If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t memorized the details of your home insurance policy. But these details are important in case your property ever suffers major damage in an earthquake, fire or other disaster.

Even if you did spend time reading your policy from front to back, you may find it chock full of legalese. However, in cases of home or property damage (with the exception of cars), you can turn to public insurance adjusters to decipher your policy and help you get a fair settlement with your insurance company. Public adjusters work for both individuals and businesses, but most cater to the individual policyholder.

You probably don’t need to hire an adjuster if your home suffers a small mishap, such as minor smoke damage from a stove-top fire. But you may want to hire an adjuster if your home experiences serious damage, like earthquake or flood damage. An adjuster can arrange for a survey of the damage, estimate its cost and help you file a complex claim. He will keep track of the countless phone calls with your insurer and attend meetings. He may also help you find new living arrangements if your home is uninhabitable.

According to the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters (NAPIA), most states require public adjusters to be tested and licensed. In addition, public adjusters must follow state guidelines that outline their job duties and the claims process. Adjusters aren’t allowed to handle bodily injury claims, car insurance claims or third-party claims (such as a trust or an estate).

Advantages of using a public adjuster

Public claims adjusters can minimize the hassle of collecting documents and evidence and they negotiate with your insurance company. An adjuster will file the necessary paperwork with your insurer, arrange for inspections of your damaged property and haggle with your insurance company if it refuses to pay your full claim.

Choose your adjuster well

While most adjusters will be fair and honest, every profession has a few individuals who do not live up to their industry standards. A public adjuster’s fee is based on a certain percentage of the total value of your settlement. A few adjusters may be tempted to exaggerate the value of your claim in order to secure a larger chunk of money for themselves.

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), public adjusters typically charge around 15 percent of the total value of your claim settlement.

For example, if you and your insurance company settle for $10,000, the public adjuster is could take $1,500 of that. Also, the adjuster’s fee is not covered by your insurance policy. But if you do decide to hire a public claims adjuster, Salvatore recommends checking his or her qualifications with your state insurance department. It is also be a good idea to ask your friends for referrals, she says. Avoid individuals who go door to door after a major disaster to offer their services, unless you are sure they are qualified.

In addition, NAPIA can help you find a public insurance adjuster where you live.

If you decide to hire a public insurance adjuster, you’ll have to sign a contract with him or her. It will define what percentage you will pay to the adjuster out of your total settlement. If you have second thoughts, you may terminate the agreement within a certain period, generally 72 hours after signing. If the adjuster doesn’t perform the job correctly, you can resort to a lawsuit against him.

The best time to hire an adjuster is at the beginning of a big claim. That will allow the adjuster the best chance to expedite your claim. If you didn’t hire a public claims adjuster and then find yourself in the middle of a claim nightmare, you can bring in a public adjuster in the middle of a claim.