They Got Hurricane Ida Insurance Money. Now They’re Fighting The Mortgage Co.
Advocate, The (Baton Rouge, LA)
Dec. 27—When Steve Kenny first received a check from his insurer for Hurricane Ida damages, he thought finally he'd have the money to repair his St. Charles Parish home.
But one step remained: his mortgage company needed to endorse the check.
So, he mailed it off to his lender, thinking they'd sign it and send it back, giving him the cash he needed to hire a contractor.
Instead, Kenny learned, an unfamiliar website, InsuranceClaimCheck.com, would hold and manage the funds. If he wanted to access the money, he'd have to jump through several more hoops.
It took nearly a month for his lender, loanDepot, to send him a portion of his latest insurance check. Meanwhile, the contractor he lined up to fix his home has taken on other jobs.
"They're acting like this is their money," Kenny said earlier this month, standing on concrete floors in his Destrehan home, beneath ceilings patched with blue tarp. "This is my insurance money and they're holding it hostage."
A spokesperson for loanDepot declined to comment.
Four months after Hurricane Ida tore through southeast Louisiana, thousands of residents — already worn out by a time-consuming insurance claims process — are facing a new set of bureaucratic hurdles with their mortgage companies.
Lenders will often monitor how insurance proceeds are spent to make certain that the property they financed is rebuilt back to market value. But each company handles the process differently, and there are few regulations governing how they must distribute the money.
"There's no rhyme or reason or continuity on how much they'll hold and how long they'll hold it for," said Douglas Quinn, president of the American Policyholder Association, a consumer advocacy group. "They are oftentimes abusive with the practice."
The frustrations are no surprise to residents of southwest Louisiana, who are sixteen months into their own recovery from hurricanes Laura and Delta. State Rep. Phillip Tarver, a Lake Charles Republican, introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have entitled homeowners to a lump sum of their insurance proceeds up front. The proposal didn't even get a committee hearing.
"I tried to get something done on it and I couldn't get no interest, no traction," Tarver said.
That's likely to change. The second-ranking leader in Louisiana's House, state Rep. Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, said he's faced his own frustrations with getting lenders to release his insurance funds. He said lawmakers will revisit how to put guardrails on mortgage companies in the legislative session beginning in March.
"It's like its own cottage industry: How much can we frustrate you?" Magee said.
Part of the problem is that there's no consistency among lenders on what it takes to access the cash, Quinn said. Sometimes they work on a reimbursement scheme, requiring homeowners to front the cash for repairs out of their own savings before they'll release the insurance funds allotted.
"You think you're about to cross the finish line and then there's your lending institution there to give you that last little kick in the pants," Quinn said.
For Kenny to access his insurance proceeds, first he had to request an inspection, to determine how much work had already been done. When his inspector finally showed up in the beginning of December, she initially said she couldn't get up his front steps, asking Kenny to instead take photos. Once she filed her report, it took two weeks before his lender agreed to release the funds. It took another week for the check to arrive in the mail.
"I feel like a turd that's been flushed in the toilet and it doesn't go down," Kenny, 63, said. "I'm just spinning around and around and around and around."
Galen Hair, with Metairie-based Hair Shunnarah Trial Attorneys, said the process is so convoluted, his firm has two full-time employees dedicated to haggling with mortgage companies.
"There's not a uniform set of rules for mortgage companies to follow," he said, adding that lenders often switch up their procedures midway without notice.
For those without a law firm backing them up, the process can be downright infuriating. Kenny spends his Fridays off work calling InsuranceClaimCheck.com, trying to get them to release his funds.
Making matters worse, the website doesn't even tell him how much of his money they're holding. A request for comment through the website was not answered.
The state's Office of Financial Institutions, charged with regulating lenders, can open an investigation if a consumer files a written complaint, said chief examiner Michelle Jeansonne. Generally, if insurance proceeds are less than $40,000 and a consumer is up to date on paying their loan, they shouldn't have too much trouble accessing their funds, she said.
Consumers should have the right to a clear and consistent policy regarding how the claim funds are allocated and released for repair, Quinn said. Lenders should also distribute the funds in advance, rather than through reimbursement, he said.
Additionally, consumers should earn interest on money held by mortgage companies, Quinn added. He said for six years, one bank held $244,000 in insurance proceeds for a victim of Hurricane Sandy and didn't pay her a penny of interest. "They act like it's their money," Quinn said. "It's corporate arrogance."
Kenny counts himself among the luckier survivors of Hurricane Ida. A contractor agreed to repair his roof several weeks after the storm, even though his insurer hadn't yet paid him. But since then, his recovery has been at a standstill. The contractor he found to put up new sheetrock and flooring is now booked through March. If he would've had his insurance proceeds when it was first distributed, he's convinced the work would've been done by now.
"We're going on four months now and I'm no closer to getting this done than I was three weeks after the storm," Kenny said. "Nobody said this was going to be the process. I'm at my wit's end."
Are you facing issues with your insurer or lender in the aftermath of hurricanes Ida or Laura? Send your story to [email protected] and a reporter may reach out.
(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
Visit The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. at www.theadvocate.com