It could happen to you. A fire while you're away, a tree through the roof, a flood. You're in shock but you have to file a claim under your homeowner's policy and that means no lollygagging. So where do you start? Can you pick through what remains of your belongings? Do you begin with an inventory? Where do you live until you can go home?

Now is the time to think about hiring a public insurance adjuster. This small band of claims professionals has been around for more than a century, mostly in the Northeast, but remains unknown to most homeowners.

That's partly because most people never suffer a catastrophe in their home. But as property values across the United States have shot up in recent years and storms have battered Florida and the Gulf Coast, many homeowners are discovering what businesses have long known: If you have to deal with your insurer, you need professional help.

Public adjusters know the ins and outs of filing a large claim against a homeowner's policy. They take inventory, hire appraisers and engineers and negotiate with the insurer over your policy provisions. In short, they fight for a bigger settlement from your insurance company and provide peace of mind when you're most vulnerable.

In return, they take a percentage of the total insurance settlement, usually around 10 percent, depending on the size and difficulty of the claim and state insurance regulations, which sometimes cap the public insurer adjuster's fees.

"I basically remove [from] the homeowner 100 percent of the burden of having to know what to do next," says Jarrod Fischer, a partner with Affiliated Adjustment Group of Lake Success, N.Y. He specializes in high-end residential claims in the New York area and calls himself a "mercenary" on behalf of clients.

His services include finding temporary furnished apartments nearby and hiring dry cleaners that specialize in removing the smell of soot.

To be sure, public adjusters have their skeptics. The insurance industry, for one, points out that your insurance company provides its own adjuster free of charge. One consumer advocate calls them a waste of money better spent on a lawyer in the event your insurer disappoint you on a claim.

And last fall public adjusters battled wary state regulators in Louisiana and Mississippi, which previously did not license them, to be allowed to handle claims in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But hiring a reputable public adjuster can save time, money and your sanity if disaster occurs.

Finding one is akin to hiring any other contractor for your home. Check with your state insurance department for the names of licensed firms (40 states license the profession) and ask for references. The National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters also lists member firms on its Web site.

Copyright (c) 2006 MarketWatch, Inc.