Hail Chasers

Fraser Strain knew hail was falling somewhere when he started hearing the ding, ding, dings.

Strain is the owner of North American Paintless Dent Repair, which operates out of Bolton Landing, Warren County. His company provides paintless dent repair specialists to assist autobody shops in regions hit by hail storms. He’s a self described “hail chaser.”

“Most hail techs just wait, they perch,” he said. “We watch the hailstorms closely, through technology. I have an app on my iPhone, every time it hails bigger than an inch [in diameter] it dings. The other day it was -ding, ding, ding – it kept going off.”

On May 22 the Route 30 corridor between Perth and Amsterdam was hit with an intense hail storm that included some hail as large as 4 inches in diameter, roughly the size of a baseball. The hard chunks of ice damaged thousands of cars, leaving many small dents and cracked windshields. Last week local autobody shops were inundated with customers looking to repair the storm damage.

“At least 500 cars we’ve had come in so far,” said Bob Fisher, owner of Creative Auto Body & Sales in Perth. “This is the worst one we’ve seen in years, lots of damage from it.”

Paintless dent repair

Fisher’s company has subcontracted with Strain and his hail tech team to provide paintless dent repair for cars with small dents that can be repaired without resorting to conventional autobody repair techniques, which are more expensive.

“Paintless dent repair is a process to massage the metal back to its original factory shape,” Strain said. “We’ve introduced it to the insurance companies and they’ve realized it’s the way to fix cars [damaged] in hail storms.”

The paintless dent repair method uses tools, some with an operating surface no bigger than the head of a pen, to get in under the surface of hail dents and pop them back into place.

Steve Shapiro, a Massachusetts resident who works for Strain and has 23 years of paintless dent repair experience, said the process can take as little as an hour or as long as days, depending on the car.

Derek Brown, the president of Brown’s Ford which has locations in Johnstown and Amsterdam, said hail damage and paintless dent repair are covered by most comprehensive car insurance.

“We’ve got five insurance companies that are writing estimates in our building,” Brown said. “I haven’t seen one this bad in probably seven years.”

Brown said his dealership had a subcontracting deal in place with a paintless dent repair company prior to the storm and the addition of the subcontractors has roughly doubled the size of his service staff.

“We’re repairing all makes and models, all brands and all insurance companies,” he said.

Hundreds of repairs

Brown estimates Brown’s Ford has received about 1,000 repair jobs due to the hail storm, most costing about $3,000 to $4,000.

“And we’re not through yet, we’ve still got a lot of calls coming in,” Brown said. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day. We’ve had small hail storms before, with a whole lot less damage, many fewer claims. This one hit the area and it hailed pretty hard for about 10 or 20 minutes and it inflicted a lot of damage.”

Brown’s Ford and Creative Auto Body & Sales will both split the revenues for the paintless dent repair jobs with their subcontractors, but both shops are also doing plenty of conventional autobody repair work because of the storm.

Fisher said he estimates about 20 to 30 percent of the cars that have come to his lot from the recent storm include severe damage like broken windows or damaged paint, which require conventional autobody repair techniques.

Life of a hail chaser

Strain said he’s got paintless dent repair jobs booked at Creative Auto Body through July, which should account for about half of his season, which can run from the end of February through November. He said he’s gotten lucky in recent years to have major hail damage events in the local area, but as a hail chaser he goes to where the hail is, including major jobs in Dallas and other parts of the U.S.

“I like the Northeast, like the east in general, but I’ve chased them as far as Roswell, New Mexico,” Strain said. “I didn’t see any aliens, eh maybe I did, but that’s as far west as I’ve been.”

Shapiro said he’s been to Australia, Mexico, Canada and Germany chasing hail storms. He said lately he prefers to stay closer to home.

“I don’t want people to get the impression that you can make a ton of money in just a few months, this is one of the hardest things people can do. You have to travel, you’re away from home,” he said.

Strain said he believes there should be a hail chasers reality TV show and it should be called the “Hail Wars.”

“You would be amazed at the stuff that goes on in this industry, it’s crazy and it’s funny at the same time,” he said.

Strain and Shapiro said they believe there have been more intense hail storms in recent years, increasing the amount of car damage and the amount of potential jobs for their business.

A report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau in 2013 showed an 84 percent increase in hail loss claims between 2010 and 2012, with only a 1 percent increase in questional hail damage claims during the same period.