Public Adjusters: Friend or Foe?


UPDATED: FEB 2020 | 2 MIN READ

Home insurance public adjuster taking notes in their office while a couple explains the damage to their home.

In theory, Public Adjustors, not to be confused with insurance adjusters, are something like referees in a pro football game. Their job is to make sure both teams (customer and insurance company) play by the rules (terms of the insurance policy) and asses a penalty of sorts (approve, lower, decline a claim) should a team break the rules. That’s an oversimplification but it does describe the essence of the Public Adjuster’s job.

If you are wondering what a Public Adjuster is, then it’s likely you have never been through a hurricane, flood, wildfire, or some other area-wide natural disaster. And it’s also unlikely you have ever had a large and complicated claim for damage to your home. If you had, you would understand the overwhelming emotional stress and feeling of helplessness when you try to feed, house, and protect your family and deal with your homeowners insurance company at the same time. 

This is when you really need someone who knows how to help.

What is a Public Adjuster?

Public Adjusters are experts not only in assessing the cost of a loss but in the fine print involving the terms of your homeowners policy. They are independent contractors. They do not work for insurance companies. They represent (and are paid by) you, the insureds.

They are licensed and certified in 46 out of 50 states (Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Wisconsin are the exceptions) and typically are required to complete continuing education courses to retain their license.

Once a Public Adjuster is engaged, the insurance company is notified, and all claims discussions and negotiations are then directed exclusively to the Public Adjuster. If this sounds like the Public Adjuster is acting as your attorney, he or she isn’t. They are knowledgeable experts, just like a CPA knows taxes these adjusters know insurance, who advocate for their client (you) in claims matters. They are not legal advisors.

Why Would You Need a Public Adjuster?

Public Adjusters usually get the call after a homeowner has already entered into a contentious debate with the insurance company. 

However, there are a number of reasons for enlisting the help of a public adjuster:

  • Your claim is part of an area-wide disaster. When a hurricane or wildfire rolls through, insurance companies get swamped with thousands of claims. Stretched to the limit, it can be difficult to get prompt service from your insurance in these conditions. Smaller claims, in particular, may get overlooked. A public adjuster can help by doing some of the work your insurance company’s adjuster would do, making it easier and more streamlined to process your claim.
  • Your claim is big and you need help cataloging it to get a full payout. Most people are underprepared for a disaster. If you don’t keep a list of important or valuable items in your home it can be overwhelming to catalog your belongings in the midst of a crisis. On top of this, you may have to juggle work, your insurance company, and finding emergency housing. The public adjuster can take some of this off your plate. For example, they can research the brands and models of your destroyed belongings to make sure you get the correct maximum replacement value. They can also do a walkthrough of your home to make sure that all the relevant damage is included in your claim. Properly itemized damages get you a higher payout than estimated damages.
  • Your claim is in dispute and you need to find a loophole. Many insurance claims require damage to be “sudden and accidental.” But the definition of that term can be somewhat subjective. If you believe your claim qualifies, but your insurance company doesn’t, the public adjuster can help present your claim in a way that is more likely to qualify for coverage under your contract. 

What will the public adjuster do?

If you decide to use a Public Adjuster you should take the same caution in selecting one that you would take selecting any other professional. Like all businesses, some are better than others. Make certain they are licensed and up to date on their certifications. Get referrals and scour the internet for reviews.

A Public Adjuster can help ensure you get what your policy says you are entitled to. 

What the homeowner gets when engaging a public Adjuster, is a thorough, knowledgeable review of the insurance policy, consultation with local or regional resources regarding costs, collation of the data and preparation of the claim documents for presentation to the insurance company.

That begins the negotiations for a settlement. 

When an offer is made that is acceptable to the homeowner, the Public Adjuster’s job is done. 

A Public Adjuster can’t create new coverage for you. 

You may be surprised that there are certain limitations or exclusions on property that you thought was covered but isn’t.

How are Public Adjusters paid? Can I afford one?

Public Adjustors work on a fee basis which is usually a percentage of the claim received. This creates an incentive for a public adjuster to get you the biggest claim possible because that will also increase their own paycheck. Usually, the bigger payout the public adjuster can deliver you is enough to cover your repairs and their fee. 

Some states have limits on what that percentage can be during declared emergencies and maximums for all other times. While fees are negotiable, they generally run 10% to 20%. If you are looking at a major loss, that’s a fair amount for the professional service rendered. 

Are there any downsides to hiring a public adjuster?

They’re not good for small claims

It’s not usually necessary to hire a public adjuster for a small, straightforward claim. The payout is often not worth it for the adjuster, and the size of the payout may not justify their fee. For that reason, some public adjusters refuse to even take on small claims.

They need to keep you in the loop

It’s important to make sure that the public adjuster your work with is ethical. Public adjusters handle all communications with the insurance company for you, which can be helpful. 

However, the homeowner risks being shut out of the loop. You want to be made aware of any decisions the adjuster is making throughout the claims process on your behalf. For example, your public adjuster should always consult you before getting a lawyer involved in your claim. 

They could lengthen the time it takes to process your claim

Your claim will be settled faster if you use the insurance company’s damage estimate and accept the first payout the insurance company offers you. The public adjuster can likely get you a higher payout, but it requires some back and forth. If settling your claim as fast as possible is more important than getting the best possible settlement, then it will usually be better to work directly with your insurance company. 

They’re not lawyers

If your claim has already been closed, then it’s too late to bring in a public adjuster. At that point, you’ll need a lawyer to recover your settlement. The lawyer works similarly to the public adjuster in that they only get paid if they win your settlement and the money comes from the insurance company. They work differently than a public adjuster, in that their fees are usually hourly and negotiated separately from your payout. 

Should I hire a Public Adjuster?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself before finding a public adjuster:

How much are the damages going to cost? 

For a claim that’s $5,000 or less, it’s probably not worth it to hire a public adjuster. If your damages are estimated at $20,000 or more, it may be a good idea to have a professional help you file. 

How much of the repair money needs to come from the insurance company vs. personal savings?

It may surprise some homeowners to discover that an insurance payout will not necessarily cover the full cost of repairing your home. It may also only cover a lower quality of repair than you want to do (e.g. paying for odor-suppressing paint instead of replacing smoke-damaged drywall). 

If you could afford some of the repair costs on your own, then it’s not so important to get the maximum settlement from the insurance company. 

However, if the only way you can complete your repair is by getting the maximum amount of money possible from the insurance company, a Public Adjuster is a vital ally. 

Does my insurance company’s damages estimate match what my contractors are estimating for the repair?

Your insurance company will send out their own adjuster to record the damage and they may send out their own contractors to estimate the cost of repairs. These professionals work for the insurance company, not for you. Therefore, they are incentivized to minimize the damage and keep repair costs low for the company. 

You can use these contractors to do the work for you, but you may instead prefer to use your own contractors, especially if you have someone you already trust. 

If all the numbers match, it’s a sign that your insurance company is likely dealing fairly with you and you won’t need outside help.

However, in some cases, there is a wide gap between what your contractor or remediation company thinks the repairs will cost, vs what your insurance company is estimating. They may say that some damages are excluded by your policy or they may be failing to account for something in their estimates. 

In that case, it might be time to bring in the Public Adjuster to review your policy and confirm. 

Is my claim likely to be covered under my policy?

If you have windstorm coverage and a tree branch hits your house, there is no question that it will be covered by your insurance. But what if it hits your fence instead? Is that covered? How about a leak? Pipe leaks, roof leaks, and other kinds of leaks may be covered in some cases, but not in others. 

If your claim is not clear cut, you could benefit from having a professional in your corner who can understand your policy. 

Has my insurance company been helpful and responsive so far?

You can faithfully make insurance payments for years, but it’s hard to know how your insurance company will treat you until you file a claim. If your insurance company has been helpful and responsive to your claim, you may not need the additional assistance of a Public Adjuster.

If your insurance company has been slow to respond, rude, uncooperative, or giving you the runaround, then it may be helpful to have an advocate in your corner. 

Can I remain in my home during the repairs?

If you’re displaced from your home due to the damage you have to spend valuable time finding last minute shelter and it is harder to manage the claim.  In this case, it’s helpful to have some extra manpower. 

Do I have time to call my insurance company every day to check on their progress?

Your insurance company has people whose full-time job is to review your claim. They’re incentivized to save the insurance company money, so they’ll review your policy to find any loopholes that will lower your payout. Once they settle on a payout, they’re not necessarily in a rush to deliver it. 

You, on the other hand, are dealing with a crisis—meeting with contractors and remediation companies, managing the repairs, even finding temporary housing. You also have to manage your daily responsibilities to work and family. 

If you hire a public adjuster, it will be their full-time job to follow up with the insurance company and make sure your claim is moving along quickly. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. if you have an advocate who will call about your claim every day, it may encourage your insurance company to move more quickly. 

Am I able to provide a thorough and itemized list of damaged belongings, including brand, model, and sometimes year-made?

Depending on your policy, you will get either depreciated cost or the full replacement value for your items. Regardless, you want to make sure the insurance company estimates these costs accurately. 

If you tell your insurance company to replace your “toaster,” they’ll assume you had a cheap toaster and adjust your payouts accordingly. If instead, you provide them with the make and model of your toaster, they will compensate you based on your actual purchase amount. For electronics, such as a fancy TV, providing the year you purchased it can also help. 

Some dedicated homeowners make lists of their belongings before a crisis so they have them on hand in an emergency. However, if you’re not prepared, an adjuster can help you research your belongings and provide an itemized list with payout suggestions to your insurance company. 

Do I have the expertise to provide a thorough and itemized list of damaged property, along with estimates of invisible damage, such as mold?

If the ceiling collapses in your bathroom, you may not be thinking about whether your built-in soap dish is damaged. A good public adjuster will notice small details like this and include them in your damage estimate (along with the big things). With their expertise, they can also guess what hidden damage might be lurking behind cabinets or under floors, which may prevent you from having to file a second claim later. They then create a report of all the damages and deliver it to your insurance company for you, in a format that’s easy for your insurance company to process.

If you’re handy and you’ve done many home projects around your house, you might be well equipped to catalog the damage in your home. If you’re less knowledgable, it may be helpful to bring in an expert. 

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