Once insurance deductibles are known, homeowners’ spirits fall like downed trees

What to know before you file insurance claim

Helen McCall works for Seibels, a company that manages claims for several insurance companies, and offers homeowners some basic tips.
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Helen McCall works for Seibels, a company that manages claims for several insurance companies, and offers homeowners some basic tips.

When Lowcountry residents buy a house, they usually plant trees.

Debbie Birkett did the opposite.

After buying a property in the Rookery neighborhood of Hilton Head Plantation two years ago, she had three trees moved and trimmed thick, extending branches of three others.

The homeowner recognized the danger the tall timbers could do to her home during a hurricane.

Still, her efforts didn’t stand a chance against Hurricane Matthew, which pushed two trees through Birkett’s bedroom. Another six toppled over in her yard.

She, and other Beaufort County property headed to the Catastrophe Claims Center Thursday to navigate the intricacies of insurance in the aftermath of Matthew.

More than a dozen insurance companies set up tents in the parking lot of Bluffton’s Home Depot to answer questions.

For many residents, the answers company representatives provided revealed a harsh reality - one likely to hit homeowners hard in the pocketbooks.

Matthew dealt Hilton Head “an unprecendented amount of tree damage,” Gov. Nikki Haley has said.

Yet standard homeowner’s insurance policies do not cover tree removal, said Helen McCall of Seibel, a company that handles claims for several insurance companies.

Further, wind and hail insurance typically only covers tree removal if it damaged a dwelling or blocks a driveway or handicap ramp, she said.

And deductibles are also almost always higher for hurricanes than for storms, said Russ Dubisky, executive director of S.C. Insurance Association.

High deductibles

For Birkett’s Centauri policy, the $1,000 deductible for small storms jumps to $5,000 for a hurricane, she said. As a school counselor at Bluffton Middle School, that’s a significant out-of-pocket payment.

“It seems like they hit you when you’re down,” she said.

In comparison to others’ policies, Birkett’s deductible is a sigh of relief.

Barry Barthelman, also of Hilton Head Plantation, has a 2 percent deductible on the total value of his home.

Two tree removal estimates, one for $8,000 and another for $3,000, fall below his $9,000 deductible, which means the insurance company can skirt the cost.

If Barthelman wants to remove the two trees that struck his home and the five lying in his yard, he’ll have to foot the bill himself.

One property owner came to Dubisky with a $30,000 deductible. Others can expect to pay 10 percent of the total value of their home.

Some company’s policies specify the number of trees they will cover for removal.

Pat Feinberg, another Hilton Head Plantation resident, cannot see her house from the street.

A tangle of toppled trees block the driveway’s entrance. Her policy will only cover the cost of two in her yard and two on her house.

She declined to say under which insurance company she has a policy.

If wind does further damage to the two trees that struck a corner of her house, Feinberg will pay less out of pocket than she will for the hurricane, she said.

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer