The ordeal for Betty Pastir and her husband, Mike, began in late December, when she looked up from an easy chair and noticed creeping stains on her living room walls. The culprits were ice dams, those miniature but sometimes costly glaciers spreading on roofs across Minnesota.
A month later, the Pastirs were staring at the gaping holes in their ceilings and walls, which were left by a contractor as the family tried to resolve a dispute with the insurance company.
The Pastirs were peeved because Farmers Insurance brought in a demolition contractor whose work contributed to the formation of a new ice dam. An insurance adjuster blamed the couple for the new dam, and said any additional damage would not be covered, according to the Pastirs.
The couple went over the adjuster's head and demanded a second opinion. A second Farmers Insurance adjuster agreed that the new damage was covered.
The lesson? "Fight for what you think is right," said Betty Pastir, 67. "Don't let insurance companies pull the wool over your eyes."
Mark Kulda of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, an industry group, also encourages policy holders to speak out if they're unhappy with their settlement offer.
"If you hear that first number, that doesn't mean that's all you're going to get," Kulda said. "The law requires insurance companies to renew your home to its pre-loss condition."
Yet many people never challenge an adjuster's determination, said Richard Greene, a 44-year veteran of the business who works as a public adjuster in New Ulm. "Most people are pretty accepting of what [adjusters] tell them," Greene said. "They say, 'You know more than we do,' and just give up."
This winter's relentless snowfall caps a "horrible catastrophe year for insurers," marked by spring floods in northwestern Minnesota, autumn floods in southern Minnesota and a record number of tornadoes, Kulda said. Ice dams may lack the drama of rising rivers and devastating twisters, but the state's largest insurers have activated "catastrophe teams" of out-of-state adjusters to cope with ice dams and resulting water damage.
Ice dams form when rising heat from the house melts rooftop snow, which refreezes on the eaves. If the icy buildup is tall enough, the dams prevent snow melt from draining. In some cases, trapped liquid seeps through shingles and finds a way into homes.
The last time the Insurance Federation of Minnesota tallied the cost of ice dams was 2003, a year insurers paid an estimated $50 million in claims, Kulda said. Neither the federation nor the Minnesota Department of Commerce could estimate how many claims have been filed this winter, but a commerce spokeswoman said there has been an increase in inquiries about ice dams, mainly about whether they're covered under insurance policies.
Generally, the answer depends on whether a home has been harmed. If dams cause water to leak inside a home, insurance companies will usually pay to remove the dams and repair the house.
That was the case with the Pastirs' policy, said Jerry Davies, a spokesman for Farmers Insurance in the company's southern California headquarters. "Farmers will always cover damages caused by those ice dams in those homeowners' policies," Davies said.
Yet for several weeks, the Pastirs wondered how their insurance claim could have gone so wrong. Built in 1927, the Pastirs' home on 24th Avenue South in Minneapolis has been in the family for 46 years. The family can't remember ever having an ice dam problem before.
Starting in December, the flood from above invaded their living room, kitchen, office and bedroom. It soaked insulation, wrecked plaster and lath and ruined hardwood floors.
After the Pastirs called in their claim, Farmers Insurance paid for a professional to blast away the ice dam. The couple were told they could choose their own contractor to fix it, and got an estimate. But a Farmers adjuster said the estimate was too high, and called in a crew from ServiceMaster Clean.
Davies, the Farmers spokesman, said ServiceMaster was chosen with the Pastirs' consent, but the couple disagree. "We feel they were just crammed down our throats," Mike Pastir said in a Feb. 7 complaint to the commerce department.
After Farmers rejected the Pastir's claim for the second ice dam, "Betty got mad," Mike Pastir recalled. She got on the phone with Farmers Insurance, demanded to speak to a supervisor and persuaded the insurer to send a new adjuster out.
The adjuster took one look at the shell of a house and gave the Pastirs the answer they wanted. Farmers agreed to remove the second ice dam and hire the Pastirs' preferred contractor for about $16,000 worth of repairs. The company also paid for letting the Pastirs stay in a hotel for the duration of construction.