Masters of Disaster

Troubled Waters

written by Maria Neumann

When it comes to water damage, have a dependable remediation service on speed dial to save time, money and your building.

It is two in the morning and you get the frantic call from your maintenance director: a tenant on the eighth floor decided to fix his own plumbing, the water filled the bathroom until he could not open the door, and now there are twenty-five wet units.

Or your tenant left his cigarette in an ashtray on his bed, and while in the bathroom, the dog jumped on the bed and lit the bed on fire. Half the apartment is wet from the fire hoses and the water is dripping down to the lower units. The dog is fine but the firemen have left a huge mess.

Or your tenant decided to blow dry his wet shirt by hanging it on a sprinkler head. And not just one sprinkler has gone off, but every sprinkler on the third floor. No one could figure out how to turn off the water for twenty minutes, and the water in the sprinkler pipes hadn’t been flushed in years, leaving grimy water coating everything.

You get the idea. Almost always, big disasters start while your tenants are home, often asleep and waking up to noise, confusion and drama. So do you take care of the problem immediately and pay time-and-a-half to the restoration company? Or wait until daylight to call your insurance company and wait for an adjuster?

Every minute that water is moving and saturating, it’s making the clean-up process longer and harder. Your tenants are already awake, your day has begun and you have two main problems: starting damage mitigation work and calming people down.

This is not the time to start looking for a restoration company. You should already have one on speed dial—one with enough employees for an emergency at your largest building. You are looking for a company that wants lots of work from you, not just one job. By choosing a first responder that only handles emergency mitigation—rather than a company that handles emergency mitigation and then re-construction—you assure that every employee working for that company is looking to save and not replace. When the company does not profit from pulling out carpet, drywall or cabinets, a lot more is salvageable.

You do not have to shop for price. The insurance companies all use an industry standard billing program called Xactimate and every legitimate restoration company bills using that same program. Emergencies are almost always covered—sudden and immediate are the magic words to turn on coverage. So how do you save your insurance company money and your staff and tenants drama? Speed.

The mitigation technicians need to arrive on scene within a couple of hours and they need to start extracting water and setting up drying equipment at a feverish pace. If you are lucky, the whole mess will be dried in three days, without cutting a wall or lifting carpet. But when you have multiple floors, you probably won’t be so lucky.

As soon as the sun is up, you need a testing company out there seeing if you have asbestos and lead in the affected areas. Asbestos can be dried in place, but only an asbestos certified company can cut into it. You can get results in less than twenty-four hours if you have an industrial hygienist. Most restoration contractors know who the good hygienists are, and will make sure you get the best service.

Do not use a restoration company that does its own testing, which is a conflict of interest. Many reputable testing companies that service San Francisco go for speed and competence. If they cannot promise a 24-hour turnaround, move on.

A mitigation company must have two important and very distinct skill sets. One is being competent at cleaning things up and drying things out. The other is the ability to calm the tenants down, make everyone feel cared for and important. It is traumatic and everyone behaves differently under times of stress.

Some of your tenants will want to sue you and make you pay for their inconvenience and some will be in puddles of tears. Restoration professionals should know it is part of their job to mitigate upset tenants as well as the water. They should show your tenants that you are taking care of them and assuring them everything will be all right.

How do you find a restoration company that has these soft skills? Positive online reviews talk about the behavior of the employees and can reveal if a company cares. If you can meet the owner of the company before you need them, you can assess the company culture.

You can also check with the Contractor’s State License Board (CSLB) or the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for complaints regarding competency. 

The restoration company should work straight through, sending in a second shift of employees until all the water is extracted while the testing company samples for asbestos and the tenants go to work.

Now is the time to get your insurance company on board. They will usually recommend their “preferred vendor” and will often bad mouth independent companies. Same principle as the independent auto body shop applies here: the insurance company wants to control costs and you want to make sure they do not do it by cutting corners. You want the best job and saving the insurance company money is not your priority.  Companies who are not on the vendor lists of the insurance companies are only aligned with your interests and are not dependent on the insurance company for future work.

Public adjusters usually offer their services on day two because they are prohibited from soliciting business from catastrophe victims after 6:00 p.m. and before 8:00 a.m. by state law. They are professional negotiators who provide no services other than negotiating your claim’s final dollar amount with your insurance company. They charge a flat fee for their services to the insured, usually 10% that is negotiable. They sometimes also get paid by vendors that they refer.

A public adjuster’s stated mission—to maximize the dollar amount paid on any given claim—is in direct conflict with the stated purpose of a mitigation company. Mitigate means “to reduce harm.” The first step some PAs take is to stop all mitigation work and try to bill the insurance company for full replacement costs, rather than the service work to restore, which in many cases is merely wet, not destroyed. With the obviously higher price tag, tenants are displaced longer, causing serious hardship.

As long as your insurance company is paying your vendors, treating you (the insured) with reasonable care and respect, and things are moving quickly, you will be able to manage things yourself without a public adjuster and their fees.

“Insurable Interest” means one can only insure what they own, so most renter’s policies do not cover your building. Even when it is clearly the tenant’s fault, it is the building owner’s policy that will be used and the landlord’s responsibility to manage the disaster.

Yes, it is a nightmare to have six-story loss and it takes a lot of time and energy to make things go right. The better prepared you are, the better the outcome. You will survive!

Maria Neumann is the owner of Water Damage Recovery. She can be reached at 510-351-7510.