For adjusters, damage is a good thing

Insurance adjuster Seth Straff of the Insurance Adjustment Bureau Inc. detecting buckling in a kitchen floor attributed to flooding in the basement of an Elkins Park home.
Insurance adjuster Seth Straff of the Insurance Adjustment Bureau Inc. detecting buckling in a kitchen floor attributed to flooding in the basement of an Elkins Park home. (Diane Mastrull / Staff)
Posted: August 29, 2011

As he walked the length of the twin home's basement in Elkins Park Monday, Seth Straff took stock of the damage Hurricane Irene had wrought - destruction far beyond the mud squishing under his feet. It included a three-foot-long crack in a load-bearing wall and a totaled furnace, hot-water heater, washer and dryer.

Upstairs, he noted the laminated floor buckling in the kitchen, which he attributed to the moisture in the basement below, where the nearby Tookany Creek had forced its way in to a depth of 4-feet, 9.5-inches. The garage door? A total loss too, as well as the saturated contents - including a freezer - it was unable to protect from the not-to-be-stopped flood waters.

"This could be over $100,000 easily," Straff said of the damages.

He couldn't be more thrilled. And not just because the house isn't his.

He and brothers Ira and Michael run a family firm of insurance adjusters in Bala Cynwyd. Thanks to a wickedly cold winter, a soggy spring and a summer that brought not only a hurricane but an earthquake to this region - within the same week, no less - business is booming.

"We have no headache today, we have elation," Ira Straff said of his day-after-Irene existence, when his company, The Insurance Adjustment Bureau, Inc., or IAB, handled more than 250 calls from owners of homes and businesses tortured as part of the hurricane-turned-tropical storm's weekend of East Coast ravaging.

For in the little-seems-fair world of disasters, property owners' losses stand to be IAB's gains.

As long as insurance companies have policyholders, independent adjusters have a pipeline to profits.

Typically hired by policyholders, adjusters serve as their advocates to squeeze as much as possible in damage compensation from their insurance companies. Adjusters incentive for success is very bottom line: They get paid a percentage of what they recover.

At IAB, the cut is usually 10 percent to 20 percent, depending on the type of claim and the size of loss.

For the industry as a whole, Irene could be a sizable payday. Some estimates have put the storm's cost to insurers at $2.6 billion.

IAB alone is handling 50 percent to 75 percent more claims than it was a year ago, said Ira Straff, president of the company of 28 employees, founded in 1964 by his late father, Paul. About half of the claims it takes on are unrelated to weather. They include fire, vandalism, a broken water pipe or a driver hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake and sending a car through a garage wall.

This past year, claims have been "driven by the weather," Ira Straff said.

Faced with an onslaught of claims, insurance companies have been increasingly resorting to outsourcing the work of loss assessment, a process that has become rather formulaic, he contends.

"They [the insurers' representatives] go out, write an estimate, close the file and move on," Ira Straff said.

With competition for premium dollars intense, insurers "don't want to pay any more than they have to," he said.

The goal of an independent insurance adjuster, like IAB, is to get the insurance companies to pay the maximum by capitalizing on every opportunity provided in an insurance policy - and not overlooking anything when assessing damages to a property, or determining causes of losses.

Michael Straff, a former volunteer firefighter, is a certified fire and explosion investigator. Those skills helped him shoot down for a client an initial finding that a house fire was caused by a man smoking in bed. It was actually the result of an electrical malfunction inside a wall of the home.

"Every case is unique and that's how every case is handled," Seth Straff said.

On High School Road in Elkins Park, where he gave his grim damage estimate Monday in that mud-slathered basement along the now-contained Tookany Creek, homeowner Steve Way was clearly disappointed when Straff explained that his policy would not cover the appliance losses. Typical policies do not cover such content losses, especially in areas known to flood - such as Way's basement, which has taken on water each of the three years he and his family have lived in the house. But policies will cover structural damage.

Seth Straff said he is determined to get Way enough of a payout from his insurance provider "to fix his structure and make it safe again." While it lightened Way's mood, it did not change his outlook on Irene's wrath. "It sucks," said the 34-year-old laid-off Philadelphia teacher.

The Straffs see it differently.

While Way and the region continue to mop up soggy basements, replace roof shingles and cart off fallen trees, Ira Straff said he is deriving satisfaction from helping clients put their lives back together, and one other thing:

"Hurricane season is not over until November."

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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