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June 22--First came the hailstorm, then the rush to assess the damage -- and now for many businesses, the chance to cash in on repairs.
Last month's violent hailstorm caused millions of dollars worth of damage to property owners. The storm dented cars, smashed windows, shredded siding and pounded roofs.
The misfortune has been a gold mine for roofers, contractors and suppliers, whose ranks have been swelled by out-of-state repair crews rushing to town. But the demand still isn't being met.
Meanwhile, home owners are left haggling with insurance adjusters, worrying about which repairmen they can trust and when their repairs will be finished.
"It's good for business, sure. But it's hard for my business because we're having to tell people, 'We just can't get to you now,'" said Ron Becker, owner of Beckers Glass in Billings, which has hired a new worker and authorized lots of overtime hours to meet the demand.
^pThe May 18 storm caused the most hail damage in the Billings area since 1991, when the damage was estimated to rise to $70 million, and pelted the region with golf-ball-sized chunks of ice.
State Farm, the Billings area's largest insurance agency, received 7,900 home and auto claims in the days following the May storm. About 55 percent were for damaged vehicles, and the remainder for homes and businesses, company officials said.
State insurance commission officials don't
^ptrack overall claim volume but say it certainly reached the tens of thousands for the storm. Jennifer McKee, a spokeswoman for Commissioner of Insurance and Securities Monica Lindeen, said hotel rooms were nearly full in late May because of the deluge of insurance adjusters who flew in to survey the damage.
^pAdditionally, Billings became a destination for storm chasers and other out-of-town contractors looking to establish themselves.
In May, the most recent data available, new general and roofing contractors filed for new city business licenses. Of those companies, 18 listed addresses or phone numbers from out of state, though others could have established a local presence before registering with the city.
"A hailstorm hits, and it's just head over heels, rock 'n' roll," said Tom Bradford, vice president of Billings-based Bradford Roofing, who has seen surges of roofers come through town before.
The seven-decade-old Bradford Roofing does mostly commercial roofing and has seen business swell from both damaged businesses and homes. Still, Bradford said he's frustrated by out-of-town roofers that cut corners and give the industry a bad name.
During a recent drive through town, Bradford said he counted eight different roofers that he felt were operating unsafely, scrimping on equipment such as safety harnesses. That's how some companies keep their costs down and make it harder to compete, he said.
"It's very frustrating because it's expensive, and obviously the payoff is very big for us to keep our guys safe," said Bradford, president of the Montana Roofing Contractors Association.
A third-generation business owner, Bradford said he worries that storm chasers are dragging down roof prices and insurance reimbursements overall, while doing work that will need to be fixed later anyway. He said he's seen insurance estimates that he believes are as much as half of what a repair should cost.
"Roofs can be done, and be done right. But you can't run through it and make sure it's done properly," he said.
Insurers say they base their estimates on price surveys of contractors nationwide that's compiled in a software database called Xactimate. They added that the initial estimate is just that, and it can be adjusted.
"If (customers) have concerns with the estimate, they just need to talk with us about it. Let us know what their concerns are. We understand that things may be unseen and things come up. That's why we want to work with the customers," spokesman Brad Hilliard of State Farm insurance said.
Staying for the work
^pEven Bradford acknowledges that some storm chasers do good work and aren't trying to rip anyone off.
Officials at Denver-based Dynamic Roofing and Construction scrambled to establish a Montana location days after the storm. The rented a small office on 24th Street West, which was bustling with activity last week.
A fly-by-night operation? Not according to Scott Catt, Dynamic's executive vice president. Dynamic does follow storms, but Catt, who has moved to Billings, insists the company is here to stay. Its roofers never take cash up front, and they aim to complete jobs at the cost quoted by the insurance company, Catt said. Dynamic also promises to look over the job after the appraisers to help homeowners identify additional damage that could be covered, he said.
"We're trying to be the honest alternative to those companies (that) people fear," Catt said.
To keep fees low, Dynamic, which has operations in seven midwestern states, shaves its overhead costs. Its 10 roofers now in Montana each work as licensed independent contractors, which Catt says gives them more freedom to manage their own schedule but also saves Dynamic thousands in Montana workers compensation insurance costs if they were regular employees.
Kent Carpenter, a Dynamic contractor and Utah college student, said he likes the arrangement because he can earn money to pay off his student debt at his own pace.
"Everyone here in the city needs a roof," Carpenter, 23, said.
Once the work slows down, Dynamic will shrink its operation but remain in Billings, Catt said.
"This is something we hope to have for years to come," he said.
^pIn addition to denting roofs, the hail smashed hundreds of windows all over town and put the stress on glass companies.
At Beckers Glass downtown, the phone rings all day with requests to fix broken window panes, office manager Denise Dietrich said. She's got stacks of orders that will take the company through the end of the summer to complete. And, most other glass companies are in the same boat.
To ease concerns, Dietrich put up a sign on her reader board: "Please bear with us we are going through hail!" Most customers understand, but some are frustrated, she said.
"It's definitely a boom. It feels overwhelming, but everyone is committed and working as hard as they can. The hardest part is customers becoming angry because it's not moving fast enough for them," she said.
(c)2014 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)
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