INSURANCE companies warn against them, some consumer advocates eye them with suspicion, and many potential clients are not even aware of what they do. Public insurance adjusters, private claims experts who negotiate with insurers to win settlements for homeowners and businesses, are a misunderstood lot.
Jarrod M. Fischer, an insurance adjuster based in Lake Success, N.Y., who specializes in high-end residential claims, estimates that half the people he meets have never heard the term. Yet, once “we explain our service, 9 times out of 10 they’ll hire me,” Mr. Fischer said.
After years of working in relative obscurity, mainly in the Northeast, public adjusters are becoming increasingly prominent in hurricane-torn Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. In Florida, where a decade of big storms has led to tighter insurance regulations, the profession is flourishing. In the mid-1980’s the state had only a handful of adjusters, primarily in Miami and Jacksonville; today there are more than 400, said Ray Altieri Jr., the president of Transco American Claims, a public adjuster firm in Tampa.
Only a fraction of homes in the hurricane zone were covered by federal flood insurance and residential reimbursement is capped at $250,000. Additional reimbursement from a homeowner’s policy can mean the difference between rebuilding and defaulting on a mortgage.
With or without flood insurance, “the public adjuster is going to identify a greater amount of loss and damage than a homeowner ever would on their own,” said Leslie L. Knox, the president of Andrew K. Knox & Company in Toms River, N.J., and the incoming president of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, a trade group.
In the weeks following Katrina, with the number of claims rising — up to 1.75 million as of Jan. 31, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group — Louisiana and Mississippi, which had not previously licensed public adjusters, issued emergency directives allowing them to operate once they register with the respective insurance departments. By December, 495 adjusters had done so in Mississippi; in Louisiana, the number is 1,170.
After Katrina hit, Ron Delo, the president of Insurance Claim Consultants, a public adjuster firm in Tampa, tripled his staff to nine, including two in Florida and two in Louisiana. Mr. Delo said his company is working with about 275 residential clients with hurricane-related claims. The claims were averaging $150,000 to $250,000, he said.
Public adjusters, who work on contingency and earn a percentage of the claim, take inventory, hire appraisers and engineers, and negotiate with insurance companies over the extent of coverage and the cost of repairs. Adjusters say they offer practical knowledge based on the kind of familiarity with the claims process that few homeowners ever have. And people who are reeling from the impact of a disaster often appreciate having a consultant to lean on.
“My wife and I were in shock,” said Dennis Hersch, referring to an electrical fire that damaged their triplex apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 2004. “One minute your life is all normal and the next minute I had 30 to 40 firefighters trudging through the place. Everything smelled of smoke. There was broken glass. It was a nightmare.”
Mr. Hersch, the global chairman of mergers and acquisitions at J. P. Morgan, and his wife, Huguette, hired Mr. Fischer, who works for the Affiliated Adjustment Group, after he knocked on the Hersches’ door after the fire. Ten months later, Mr. Hersch said, he received a “very fair” settlement from the insurance company, close to $400,000. Mr. Fischer’s cut was 8 percent, less than the 12.5 percent rate cap under New York State law.
Controversy over the adjusters’ middleman role has risen right along with their numbers.
Mississippi, in particular, had been seen as hostile to the practice. When the emergency directive to license them was being discussed, regulators pushed for a 2 percent cap on fees. The cap was set at 7 percent, but as part of the directive adjusters are allowed only to assess values and costs and to file a claim — they may not negotiate with an insurer over coverage.
In Louisiana last November, the insurance commissioner, J. Robert Wooley, warned that some public adjusters “take advantage of consumers,” and that some contractors approach homeowners saying they are public adjusters in order to get work.
A spokeswoman for the insurance industry — which is where many adjusters get their start — argued that consumers can deal directly with the insurance companies on claims, using an in-house adjuster free of charge. And Bob Hunter, the director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America, the national advocacy group, agrees.
“Why would you want someone to take a piece of your money?” Mr. Hunter asked. “If you really feel like you’re getting a runaround from the insurance company and they’re really treating you rudely, go to a lawyer.”
But some homeowners say they appreciate having a hand when they are feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed.
As with any contractor, homeowners should ask for references. In states that recognize the profession — Mississippi and Louisiana aside, 38 out of the 50 do, including Connecticut and New Jersey — adjusters should be licensed, checkable through the state’s insurance department.
Bill Bailey, the outside counsel for the Insurance Information Institute, and the managing director of its Hurricane Insurance Information Center, says the right adjuster can make all the difference. He tells the story of the time his wife, Irene, was managing a building in Boston and one Friday night in the dead of winter its boiler exploded. Unable to reach the insurer, she authorized emergency repairs. The insurer turned down the claim, saying she had violated the policy; a public adjuster helped turn that decision around.
“They can be extremely helpful as long as you know what you’re getting,” Mr. Bailey said.