Spring, the windiest time of the year in Melbourne, reminds us to check our insurance policy. We all remember last October’s fierce winds, leaving a trail of destruction across the Dandenong ranges. Those freak winds ripped up 9 trees on our property, demolishing our home, crushing 3 cars, many metres of fencing and left us in an insurance claim for 10 months.

Through my experience I came across many inconsistences and disappointments with our insurance company. This article contains our story. As each claim is different, please use the following questions as a guide to get to know your policy better and where appropriate please seek professional advice.

Am I insured?

After the dust settles you wonder- are we insured? I have heard many stories of insufficient funds for direct debits or overdue bills. Insurance companies wipe any responsibility very quickly.

What does my policy cover?

Only ever skimming over the policy documents, always assuming they were ok. The terminology used left a gap between what I believed to be insured and what actually is. Three months into the claim we hired an insurance consultant to help us get to know our policy. Having a professional working with us, gave us the confidence to question the process.

How much should I insure my house and contents for?   

It’s not until you are in a claim you know how much everything is really worth. Items add up very quickly. We were not able to touch our belongings for 4 weeks due to a possible contamination of asbestos. Thinking we had lost everything opened our eyes to the replacement value of our items. Spending time to find the right amount is definitely worth it.

How do I make a claim?

Being a Sunday, an off-shore call centre took our initial call and contact details. We were left disheartened for the next 18 hours waiting for a call back. With rain on its way we were in the position to tarp our own property and retrieve as many items as possible, saving the majority of our contents. Providing as much detail and sending photo’s helped the operators know more about what they were dealing with. A week after the storms, another limb from a neighbours tree fell onto our already damaged home. This required us to make another claim and go through the process of make safe, builders, tree loppers all again. The amount of hours I spent dealing with insurance, turned into a full time job.

Am I eligible for temporary accommodation?

We were homeless. Little did we know our policy covered us for 10% of the total insured value to be used on temporary accommodation, for the family and our pet. As we hadn’t spoken to anyone in the first crucial hours we weren’t sure, opting to stay at a relatives. This went on for four weeks, until assessors finalised their reports and we were given the green light to rent.

Am I totally covered?

Who knows! Common sense does not prevail when up against an insurance company. We thought we were fully covered, considering a tree had demolished our house. Despite their builder calling it a right off/total loss, we were only offered 45% payout due to deterioration on our 50 year old home. This knowledge after the fact cut us deep. Their building surveyor said “they always low ball the first offer”. We were horrified, this wasn’t a game- this was our lively hood and our home. We wish we had taken yearly photos of the property, inside and out. Had we done this, when disputing the numerous cracks caused by the tree impact, we would have had the proof of prior condition.

Can I question my claim?

Of course you can. You can ask for copies of all documents or reports to do with your claim. We knew there to be more damage than had been outlined in their reports and took it upon ourselves to get a second opinion. Insurance were quite happy to review our own builders quote and engineers reports, as long as we covered the costs. This decision turned out to be the best thing we could have done. To get the backing from professionals gave us the evidence to have our concerns listened to. This took many hours to get our builders quote up to a standard they would accept. With these independent reports we got the repair cost up to 75%.

How long should my claim take?

Be ready for the initial whirlwind. The first 10 days went by in a blur of make safe crew’s, tree loppers and builders, all wanting to secure the property and make it safe. Insurance have to comply with council regulations, who need to be notified. Everything seemed to be running smoothly- then the waiting began, waiting for reports and waiting for answers.

General insurer’s have a code of practice they have to abide by (http://codeofpractice.com.au). Item 7.1 states “we will conduct claims handling in an honest, fair, transparent and timely manner” The most disappointing of all were time lines given- nothing ever seemed to arrive on time, 10 days turned to 33 days for a single report.

Decisions about the claim are meant to be made within four months, unless exceptional circumstances apply. When our claim hit four months we noticed an urgency to wrap everything up.

Should I go to the Ombudsman?

Many people believe going to the ombudsman an easy answer. Complaints will only be considered after 45 days since an attempt to resolve the issue with your service provider. Shortening the life of the claim to 1000 characters, our complaint got accepted. Numerous steps followed, with this first stage taking 4 months and no word from insurance during this time. While 3 deadlines to provide evidence were given, insurance failed to meet them all and rejected the ombudsman’s recommendation, progressing our complaint to the next level. We stood our ground and after 301 days in a claim, we partially signed off. We can now start the rebuild of our home while we wait at least another 4 months to get the binding decision from the ombudsman.

My best advice is, ask insurance to put everything in writing. If something doesn’t sound right- question it. Get a second opinion. Ask for all documents and read them. Write everything down. Finally, shop round for insurance companies- you really do get what you pay for.