Avoiding Property-Adjusting Blunders

John A. Postava – November 14, 2011

In 2004 (hard to believe it was more than seven years ago), hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne brought more claims adjusters to Florida than swampland speculators in the 1920s. In retrospect, the “Fearsome Foursome” generated more than 2 million property claims. Just the sheer number of claims alone required adjusters to increase productivity to meet the demands of homeowners.

No matter where claims occur, filing them quickly, accurately, and efficiently is the main goal of every professional property adjuster. Increasing productivity will also increase independent adjusters’ incomes. Saving time does not necessarily mean cutting quality, however. Let’s examine some basic techniques adjusters can employ to avoid common mistakes while managing precious time resources wisely.

Develop Routines

Having a routine means doing the same activities in the same order every time. Developing a routine will keep adjusters organized and prevent them from forgetting vital steps in the claim process. Decide the order in which to examine the property and be sure to stick with it each time. Record and scope damages in the same order for each damaged area or room. Deviating from a set routine can lead one to overlook an important detail.

Be methodical, and measure rooms to the exact inch. Remember to include all closets and offsets, even if they do not appear damaged. Draw accurate diagrams of each room or area, and take lots of photographs. It also helps to develop a checklist or tick sheet of repair items and mark them off throughout the examination of the property.

Most importantly, adjusters should not let anyone or anything distract them from the routine. Scope the loss alone whenever possible. Most property owners will want to walk and talk with the adjuster as he or she conducts the examination. Because this may stem from anxiety about the loss or curiosity concerning the adjusting process, it is a good idea to spend a little time with a policyholder before beginning the inspection to develop rapport. Our catastrophe adjusting firm has developed a “policyholder survey” of questions for the insured to complete while the loss is being scoped. This keeps the home or business owner busy while the adjuster records the scope of loss.

Explain your specific routine to policyholders, and assuring them that the process will provide for the most efficient examination of the property. Ask policyholders whether there is anything that they would like to discuss prior to the walk-through of the property. Check in with them before leaving the premises.

After completing the damage assessment, review the scope of the examination with policyholders. Briefly explain the procedure and what the next steps are. Be realistic about all timetables. This is a good time to ask policyholders whether they have any questions. Remember to provide them with all relevant contact information.

Be Prepared

It is also crucial that the adjuster be familiar with the policy language and extent of coverage available to the property in question. It is important to know what is covered and what exclusions may apply. This knowledge can help adjusters avoid expending time on unnecessary areas or details.

In addition, when using claim-estimating, GPS, or reporting software, become familiar with it before visiting the property or the site of the catastrophic event. Take the time to learn the software in the off season, not while on the premises or en route to the job. It will allow for a quicker inspection if the claims adjuster is not trying to learn how to use a software program and inspect damages at the same time.

Some companies require the use of specific software, so find out in advance which programs will be mandatory for the company  paying the claim. Practice using the software’s basic features, and become familiar with the program’s time-saving, power user features, if possible. All of the leading software providers offer CD or Internet-based learning tools. Take advantage of their training classes when time permits.

Set Limits

While it is hard for most independent adjusters to “just say no,” it is all too easy to become overworked and over-committed. Remember to pace your work accordingly, and do not take on more claims than is realistic for you.

When too many appointments are scheduled on a given day, there is a tendency to hurry through each inspection. This is a formula for disaster and creates the conditions under which most mistakes occur. Consider spacing out the appointments like the cable guy. For instance, tell the claimant that you should arrive “between 9 a.m. and noon.”) Additionally,  if you are running even five minutes late, then pick up your cell phone and let the insured know you are on your way.

After you arrive and complete the inspection, make every effort to finish the claim and estimate paperwork thatsame day while the memory is still fresh.

A Case for Deducting Wall Openings

It is important to deduct wall openings, such as windows and doors, in estimates–especially if they are larger in size. The additional wall square-footage amounts resulting from the failure of entering wall-opening information increases the cost for most wall-repair items, such as drywall, paint, and wallpaper.

This is especially true when entering closet measurements. Most closets contain some type of door opening, which is either single- or double-width. If closet door openings are not deducted from estimates, errors can result when calculating items such as drywall. For example, entering the closet opening subtracts not only the drywall from the main area of the room but also from the interior of the closet. This is the same for any finish later applied to the drywall, such as paint, wallpaper, or paneling.

In the past, estimators have hesitated to subtract door and window openings when calculating wall areas in building estimates. One reason is that calculations are difficult, and there is a school of thought that these areas should be left in an allowance for waste.

Because many of today’s computer programs make it easy to calculate and remove these openings from the total wall square-foot calculation, in addition to the fact that many wall finish unit costs include waste and preparation time, properly trained adjusters should include all wall opening information. Although contractors may argue that this wall area be left in the estimate to cover the cost of labor for having to work around the openings, most of today’s cost databases take into account the repair nature of the work being performed.

Deducting wall openings will not only make estimates more accurate, but will give adjusters more “wiggle room” to adjust estimates if negotiations with restoration contractors become necessary. Remember, most of all, estimating is an “art” and not an exact science.

More on Scoping the Loss

Measure all areas properly—before adjusting software many estimators rounded room areas to the nearest foot or half-foot in order to simplify calculations. With the advent of computer estimating software, rounding for easy calculations is no longer necessary. It has been reported, however, that many adjusters still measure areas this way. Estimators also have a tendency to round up, possibly causing higher estimate totals than what one would consider “best practices”.

When entering a room’s measurements, including offset and closet dimensions, into the software program, they should be accurate to the inch. Many of a room’s repair quantities are affected directly by its measurements.

All computer estimating systems make to-the-inch calculations easy. Enter these values properly. If the resulting calculation requires some adjustment because of the nature of the material being replaced—for example,  12-foot rolls of carpet or 60-foot double rolls of wall covering) —then adjustments can be made after speaking with the installing contractor.

Repair only affected areas. At times, it may not be necessary to replace an area’s entire floor, wall, or ceiling. In such cases, estimators should make the proper allowances to get a more accurate assessment of the cost of repairing damaged areas.

Watch minimum charges. Frequently, minimum charges are overused or abused. In many instances, estimators use the same trade minimum charge in multiple rooms. Minimum charges should only be applied at a one-per-trade, per-estimate rate.

The overuse of minimum charges almost always results in overestimation of the loss. Claim-estimating software allows adjusters to enter exact area quantities throughout multi-room estimates. Estimators then can check the estimate’s trade and sub-trade breakdowns to see whether minimums are being met. Some systems include minimum charge auditing features that review estimates to ensure that all trade minimums are satisfied.

Another alternative to consider when dealing with minimum charges – If multiple areas in an estimate require minimum type repair, either adjust the cost of the single minimum charge to cover the additional work or estimate the entire repair using a “labor and materials” method.

Avoid finish misapplication. Some items, such as wood flooring, paneling, and cabinetry, may be installed with finishes already applied to the material. It is important to distinguish such instances so that the costs of additional coats of paint or finishes are not added to estimates containing “prefinished” materials.

For example, a claim covering the cost of replacing acoustical ceiling finishes included the cost of painting the new ceiling. Paint was included in the acoustic material and, therefore, the additional coat of paint was unnecessary. Very often, the only instance in which painting acoustic ceilings is necessary is if spot repairs are being estimated.

The goal of any property adjuster is to file claims accurately, cost-effectively, and as quickly as possible. By streamlining routines and avoiding common mistakes, adjusters can save time and money not only for themselves, but also for carriers. All of this is possible, while still providing optimal customer service.

10 Blundering Escapes

To succeed as an insurance claims adjuster one must hone in on their professional skills and nurture their personal virtues. Here is a list of ten good habits that, when perfected, will help adjusters avoid major blunders that can cost them money and reputation.

1. Communication – Practice your people skills and constantly strive for cordial, patient, and professional communication.

2. Time Management – Maximize profits and eliminate stress with efficient time management.

3. Computer Proficiency – Become proficient in general computer usage, it’s a must for today’s modern technological world.

4. Integrity – As professed to Spiderman’s Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Be diligent in practicing ethics.

5. Insurance Policy Knowledge and Application – Be familiar with policies and use good judgment when applying this knowledge to the particular claim.

6. Construction/Engineering Knowledge – To reach a fair and accurate claim settlement amount, adjusters should be familiar with the makeup of the property.

7. Innovation – Consistently think outside the box to meet new challenges.

8. Accessibility and Flexibility – Don’t waste time, a good adjuster responds quickly. Be ready and willing to work weekends or after business hours.

9. Life Long Learning – Engage in continued education and training.

10. Will to succeed – Impossible situations will occur; determination is needed to arise to the occasion.

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