This guide will walk you through the homeowners insurance claim process, explaining everything you need to file a claim, what to expect from the process, and how long you should expect to wait before getting paid. We’ll also tell you when to file, how to document your claim, and what information the insurance company will be looking for. Finally, we’ll cover mistakes to avoid in the process, and what to do about things like a damaged roof that need immediate repairs.
Calling your homeowners insurance company may not be the first thing you think to do after a fire, flood, theft, or another unfortunate home incident. But it’s important to do so as quickly as possible, both for safety reasons and to get started on the claim process. In this section, we’ll take you through the process of filing a claim, which involves the following steps:
1. File a police report if needed If a crime such as theft or vandalism is involved, file a police report before making any other calls. Make sure to write down the names of any police department personnel you speak with or who come to inspect your property.
2. Notify your insurance company Your next call should be to your homeowners insurance company or insurance agent. Most homeowners policies require that the insurance company be notified promptly after any damage, theft, or injury that’s likely to result in a claim. While that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to call immediately, the sooner you do, the sooner the recovery process can begin. Reporting requirements may vary by insurance company and circumstance, but your policy and supporting documentation will tell you what you need to do. Some companies also allow you to make a claim online.
3. Make any urgent repairs Next, make any reasonable emergency repairs needed that can prevent further damage, without endangering yourself. Most homeowners insurance policies allow this, and some require it. Make sure to keep copies of any receipts for reimbursement and take detailed photos of the damage before doing any work.
4. Document the claim Document all damage, stolen items, and anything else that will form the basis of the claim. Take lots of photos or a video detailing the damage, going room to room if necessary. This is especially important if immediate repairs are necessary to make the structure safe and habitable. Compile a list of damaged, stolen, or destroyed possessions, along with their approximate value. This will be a lot faster if you’ve made a detailed home inventory of your possessions ahead of time. The insurance company will schedule an appointment for an appraiser to interview you and assess the damage to determine how much compensation you can expect. Make sure to accompany the appraiser during the inspection and point out any structural damage or areas of concern.
Not all homeowners insurance claims must be reported to local authorities. A roof leak or wind damage, for example, isn’t normally an appropriate reason to contact the police. But if criminal activity is involved, such as vandalism or a break-in, or if there’s a fire, you need to get the authorities involved as soon as possible. The same holds true if someone is injured on your property. Share all pertinent details of the event with authorities, and keep copies of their reports. You will need those when you file your claim.
You shouldn’t call 911 unless the house is on fire, you suspect a thief is in your home, someone is seriously injured, or there’s another true emergency. Most police departments prefer that non-emergency calls go to their dedicated non-emergency phone line. The discovery of vandalism or theft after the fact isn’t typically considered an emergency.
Some communities allow and even encourage citizens to report criminal activity online and to file their own police reports. After you enter some information about yourself, your location, and the incident, your case will be assigned a number and you can print a copy of the report. An official will follow up with you as needed.
If a police officer comes to your home, provide as many details about the incident as possible, including explaining any damage to your home and noting damaged or missing property. Answer all of the officer’s questions, and inspect the area carefully yourself to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
Most homeowners insurance policies require that you notify your insurer promptly after a storm, theft, fire, injury, or any other incident that might result in a claim, whether you intend to seek compensation or not. Your policy will specify what’s required and where to start.
In addition to calling your insurance company or insurance agent directly, some insurers let you contact them online or through an app. Unless you’re making a minor claim, it’s probably best to speak directly with an agent or company representative.
Before making the call, read through your policy to get an idea of what is and isn’t covered, what exclusions and limits are included, and what additional coverages you might have that you may have forgotten about. If it’s been a while since you purchased the policy, this would be a good time for a refresher. Make a list of questions as you go through the policy.
If the damage is minor and repairs are likely to cost less than your deductible, you might not want to file a claim. You may be better off paying out of pocket and not risking a potential rate increase. “If the loss is within the deductible, or even if it is close, I would think twice about filing a claim,” says Jay Feinman, an insurance expert and law professor at Rutgers University.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to know how much repairs will cost without getting a professional estimate. If that’s the case, it’s probably best to make the call to your insurance company. Your agent or insurance company representative may be able to help estimate costs, or you could consult a local building contractor. Just be sure to report and file your claim within the time constraints spelled out in your policy.
When you’re ready to notify your insurer of the damage, have your copy of the policy and list of questions handy. Describe the damage, and confirm whether or not you’re covered. Don’t be shy with questions, and try to get a clear picture of what’s ahead. Ask how long it will take to get the necessary claim paperwork, and how long you have to complete it. Find out if you’ll need to get estimates for major repairs to include with your claim, and if and when an insurance adjuster will come to inspect the damage.
The more thorough you are now, the better off you’ll be later. Remember, you don’t need complete details of the loss or an itemized inventory for the first call,but timeliness is critical. If you’re calling as a result of something like a storm that has caused extensive damage in your area, you’ll want to get into the queue for an insurance appraiser and repairs as soon as possible. Describe the damage as best as you can, ask if you’re covered and what details will be needed from you. Find out how long you have to file a claim, and start your preparations accordingly.
Filing a home insurance claim can be time consuming and tedious, and requires a lot of attention to detail. But the more thorough you are, the faster you’re likely to get a settlement.
Keep records of every phone call and conversation you have as you go through the process, starting from the event that triggered the claim. That record should include the date of the conversations and the names of the people you talk to, from police officers to insurance company representatives to contractors who provide estimates.
Take photographs or videos of the damage, including as much detail as possible and going room to room if necessary. Now is the time to pull out your household inventory if you have one, with photographs of items before the damage occurred, along with their estimated value. Provide this information to your insurer, along with images or videos depicting the damage, to more easily identify what has been lost. If you don’t have a visual record from before the incident, you’ll still want to create one showing the damage along with an itemized list of damaged or stolen items.
If the claim is the result of a break-in, vandalism, or other criminal activity, make sure to include a copy of the police report along with the names of the officers you spoke with. If someone has been injured on your property, be prepared to provide details and bills for medical expenses or other out-of-pocket costs.
Make sure to include details on anything specifically requested by your insurance company, and supply any additional backup documentation or receipts asked for. The more detail you provide, the better off you’ll be in the end.
Finally, if your home is damaged to the point where it is uninhabitable or dangerous, make sure to keep any receipts for hotels, meals, and related expenses so you can be reimbursed. Most homeowners insurance policies include loss-of-use coverage for these costs.
Don’t wait for an insurance adjuster to make emergency repairs to your home if a delay will result in additional damage. While you shouldn’t attempt repairs that are beyond your ability or might risk bodily harm, don’t hesitate to cover a damaged roof with a plastic tarp to keep the rain out, for example. Stopgap measures such as these will protect your home and make it more habitable until the professionals arrive, and such measures may be required by your insurance company. “Policies typically require the policyholder to make repairs to prevent further damage,” Feinman says. “It’s in both your best interest and theirs.”
Keep copies of receipts for all materials you purchase to make emergency repairs, such as tarps, lumber, and hardware. Include the receipts with the documentation you send your insurance company when you file the claim for reimbursement. Before starting repairs, take photos or videos of the damage to provide a record of what the damaged areas looked like immediately after the incident. You’ll want to submit those with the claim.
Remember that not all damage is worth reporting, and you may risk a rate increase by getting the insurance company involved. This is especially true if the damage appears to be minor and you can either repair it yourself or hire a contractor for less than or close to your deductible.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to make that determination without professional help. If that’s the case, consider getting an estimate from a local contractor or notifying your insurance company or agent. The only way to know whether you’ll be reimbursed and for how much is by having your insurance company perform an appraisal. Doing so may also reveal hidden damage. Something that may seem like minor damage now could lead to bigger problems later, so it’s important to get it on the record.
Your insurance company will supply you with claim forms to fill out and return, as required by law. These forms must be completed promptly, but again, it’s in your best interest to do so anyway to keep the process moving. Take the time to fill them out accurately and completely, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you’re going to file a homeowners insurance claim, you should file it as soon as is practically possible. That’s usually after an insurance adjuster has inspected the property and made a report, if necessary, and you’re ready to line up contractors and get started on repairs or rebuilding. Most policies require that claims are filed within one year of the incident, but regulations vary by state.
First, you need to determine whether you want to make a claim at all. If repairing the damage will cost less than or close to your deductible, you may want to either make repairs yourself or pay for a contractor out of pocket. This may be true even if the cost of repairs is slightly more than your deductible.
The reason for this is that reporting a claim may result in a rate increase or possibly even the cancellation of your policy. Moreover, that record may follow you even if you move to another homeowners insurance company. Insurance companies share a database of information on past claims, including names, ages, and addresses of claimants, types of claims, and dollar amounts paid in settlements. Called the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, or CLUE, insurers regularly contribute to the database and use it to help them determine rates. Any time you make a claim, CLUE is going to know about it. Simply calling your insurer to inquire about a claim may result in an update of your CLUE profile, and the data may be held for up to seven years.
Generally speaking, a call to your insurer or even a major claim may not result in a rate increase. Many other factors are involved in setting or increasing rates, from your credit status to the length of time you’ve remained with the same insurance company, to the number of claims in your area. But if you have a history of repeated claims, you may want to think twice about adding to the list for minor damage.
Help ensure repairs get done
help ensure damaged or destroyed items are replaced
may result in a rate increase
may have to wait a long time for an insurance adjuster
Filing an insurance claim will help ensure that repairs are done promptly and professionally, that damaged or destroyed items are replaced, and that life begins to return to normal as soon as possible. Doing so also helps maintain and even enhance the value of your home, and could even result in less maintenance and repair in the long run by replacing older items.
However, filing a claim may result in a rate increase that will stay with you even if you switch insurance companies or move to a new home sometime in the future. Insurance companies use a shared database containing a history of claims, with detailed information including your name, age, location, date and location of any prior claims, along with specifics of the type of claim and settlement amount.
Filing a claim also means you’ll have to go through the process of waiting for an insurance adjuster to assess the damage and finding a contractor able to make repairs for what the insurance company is willing to pay. Depending on the nature of the claim, that could mean a long wait. In the wake of a hurricane, wildfire, tornado, or other event that impacts a substantial number of homes, contractors tend to be in short supply. The longer you wait to get in line, the longer it may take to make repairs.
Meanwhile, skipping the claims process can save you time and give you more freedom to choose which repairs to make on your own schedule, and to what extent. It also avoids the possibility of a lengthy dispute with your insurer if you’re not happy with the settlement offer provided.
There is no question that filing a claim with your homeowners insurance company may result in a rate increase – one that may stay with you for a while. This is especially true if you have an extensive claims history. You might even run the risk of being dropped by your insurer. That’s because insurance companies contribute to and use a database of claim information, called the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) to help them set and adjust rates. Every claim you make is recorded and kept for years. Just making a call to inquire about a claim could raise a flag in the CLUE system and potentially label you as an increased risk. And that record will travel with you, even if you choose to shop around for competing quotes from other home insurance companies.
While it’s good to know about CLUE, it should not keep you from making a claim if you need to. If your house burns down, you will obviously need to call your insurance company. But if you back your car into your fence and knock it over, you may want to think twice. It’s important to weigh the amount of damage against the potential downsides, without worrying too much about rate hikes or losing your insurer.
“The insurance company wants to keep you as a customer,” Feinman says. “It’s very expensive to get a customer.” He suggests homeowners think about the big picture and ask themselves questions for perspective. “Do you have a large number of complaints? Expensive complaints, that’s what they’re going to be concerned about,” he says.
Insurance companies typically pay claims by electronic funds transfer or check, although more complicated claims may involve multiple payments issued over time as repair work is completed and expenses are accumulated.
Depending on the severity of the damage, you may receive the first payment soon after making your claim. This is to help with immediate expenses or to reimburse you for lodging and food as needed, in addition to paying for any immediate repairs that are required. In some cases, such as with smaller claims, the first check may be an immediate settlement for the entire claim. If you accept this payment, you have the option of submitting another claim later if more damage is discovered. You may also dispute the settlement if you feel it is insufficient, and consider hiring a public insurance adjuster for a second opinion if you’re unsatisfied with your insurance company’s offer.
If both the structure and your possessions are damaged or destroyed, you might receive separate payments for each. You might also receive a separate check for living expenses or alternate lodging, and another if part of the damage was caused by a flood and is covered by a separate policy.
If you have a mortgage on your home, checks are typically made out to both you and your lender. Banks and mortgage companies normally require that they are named on a homeowners policy and that they are a party to any insurance payments. The same holds true if you own a condo or co-op. Your lender may require that all funds for repairs are held in an escrow account and released directly to your contractor as work progresses. An inspection of the work may be required before the final payment is issued.
When filing a claim, promptly notify your insurance company after the event that’s prompting the claim. Next, fill out and submit claim forms within the time allowed by your insurer. Thoroughly document the loss with photos, video, and a list of items lost or damaged with dollar amounts where applicable.
Make sure to comply with your insurance company’s rules and state requirements for how long you have to make a claim. Conversely, don’t file a claim if you don’t have to. For minor damage or any repairs that will cost less than your deductible, you might be better off not making a claim at all. Filing a claim could drive up your home insurance rates or even lead to being dropped by your insurance company.
Pay attention to details, because you won’t be reimbursed for anything left out of your claim. The larger the claim, the more important this piece of the process becomes. A wind storm that causes a tree to fall on a fence is a fairly straightforward loss to document and report, while a fire that destroys the home is considerably more complicated. This is where photographing or videotaping the contents of your home ahead of time is so important, as is keeping an ongoing inventory of your possessions. “People underestimate how much stuff they have,” Feinman says.
This takes us to one of the biggest mistakes people make when buying homeowners insurance: failing to purchase sufficient coverage. “People make the mistake of shopping for price alone,” says Janet Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute. Homeowners should think about how much it would cost to rebuild, she adds. Include all important information about your home when applying, such as the quality of materials. “Is the flooring carpet or hardwood? Do you have granite or laminate counters, or fine art?” Ruiz asks. “Be sure to update your coverage when you make changes.”
Finally, don’t always assume that your insurer is right and accept whatever they offer. Don’t be afraid to dispute a claim and to fight for as much reimbursement as you can get. Your insurance company may not be out to get you, but they don’t want to pay any more than they have to.
Depending on the complexity of your claim and how well you do your homework, it can take a few days to several months to file a homeowners insurance claim. The process can be pretty straightforward for a flooded basement or fallen tree but might be much more time consuming if there are other factors involved.
It’s certainly possible to fill out a simple claim form while sitting at your computer online, but a homeowners insurance claim you can complete in one sitting might not be worth filing at all. Something like minor damage to a fence might not cost more than your deductible to repair. Every claim you make runs the risk of raising your rates, and some just aren’t worth the risk.
For most claims that are worth filing, an insurance company will probably want to send an insurance adjuster to your home to inspect the damage and estimate repair costs. This could happen quickly or it could take a while, especially after a storm when lots of people in your area may be filing claims.
A hurricane that involves damage from both wind and flooding might mean filing with two different insurance companies – your homeowners insurance for wind damage, and a separate insurer for flood coverage not included with a homeowners insurance policy. That could also delay the process.
Your insurance policy will include information on how much time you’re allowed to file a claim, and most states have regulations and time limits for both you and your insurer to keep the process moving. The key is to make sure to provide all the documentation required on time, along with photos and an itemized list of lost items with an estimated value. The more detail, the better.
A homeowners insurance claim can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to settle. The length of time depends on the type and complexity of your claim, how much damage was done, and how diligent you are about the filing process. “A simple claim is going to be settled in a relatively short time,” Feinman says. “If the house burns down, it’s going to take you longer to gather information about the loss, and longer for the insurance company to process the claim.” Rebuilding a home after a total loss can take 18 to 24 months, according to consumer advocacy group United Policyholders.
While some factors are out of your control, there are things you can do to speed up the process. It’s critical to provide as many details as possible with your claim, from police and fire reports, if applicable, to photos or videos of the damage, along with an inventory and estimated value of lost items. Make sure to submit all paperwork within the time period allowed by your insurance policy and your state.
Any kind of dispute could lengthen the process, such as a disagreement over the settlement amount or who should be paying the claim if more than one insurance company is involved. For example, if a storm causes both flooding and wind damage, responsibility can be hard to sort out. Wind damage is usually covered by a homeowners insurance policy, but flood insurance requires a separate policy. “It can be awfully hard to tell after a hurricane if the damage is from wind or water,” Feinman says.
Delays can also occur if major storm damage prevents access to your area for an extended period of time or supplies are hard to come by. Contractors may also take longer than promised to complete a job or perform shoddy work that needs to be redone.
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