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When the roof falls off: The story of a homeowners insurance ‘nightmare’ in Concord



Last modified: Sunday, October 25, 2015
Kristina Levine was upstairs on a February afternoon in Concord when a deafening crash shook her home, smashed windows and plunged the first floor into darkness.

The truth of what happened was far more bizarre than what she imagined: A 20-foot by 36-foot slab of her roof had sprung loose and crashed to the ground in the spot where she was shoveling snow hours earlier. It came to rest against the side of the 1996 colonial, propped up like a ladder, leaving the attic exposed.

Within 15 minutes, she, her husband and their two teenage boys gathered clothes, shepherded scared cats into carriers and evacuated.

Eight months later, they’re still living in a temporary apartment, renewing a month-to-month lease, unsure when exactly they’ll be able to move back home. The second floor is nothing but framing, the insides gutted after the elements seeped in and further wrecked the place in the months after the disaster.

Levine, 51, had homeowners insurance, but it didn’t pay off until she spent thousands fighting for an appropriate settlement. What the insurer offered her after three months, she said, was “horribly insufficient,” less than half of what the contractor said it would cost to fix the place. In the end, after six months, with the help of an expert adviser, the offer was more than doubled.

The Levines estimated they paid $25,000 out of pocket, between hiring the public adjuster and other uncovered expenses, with more to come.

Now, they said, their eyes have been opened to an insurance industry stacked against the average person and a system of regulations in the state that allows just about anyone to build a house and then make it difficult to hold a builder accountable for shoddy work.

“You kind of wonder what’s the point of homeowners insurance when you have to go out and spend $15,000 to get someone to argue” on your behalf for the real cost of repairs, she said. “You have to be an engineer. You have to know how the insurance companies play their games. It’s horrible.”

Licensing

The Levines’ new contractor, Rob Harrison of Concord-based RJH Builders, said after seeing the situation at 11 Pond Place Lane, he believes New Hampshire needs to license builders the same way it does plumbers or electricians. New techniques require builders to stay on top of best practices, he said, which is why other states require licensees to continuously prove their knowledge.

For instance, modern homes with exceptional insulation won’t leak as much heat through the roof, which can mean heavier weights of snow will pile up as compared with old houses, requiring sturdier construction.

“We’re talking about waking up and your roof is on the ground. People could get killed, you know? This isn’t a joke. . . . I can’t even believe the state doesn’t have some type of licensing program,” he said.

If the law were changed, he said, the builder who pulls a permit would be forced to scrutinize the work of his contractors for fear of losing his license. It would protect honest contractors, too, by ensuring they wouldn’t be beaten on a low-ball bid by an unscrupulous builder.

Harrison said he’d be happy to testify on related legislation in the upcoming session. To start the process, he called state Sen. Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat who said he’s considering Harrison’s idea.

“I’m not one for regulation, trust me,” Harrison said, “but I strongly believe that something needs to be done. You have to be licensed to cut someone’s hair, you know what I mean? We’re talking about the most expensive investment that somebody would make.”

The aftermath

Levine, who is formerly a school teacher, and her husband, who is a transportation planner for the federal highway department, have had Allstate Insurance coverage on their home since they bought it in 2007. Kristina Levine said she has been a customer since 1995 and had no problems before filing a major claim.

For their house, they quickly hired a public adjuster to help recoup a fair cost, a feat they deemed impossible without the expert help.

“When they’re going into it thinking, ‘What’s the minimum we can do to close this claim,’ you can’t (represent yourself). That’s not going to work,” she said.

Julia Reusch, an Allstate spokeswoman who insisted that the company “pays every dime that is owed in a claim,” disagreed, saying that hiring a public adjuster “is certainly not a necessary part of the process.”

“The fact is, there wouldn’t be people out there making a living at it were there not a need for it,” countered Leigh Levine, Kristina’s husband.

The Levines learned in the days after their roof fell off that a connection between the rafters and attic joists had been faulty, according to an inspection by city officials, and that the house was one of two in Concord built by a now-dissolved company, ACA Investments Inc.

When he was replacing different sections of the Levines’ roof, Harrison said he found that the construction seemed “randomly put together.” He’s been in business for 27 years, he said, and in doing remodeling jobs, has inspected a lot of other people’s work.

“This place, Kristina’s, is a mess. They put absolutely no nails in anything. . . . It’s the easiest I’ve ever taken anything apart in my life,” he said.

For months while awaiting substantial insurance payments, the Levines watched helplessly as the condition of their most valuable asset deteriorated. She did research and interviews to find out that it would be expensive and difficult – if not impossible – to hold a builder accountable, and her only option was to pay for a public adjuster to argue for what they needed to repair their home.

After they settled with Allstate on a dollar amount that will pay for nearly all the damage, Levine said, she began a new struggle with Citizens Bank to withdraw the money to pay her contractor. That lasted more than five weeks before it was resolved, she said, which delayed the construction timeline further. They hope to return to their home by Dec. 20.

Stacked deck

Homeowner-versus-builder cases in New Hampshire’s courts tend to be factually intensive, said David LeFevre, an attorney for the Concord-based Tarbell & Brodich who has experience in construction litigation.

The contractor will insist he did what he was asked – according to code and industry standards – leaving a murky dispute, unless the homeowner had a specific contract and solid evidence. A heavy snow load on the roof, such as in the Levines’ case, can add an extra level of uncertainty.

LeFevre said he probably wouldn’t take a construction case on a contingency fee bases, which can mean the prospect of paying an attorney’s hourly fees can be infeasible for stressed homeowners.

“The cases are very time consuming, and in many cases the possibility of recovery is very low; for example, the contractor may no longer be in business, may file for bankruptcy, or not have the financial means to pay a judgment,” he said.

The most significant hurdle in the Levines’ case, however, is the statute of repose. According to the law, actions to recover damages for injury to property “shall be brought within eight years from the date of substantial completion of the improvement, and not thereafter.”

LeFevre explained: “If construction occurs on day one and you discover the defect on year nine, that’s it. You can’t bring action against a contractor.”

Emergency response

Allstate paid for the Levines to move into the Residence Inn for five weeks after the roof came off, then to a furnished apartment while they awaited construction. All their belongings were packed in a storage unit so tightly that they’re inaccessible, Levine said, which meant they had to pay for duplicates of items they already own.

A number of significant expenses won’t be paid for, such as the first-story wood floors that Allstate didn’t deem to be in need of repair, Levine said. In many cases, she said, they were only able to get items covered will the help of the public adjuster.

For instance, to prevent further damage to the roof after the disaster, she said she was authorized to cut the radon mitigation system that was built into the house. Weeks later, she received a letter in the mail, saying Allstate wouldn’t pay for the radon system. To her, it was another in a series of inexplicable moments proving a failure of insurance.

This time, it meant a $1,500 bill she couldn’t afford, leaving her holding the envelope while sitting in her driveway crying, she said.

“That kind of stuff was every week. Every week. . . . You lose your resiliency after a while,” she said.

In the end, the public adjuster fought to get the radon system covered – and won. It was a battle that prevented her from going further into debt, but did nothing to restore her faith in the industry.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)