The Housing Scene

Natural disasters rarely come with a warning. With the exception of hurricanes, most disasters sneak up on you. But there is plenty you can do to protect yourself and your family should a flood, fire, tornado or tropical storm head your way.

The key is preparedness. You probably won’t be able to prevent damage to your home or place of business. But if you are ready, you could recover far more quickly.

Here are a few tips. This list isn’t exhaustive, but follow these steps and you’ll be way ahead of the game:

-- Inventory. For insurance purposes, you will have to show what you lost. So take a fearless inventory. A list of every item in the house would be best, of course, with the date of purchase and the cost. But since that is all but impossible, use your smartphone or camera to photograph each room. Add a running commentary describing the major items.

-- Accounts. Make a list of all your bank, credit card, insurance and stock accounts, including account number, address, phone number and, if possible, the name of someone with whom you have interacted. Make sure you include the name of the company to which you send your house payments, the phone and account numbers and a contact person.

You will need this after the disaster passes to start rebuilding. Have it laminated so it can survive a flood if you have to escape through rising waters.

-- Documents. Maintain a duplicate set of key documents, including bank statements, tax returns, identifications and insurance policies, and keep them in a safe place. Store them in a waterproof container, away from the original set. To be extra safe, scan them into an electronic format such as a flash drive, or burn them onto a DVD or CD.

-- Devices. Keep a plastic bag of backup chargers, cables and headsets so you can grab it and run. Your phone or tablet may be the only way you will be able to communicate, so you’ll need to keep it charged.

-- Drugs. The older you are, the more medicines you likely take. So keep a stash, again in a sealable plastic bag, that you can grab at a moment’s notice. If not the actual meds, then at least keep a list of them, where they are being filled, doctor’s name, dosage and so on. Also keep a copy of your medical history, along with extra eyeglasses and hearing aid batteries.

-- Mortgage. If the event is designated a major disaster area by the president or your governor, there is plenty your loan servicer -- the company to which you send your payments -- can do to relieve your short-term burden. But you have to be proactive and call. They will try to contact you, but if you have been displaced, they won’t know where you are.

If your loan is secured by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or Ginnie Mae, your servicer can, on a case-by-case basis, extend forbearance and repayment plans for up to 12 months without prior approval. The same goes for people who reside outside the declared disaster area but work within it. Your servicers also can waive late fees and other penalties, and can suspend evictions and foreclosures for up to 90 days if you were already behind on your payments.

None of this will be reported to credit repositories, so your credit score won’t take a hit.

-- Other loans. After Harvey, federal and state banking regulators told bankers to work with borrowers in the disaster areas to adjust or alter loan terms. “Efforts to work with borrowers in communities under stress can be consistent with safe-and-sound banking practices,” said a memo from the Federal Reserve.

At the same time, the IRS amended its rules by allowing 401(k) plans and other employer-sponsored retirement plans to make loans and hardship distributions to Harvey victims without incurring any penalties. Similar relief was granted during previous disasters, including the Louisiana floods and Hurricane Matthew.

And in the wake of disasters, individual banks sometimes defer payments on consumer and business loans, waive ATM fees and offer discounted rates on home equity loans, lines of credit, renovation loans and construction loans. In the wake of Harvey, some banks and credit unions offered to help people get back on their feet and minimize their own potential losses by allowing borrowers to skip payments and extending the length of their loans.

One said it was open to restructuring entire loans. Another was deferring payments and adding them to the back end of the mortgage.

-- Scams. The unfortunate part of the human condition is that some people will always try to take advantage of others’ misfortune. According to the Federal Trade Commission, not long after Harvey cleared out of Texas, consumers started receiving fraudulent robocalls telling them their flood premiums were past due. Buyer beware of scam artists.

If you get such a call or letter, confirm that the company is legitimate. Telltale signs that it isn’t include grammatical mistakes, typos and names of affiliated business groups that you do not recognize or that cannot be identified.

Never be pressured to “act now,” and never give out your bank account or routing number until you have verified the outfit. And remember, mortgage help is free, so be particularly leery of anyone demanding payment or promising guaranteed results.

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