By Doug Malawsky, CRM
From the August 2023 Issue
As severe weather events increase in intensity, many commercial and residential landscaping clients are experiencing unprecedented damage to their outdoor property—which is generally defined as trees, landscaping, turf, hardscapes, irrigation, water features, playing fields/surfaces, golf courses, gardens, and agricultural crops. As Green Industry pros know, these features represent a substantial monetary investment on the part of the property owner.
Luckily, it’s not uncommon for properties to have some degree of insurance coverage to address losses to outdoor property, and in some instances the coverage can be significant. However, it is incumbent upon the property owner/manager—and in some instances their vendors—to establish and document the extent and value of the loss.
While the process of documenting property damage for the purpose of an insurance claim is formulaic, providing sufficient and comprehensive information is a determining factor in the success of the claim. Unfortunately, landscape insurance claims can be particularly difficult to navigate for both adjusters and claimants. When it’s not done well, nobody gets paid.
At Horticultural Asset Management, Inc, or HMI Advantage, we specialize in consulting and emergency response for property owners/managers, insurance professionals, and Green Industry experts. (See sidebar below.) We handle a large number of landscape, turf, and tree losses and we see a common issue: property owners and managers, as well as Green Industry professionals, do not know how to document the loss/repairs for insurance purposes. This can cause a lot of confusion and financial distress if the insurance carrier does not pay out.
While landscapers have enough on their hands without being adjusters, having a working of understanding of how to write quotes and document property work brings real value to the table—especially for large commercial clients. It also helps ensure your payment. Unfortunately, we commonly see a property owner discovering they don’t have coverage after the work is complete and then the landscaper has a collection issue.
As mentioned, landscape insurance claims can be particularly difficult to navigate. One reason is simply a lack of adjustor familiarity with outdoor claims. Most property insurance claims involve roofs or water mitigation which are areas adjusters have vast experience with and know how to assess. Yet many have very little knowledge about the Green Industry, especially in terms of pricing plant material and labor costs for landscape restoration projects. Another reason is that the insurance industry undervalues the Green Industry and uses outdated pricing data that doesn’t reflect current market conditions.
As a result, proper documentation is key to helping property owners recover their losses for outdoor damages. While it may seem overwhelming to capture a loss accurately, it’s a necessary step in the emergency restoration and recovery process. It also presents a great opportunity for landscapers to assist large clients and further demonstrate their professionalism and value proposition. Being able to provide this service to a property owner can be a differentiating factor among competing vendors, and the vendor that can ultimately assist a property owner or manager when they are most vulnerable will become an invaluable asset.
The Claims Checklist
If damage occurs due to a reason covered under insurance, there are three main steps in the claims process for the property owner:
Step 1 — review the policy and contact the agent to report a loss,
Step 2 – work with the adjuster and document the damage, also take steps to mitigate any further damage, and
Step 3 – navigate the claims process to completion.
If called upon by a property owner to handle storm damage, a Green Industry professional should ask if an insurance claim is being filed and get clear instructions regarding what details to document in a proposal.
Do not dispose of the damaged assets before you take the time to record the extent of damage. Even then, it’s best practice to check with an adjuster before beginning property clean-up.
In one HMI case, we were called in to to determine how much tree damage occurred on multiple manufactured housing properties. Unfortunately, we were called in after the properties had been cleared of all debris. Reconstructing the scope of damage required performing field inspections, doing tree density assessments, reviewing imagery and other records, interviewing the contractors involved in doing the initial clean-up, and more. Ultimately, HMI was able to provide an evidence based assessment of damage that was used by the stakeholders to resolve all claims, but this took time and significantly delayed payment. If the tree contractors had documented the loss before removing the tree debris, there would have been no delay in their payment.
Following a simple checklist will ensure the insurance company will have most, if not all, of what they need to evaluate a claim.
1. Take photographs. This is one of the most effective tools in documenting a claim since “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s important to show clear photos of things like fallen trees, freeze damaged plants, contaminated sand, erosion and washouts, dead turf, and basically anything the owner plans to claim. Label the photos with a caption of what they are showing (i.e., fallen pine tree near Club house), and add a date and time stamp.
HMI Authorized Member Network
HMI has worked for 20+ years to establish a national network of thousands of highly credentialed Green Industry experts and service providers. HMI’s Authorized Member Network includes: arborists, horticulturists, landscape/hardscape designers, design professionals, and more. HMI is always looking to add quality contractors to support the three programs below.
Emergency Services. HMI provides homeowners with access to experienced contractors to remove damaged trees quickly and safely. Following catastrophic events, HMI mobilizes into heavily impacted areas providing a structured storm response for our members. HMI’s Network includes crews skilled in highly technical tree removal work for residential and commercial sites.
Consulting Services. HMI offers clients a wide range of consulting services that include: cause of loss analyses; inventorying damaged plants for insurance or legal purposes; replacement, repair, and removal cost estimates for damaged trees and landscaping; golf course inspections; and tree risk assessments.
Design & Installation Services. We work with property managers on projects involving plant material, irrigation, and landscape design.
To learn more about joining the HMI Authorized Member Network, visit hmiadvantage.com/green-industry-professionals. ♦
At least one photo should be taken for each line item on the claim, but the more photos, the better. These days, drone footage can provide a tremendous amount of detail as can video footage. Do not limit your photos to damage only; show the clean-up work in progress. This can include the number of crew members working and the equipment they are using, particularly if the work involves heavy equipment like cranes, bucket trucks, or excavators. Photographs must be organized and presented in a folder or file (i.e., input the photos into a PowerPoint presentation).
2. Inventory the damage. This can be time consuming but the benefits of doing this correctly are worth the effort. Ideally a complete list of all damaged items (plants, trees, etc.) will be put into a digital file. Key datapoints to include in the inventory for each asset are: quantity of asset—the number of plants or square footage of turf; type of asset—tree, plant or turf species; size of asset —the diameter/height of a tree or plant, or amount of a material such as sand, soil, mulch; and location of the asset (some coverages apply only to assets in managed areas of the property).
Other data sometimes required include confirmation as to the particulars of plant asset on the property. An insurance provider may want to know if a shrub was installed as part of the landscape design as opposed to naturally growing there prior to construction of the site. They may also ask if the shrub is pruned, mowed, or treated, or if the shrub provides a demonstrable function—such as providing shade, creating privacy, or marking property lines—that enhances use of the property or its aesthetic value.
3. Document the cause of damage. This will determine if a policy covers the damage. Providing an expert opinion as a landscaper on the cause of loss only further strengthens a policy holder’s position.
Even if insurance doesn’t cover the loss, this information, together with photos and an inventory of damaged assets, may allow a property owner to file a casualty loss claim on their tax return. In either case, be sure that any reports, proposals, or recommendations include only assets legitimately damaged by the event in the claim. Including other assets—such as a tree that died from disease the year before—will slow down the process, delay payment, and create suspicion from the adjuster. Avoid “self-inflicted wounds” and maintain a high degree of integrity and honesty.
4. Involve the adjuster in the process. Being transparent and collegial with an adjuster can go a long way. Ask the adjuster what steps you should take to document the claim early in the process. Try to ascertain what will be covered and clarify the owner’s responsibility to mitigate additional damage after the loss has occurred.
5. Provide invoices, plans, and pre-loss photos if available. Any available documentation that can establish what assets were on the property prior to a loss event is valuable in supporting an insurance claim. This is particularly true if, for instance, a storm obliterates a landscape to the point that even a post-loss property inspection would not provide a complete view of the assets lost.
6. Provide pricing for the cost to repair and/or replace damaged outdoor property. As mentioned, the Green Industry and the value of landscaping assets is not an area of expertise for many adjusters. Be wary of pricing data that is outdated or provided from low quality vendors and suppliers. By taking the initiative and providing detailed pricing, it will greatly assist in procuring a fair settlement.
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Like any job estimate, it’s important not to provide lump sum pricing and instead breakout the cost of materials, labor, permits and any other items required to complete the restoration. For example, if you are replacing a shrub, include the quantity, the type of shrub, the unit size (i.e., pot or box size), where the shrub is being installed, and whether the cost includes freight and labor to install.
Knowing how to document damages to outdoor property is a valuable skillset. It will elevate your professionalism and expand your knowledge of how to maintain, manage, and restore property after a disaster event. Successfully navigating the insurance process will ensure an expeditious and fair payout for all covered losses. Even if a loss is not covered, the same documentation will likely have value in supporting an application for disaster aid, filing a casualty loss claim on a tax return, or subrogating against a responsible third party.
Malawsky brings over 25 years of operational, legal, and risk management experience to his role as COO and head of the Consulting and Contract Services Division at HMI. He managed HMI’s acquisition of Marquee Consulting, which expanded HMI’s services to include solutions ranging from property renovation, enhancement, and maintenance to disaster recovery and damage mitigation. Malawsky handles large and complex losses and has consulted on cases involving some of the most prestigious commercial and hospitality properties in the U.S. and the Caribbean.
This article is not meant to provide legal, tax, accounting, or insurance advice. It’s designed to help property managers and vendors manage a property. It’s important to engage the appropriate experts to ensure compliance with all relevant rules, regulations, laws, and statutes, as well as secure the best possible financial outcome in insurance & legal claims.
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