todd Smith, catastrophe field operating coordinator for American Family Insurance.

“If you think you have damage, call in a claim and have our people take a look at it,” said Linda Wagener, American Family spokeswoman.

Paul Abrams recommends against doing that. “You’ll still have a claim on your history,” says Abrams, a public adjuster with Edwin-Claude Inc. in Frontenac. That might affect your premium if you decide to switch to another insurance company.

It’s better to let a trusted roofer look first, Abrams says. If there is damage, ask the roofer to take pictures and send you copies.

Public adjusters, such as Abrams, are hired by insurance claimants to negotiate with insurance companies, often taking 10 percent of the settlement amount as their pay.

Get bids from three roofers, says Michelle Corey, CEO at the St. Louis Better Business Bureau. “Ask them to spell out what was damaged and what needs to be replaced,” Corey said.

With the roofers’ estimates in hand, drag out the insurance policy and check the deductible. It might not be worth filing a claim. If you decide to file, the roofers’ reports and pictures put you in an informed position when talking with the insurance firm.

That might have avoided the mess Jeff Morris of Webster Groves found himself in. The roof on his former house, also in Webster Groves, had been damaged in a storm. But the roof repair didn’t include the flashing — that’s the strip of metal or other weatherproof material used to keep water out.

Good construction practice holds that flashing should be replaced, not reused, and some building codes require it. But when the old flashing failed to stop a leak years later, he had to pay for the repair himself. “I was completely furious that I was taken for a ride by an insurance company,” he said.

The typical insurance policy covers “direct physical damage” from a storm, says Jeana Thomas, property and casualty manager at the Missouri Department of Insurance. If the flashing wasn’t damaged in the storm, then insurers can argue that it isn’t covered.

An insurance adjuster will approve an initial estimate for the amount of the repairs. But insurers know that hidden damage often won’t be found until the job is underway, says Smith, from American Family. “We don’t tell the customer, here’s the estimate and that’s all you’ll ever get. That’s not the way we do business,” he said.

Insurers often have trouble matching the color of older damaged siding, and that has caused problems after past storms. After a major hail storm in 2001, insurers said they would replace siding only on damaged sides of the house, even if the new color didn’t match the other sides. Missouri insurance regulators leaned heavily on companies to change their policy.

‘Storm chasers’

Watch out for “storm chasers” offering roof repairs, says the Missouri Department Insurance and the Better Business Bureau. They show up in St. Louis after every big blow.

“Be suspicious and wary of people who go door-to-door,” says Thomas, of the Insurance Department. “Sometimes they come from all over the country. They claim they have credentials they don’t. Sometimes they demand money up front.”

Some take the money and run, or do shoddy work. Attorney General Chris Koster calls them “an ever-present and persistent source of consumer fraud.”

“Do not let contractors inspect your property if you’re not watching,” the Insurance Department warns. Some crooked workers cause extra damage to drive up repair costs.

Missouri’s “storm chaser” law forbids contractors from offering to pay a person’s insurance deductible. Contractors can’t negotiate a claim with an insurance company on a consumer’s behalf. Consumers have five days to cancel a contract after it is signed, and contractors must return any payment within 10 days.

The best way to find a good contractor as to ask friends and neighbors. Insurers usually have a list of contractors they trust.

Check the contractor’s record with the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org. The bureau has a search function that offers the names of BBB-accredited contractors.

In Missouri, I like to run contractors’ names through Casenet, the Missouri court’s online look-up system at courts.mo.gov/casenet. Good companies can find themselves in unfair lawsuits. But if a business shows up frequently as a defendant, I cross them off my list.

Don’t sign a repair contract until the insurance company’s estimate is in hand. Such contracts usually make the homeowner liable for anything the insurance company won’t pay, notes Abrams, the public adjuster.

Make sure the contract is clearly drawn, saying what work will be done, with what materials, when it will start and finish, says Corey, of the Better Business Bureau.

Contractors should be insured, and show you a certificate to prove it.

“Don’t pay all the money up front,” says Corey. It’s typical to pay one-third before the work, one-third at halfway and one-third after the finish. Make sure to get a lien waiver when the work is done. It relieves you of responsibility if subcontractors go unpaid.

Most homeowners contracts are written for “replacement value.” If your roof is destroyed, you’ll get a new roof, with the company picking up the bill, minus the deductible.

But some policies are written for “actual cash value.” If the roof is rated to last 20 years, and it’s 10 years old, the insurer may pay only half the value of a new one.

Damage goes beyond roofs. What if a tree fell on your house? If it’s your neighbor’s tree, your policy handles the damage, not your neighbor’s, says American Family.

American Family policies don’t pay for removing fallen trees. But they’ll pay to cut away the part of the tree that’s on your house.

Driving a ‘dentmobile’?

Now about autos: Hail damage is covered under the comprehensive provision of your auto policy. Lots of people drop comprehensive coverage on older cars. If so, you’ll be driving a dentmobile.

Check your deductible, then decide if you can live with dents or should file a claim. Some policies cover auto glass without deductibles, and others don’t.

If you escaped the hail storm this month, consider it a temporary reprieve. Missouri is the fifth-worst state for hail damage, says State Farm. The company, which insures about a quarter of the state’s homes, paid 18,000 hail damage claims last year.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated Monday to correct information concerning American Family Insurance's policy on claims. The insurer says it is legally obligated to keep track of all claims, even in cases where no damage was found.

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