The case lingered, in part because Mr. Chang traveled frequently for work and was not able to monitor the appraisal process closely. After eight months of living in temporary housing paid for by Travelers, Mr. Chang withdrew his appraisal demand and tried to restart direct negotiations with Travelers, but Travelers opted to stick with the appraisal process.
To keep a dispute from escalating, consumer advocates suggest that homeowners navigate the insurance process with caution from the very first call until the final check is cut. “Start by trusting the company,” said Mr. Hunter, of the Consumer Federation. “But you do it warily, and you do it professionally.” Keep notes of conversations and copies of correspondence and receipts. If you run into trouble with the claims department, contact the public relations department. Hit enough roadblocks and you may need a lawyer.
Last October, Mr. Chang began rebuilding his house, despite having no resolution on the total amount that Travelers would pay. He paid for some of the $425,000 of work with a partial payment of around $185,000 from Travelers, and the rest with savings. “I’m not trying to be unjustly rich, I just want to make up what I’ve lost,” Mr. Chang said. “I just want to be made whole.”
Mr. Chang’s case has been further complicated by the fact that even though he was still living in an apartment paid for by Travelers, he rented his house in July to a tenant for $7,700 a month. The house was listed for rent in May when the work was completed as a “totally renovated Pelham Heights home,” according to Zillow. Mr. Chang said he needed the rental income to offset the money he put into the renovation. He said he plans to move out of the Travelers apartment later this month, into a vacant house in Port Chester, N.Y., that belongs to his mother.
Travelers estimates that it has paid nearly $500,000 to repair Mr. Chang’s home, replace damaged property and cover additional living expenses for his family, according to a statement from Matt Bordonaro, a Travelers spokesman. The case now is before a mediator whose decision will be binding.
Your Bank Has a Stake, Too
Even if your insurance carrier agrees to pay for home repairs, you may not see the money right away. If your home has a mortgage, checks for repairs to the dwelling will likely be made to both you and your lender. Your bank will often hold onto the money, dispensing it as the work is done, adding another layer of bureaucracy and, often, delay.
Nearly a year after fire destroyed his Glen Rock home, Mr. Kaufman marched into his mortgage lender’s office in Hoboken, N.J., demanding his insurance money. The bank would not release an $80,000 payment from the insurance company, for reasons that have not been made clear to Mr. Kaufman. But the work was nearly done and bills needed to be paid. “I had a large blowout with the bank president,” Mr. Kaufman said.
Rather than continue to fight with the bank, the Kaufmans borrowed $80,000 from Mr. Kaufman’s parents. Eventually, the bank released the money.
Becoming Whole Again
In a blog called “From Fire to Fabulous,” Ms. Kaufman chronicled her experience, starting with the day the house was torn down to the foundation. “We poured glasses of Korbel to mark the occasion,” she wrote.
Sixteen months after the fire, the Kaufman family moved back home. At 3,000 square feet, the new house is twice as large as the previous one, with an open floor plan, large kitchen and four large bedrooms. Mr. and Ms. Kaufman paid for the addition, about a third of the rebuilding cost, separately. “Everyone says, ‘Your house is amazing,’” Ms. Kaufman said. “But I really wouldn’t recommend going through this to anybody.”