Ben Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Insurance, spoke with Community Impact about the steps people should take when filing a claim, the varying types of insurance coverage and how to get help with insurance issues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When someone’s property is damaged by a tree or another act of nature, what are the first steps they should take?
The immediate thing, if it’s your home or even your car, is to try to prevent further damage. So that means putting a tarp on it, or plywood—for the car, of course, you can put a tarp on it and try to prevent water from going inside. That’s especially important, in the scale of things, for your home. Right after that, [the next step] is calling your insurance company to start that claims process, because you and many of your neighbors are going to be calling those same agents and companies. You want to get in line and get your claim started, because your call is what’s going to start that [insurance] process.
What information should people expect to provide to their insurance agency when filing a claim?
It really depends on when the [insurance] adjuster can come out to see you. If they tell you it’s going to be more than a day or so, then you definitely want to start documenting. You can use your phone camera to take pictures and make a list of any kind of damage you see. The adjuster, of course, will make a very thorough inspection of the damage they find. And there may even be stuff that’s hidden, damage that you don’t find until later or when repairs are happening. That can always be added to the claim later.
If a tree falls on someone’s home or apartment, what will their homeowners or renters insurance typically cover?
With homeowners insurance, for example, if a large tree or limb is breached through your roof, then [your insurance company] is going to pay to remove the tree and repair that damage to your roof after your deductible is met. That’s one of the things people need to consider—if you’ve got a big hole in your roof, then you’re going to need that whole deductible. But if it’s just minor damage, it might be under your deductible. Your deductible is a percentage of what your home is [worth], so it’s often 2%-3% of your home’s value. That may be several thousand dollars, and if it’s below your deductible, then you’ll end up having to fix it yourself.
Renter’s insurance is a tricky one, because renter’s insurance only covers what you brought into the [residence], whether you’re living in a house or apartment. [Renter’s insurance] covers your belongings, so it won’t help with fixing the roof, walls or windows in your home. It’s just anything inside that’s damaged. So if your property got wet because of a hole in your roof, that’s the kind of thing that’s going to be covered. But [repairing] the building is going to be the property owner’s responsibility.
If a tree falls on someone’s vehicle, what will their car insurance cover?
A good chunk of people just have liability coverage, because that’s what’s required to drive in Texas. If that’s all you have, unfortunately you’re out of luck and will have to pay for the repair on your own. In order to have your insurance cover damage to your car from something other than an auto accident, you need comprehensive coverage. This covers you for anything besides a crash, which could be fire, theft or weather damage. People typically think about hail and flooding, but it’s the same when we’re talking about trees falling on cars—you need that comprehensive coverage to file a claim.
What if a tree from someone’s yard falls on their neighbor’s home or vehicle? Whose insurance covers those damages?
We definitely get questions about this from consumers all the time—even not during an ice storm, but just in regular times, when a tree comes down and it impacts your property. The damage will be covered by the insurance of the damaged property. So if a tree falls on your home, you’d still make a claim with your own insurance.
The question that we sometimes get is: What if your neighbor does something to make the tree come down? If they were trimming it and a branch falls on your car or home, for example, then there might be some liability for them, and your insurance will pursue that for you. But generally, you’ll start by making a claim with your own homeowners or car insurance, because your neighbors are not responsible for acts of nature like a tree falling. In some cases, if a tree was not properly maintained or was rotten, the liability might fall to whoever’s property the tree came from. But in the case of an ice storm like this, those cases will be rare, and you’ll usually just file with your own insurance agency.
Will someone’s insurance cover the cleanup or removal of a fallen tree?
We also get questions like this a lot, such as, “This tree is down in my front yard—is my insurance going to pay to haul that away?” Usually not, but it depends on the really specific language in your insurance policy. You can certainly call and ask your insurance agent or company representative if you have that protection, but generally, they will only pay for tree removal if it’s on top of your house or blocks access to your house, like a large tree right in front of your door. There might be coverage for [tree removal] in those cases, but if it’s just a tree in your yard, you’re probably going to have to pay for that on your own.
What other tips do you have as Texans continue to file claims after the storm?
You should really try to be at home when the insurance company sends their adjuster to look at the damage. That way, you can give them access to the inside of your home or the backyard and point out any damage you can see. If you can’t be at home, if you have to go to work or take your kids to school, make sure you let them know how they can contact you so you can meet them back at your house later. An adjuster can certainly look and get some details from the outside of your home, but you want to be there to point out what you saw.
And of course, when we have a disaster, we always think about what lessons we can learn and what we’re going to do for the next one. We’re telling folks, regardless of where they live, to take the experience of people who have been impacted by this [ice storm]. Make sure you trim your trees while the weather is good—if you have any overgrown trees that are hanging over your home or where you park your car, make sure you get those taken care of before things get bad. There’s always another disaster around the corner, so we want to tell people, “Hey, if you got lucky this time, make sure you take a look at what could have happened.”
If Texans have issues filing a claim or want to ask other questions, who should they contact?
Right now, we’re getting very few calls, and no complaints have come in. Everything seems to be taken care of, and [this storm] was certainly not as widespread as some of the other disasters we’ve seen. But if you have a complaint, you can always go to our website and enter your complaint there. Formal complaints have to be done in writing, so you’ll go online and present all your information and any documents you may have.
We also have a general consumer help line, which is 1-800-252-3439. If you just want to ask a question or are having trouble getting ahold of your insurance company, call that help line and we can assist you that way.
Texans can file a complaint with the Texas Department of Insurance here. The help line is open every Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. For more tips and information about homeowner's insurance and disaster claims, click here.
State leaders have also asked Texans to report damage to their homes and businesses through the Texas Division of Emergency Management’s damage survey portal. To access the survey, which is available in English and Spanish, visit https://damage.tdem.texas.gov, and select “Ice Storm/Winter Weather January 29-Ongoing” under “active incidents.”
Filling out the survey is entirely voluntary and does not replace filing an insurance claim.