SAN DIEGO-With most of the wildfires now under control many of the 881,500 evacuees were able to return home this week – that is if they still had one. The Disaster News Network estimates that the 16 wildfires that spanned from Malibu to Running Springs to San Diego destroyed more than 2,000 homes and charred more than 50,000 acres.

One of the first steps that many who lost their homes took was contacting their insurance companies. Real estate lawyers and lenders caution, however, that although contacting the insurance agent quickly is a good first step it is not nearly enough to ensure that a claim will be processed efficiently. Belinda Austin is one such loan officer who, having been active in the mortgage industry for more than eight years while living in Carlsbad, has seen how assumptions and naiveté about insurance claims can lead to even further disaster.

“I believe the worse thing homeowners can do right now is assume,” she says. “Do not assume that you have adequate insurance coverage. Do not assume that the lender will extend your interest rate for free due to a disaster… Homeowners need to understand their homeowner insurance policy inside and out. I strongly encourage everyone to contact their insurance agent to make sure that they have adequate coverage.”

Contacting one’s insurance agent seemed to be the easy part for many homeowners. As of Oct. 25, State Farm, the largest home insurer in California, had received more than 2,000 property claims. Approximately 500 of those claims involve homes that were either destroyed entirely or damaged beyond the point of being habitable. Austin’s advice is a little more complex to follow, however. “Adequate coverage” can mean everything from making sure one’s replacement costs vary with inflation to carrying Ordinance and Law Coverage, which covers the costs associated with rebuilding a home after newly enacted building codes have been put in place, and Additional Living Expenses Coverage.

Jeff Masters, a partner in the litigation department and co-chair of the Development Risk Management Practice Group at Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP, says that even though the insurance process can be intimidating, understanding it before a disaster occurs is an absolute necessity.

“Get someone to walk you through the process if you have to,” Masters tells “Because different insurance companies handle claims differently and at different speeds. You have to stay on top of how they are adjusting your loss. And don’t take no for an answer.”

Another mistake Masters says many homeowners make is allowing their fire insurance to lapse.

“When a homeowner or business owner doesn’t have fire insurance in place like they’re supposed to the lender can foreclose because they have breached the lending agreement,” he says. “A homeowner has some risk if they fail to maintain that fire insurance because it’s seen by a court as bad faith.”

Experts also note that although many look toward the government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a time of disaster, they may not be able to provide the kind of assistance homeowners assume they do. According to FEMA’s Web site, the agency cannot provide money for losses that are covered by insurance.

The San Diego Institute for Policy Research estimates that San Diego County’s fires alone will result in more than $2 billion in damages. Experts believe that the cost of rebuilding destroyed and uninhabitable homes will be in the $500-million range.

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