DISCLAIMER: This article is meant for educational purposes only and is not intended to be construed as financial, tax, or legal advice. HomeLight always encourages you to reach out to an advisor regarding your own situation.
Emergencies that damage property are among the most stressful events a person will experience in their life. During these fraught times, the last thing you want to do is worry about filing an insurance claim, but properly filing a claim is essential for guaranteeing adequate coverage.
The good news, though, is that some of the most common reasons a claim is denied are entirely avoidable. These top homeowner mistakes include not filing a claim in time, failing to pay premiums, insufficient documentation of the damage, and not understanding coverage. We spoke to leading experts to get you these five steps to make the process a little easier.
Prepare before disaster strikes
If you have a mortgage, your lender probably requires you to have home insurance. This policy protects the structures on your property and your personal belongings in the event of damage or theft. However, simply having an insurance policy doesn’t guarantee full coverage. You need to select the best policy for your needs and take proactive steps to ensure you get the most money possible when you file a claim.
Take a home inventory
The documentation process should begin before you need to file a home insurance claim. According to the Insurance Information Institute, just over 40% of polled policyholders proactively inventoried their belongings. And for a good reason: When policyholders file a claim, an inventory of assets is one of the most common documents they submit to insurance adjusters. Homeowners can use a detailed inventory as a checklist to quickly note damaged, lost, or stolen property, streamlining a task that can feel overwhelming under a home emergency stress. When creating a home inventory, document the name, brand, and date purchased for big-ticket items. If you’re able, include receipts as proof of purchase, too.
Choose the best policy for your needs
Your home inventory can also help you purchase the right coverage when shopping for policies. Miranda Day, a licensed producer at top-rated Secord Insurance Agency in Seattle, Washington, notes that most “policies include limits on certain items such as jewelry, guns, art, collectibles, rugs, etcetera.” If you own valuables in these categories, consider supplementing your home insurance with a “floater policy.” While more expensive than most home insurance policies, floater policies offer more comprehensive coverage for high value items.
Remember to read the fine print
Although the name might suggest it, home insurance doesn’t cover all emergencies on your property. For example, if your home was flooded or sustained wind damage from a named storm, your home insurance policy probably doesn’t cover it. And if it does, your deductible is likely sky-high. Catastrophes deemed “acts of god” — like tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes — are excluded from most home insurance policies, so you’ll need to purchase natural disaster or catastrophe insurance if your home is at risk.
If a natural disaster damages your home, reach out to the representative from your catastrophe insurance to initiate the claims process and ensure you get the best coverage.
Step 1: Attend to the emergency immediately
When disaster strikes, the most important thing to do is to protect yourself and your family. If, however, you’re able to mitigate or tend to the emergency to prevent further property damage, do so. Most home insurance policies have contingencies that require the policyholder to do what is practical and reasonable to secure and protect damaged property.
For example, if a pipe bursts and floods your home, the policyholder would be responsible for turning off the water as soon as possible, airing out the affected rooms, and removing any personal property from harm’s way. If your insurance adjuster finds that significant damage incurred after the event, you may be liable for the cost.
Step 2: Document the damage with photos and written notes
Organization is key to handling an insurance claim. If you clearly document the damage to your home and the steps you’ve taken to restore it, you’ll increase the likelihood of your insurance approving the claim.
Once it’s safe to enter your home and you’ve secured your property against further harm, take pictures of any damage — no matter how significant. An easy way to do this is to use your smartphone to record a walkthrough while narrating the damage.
You can then rewatch the footage in a comfortable location and annotate your home inventory by highlighting the damaged items, the type of damage they suffered, and anything else of note. Even if you didn’t already have a home inventory, you can use the footage to start one. Submit the video, photos, and annotated inventory when you file your claim.
Write down everything you do after an emergency
It can be hard to remember the contents of our days during the best of times, and this is especially true in emergencies. It’s important to document the steps you’ve taken to file a claim to prove your due diligence in case you ever need to contest the claim. Create a digital or physical organization system to keep track of everything claim related, including:
- Annotated home inventory
- Photos or videos of the damage
- Receipts of any emergency repair work
- Receipts for additional living expenses (for example, meals out if your kitchen was destroyed — you may be able to be reimbursed for these costs!)
- Dates, times, and names of the people you’ve contacted at the insurance agency and notes on your conversation
- Dates, times, and names of contractors you’ve contacted and notes on your conversation
- Copies any claim related document
Step 3: Review your insurance policy to reach out to the appropriate representative
Once you’ve documented the damage to your home, review your coverage. It’s useful to refresh your memory on the details of your coverage before taking next steps so that you’re informed on everything you’re entitled to before speaking to a representative.
Reach out to your agent immediately
Your insurance agent will be your greatest ally in filing a claim, so immediately reaching out to them is a vital step. Mary Stewart, a top selling agent in Sugar Land, Texas, with over 40 years of experience, says it’s crucial to work with an experienced insurance agent. She shares a story from her own experience:
“When I bought my first house in Galveston, I chose an insurance agent down there in Galveston because I knew that he would be able to tell me what type of policy, how much content I should take, and how much deductible I should do. And so because of that, after the hurricane, they paid very nicely.”
Most policies also have strict windows for when homeowners need to file a claim after an emergency. According to Adjusters International, one of the most common reasons a claim is denied is because a policyholder didn’t file the claim on time. Don’t lose your payout by missing a deadline, and contact your agent as soon as possible to initiate the claims process. Your agent will be able to provide you with the next steps on how to contact your insurance company to begin the claims process.
Day also says, “any small claims should always be presented to your insurance agent before calling the insurance company. Depending on the cost to repair the damage and the deductible on your policy, we may recommend not filing the claim because the out of pocket cost is less than the insurance rates increase the insured will see over the next five years.”
While it’s not always possible, try to work with the same agent throughout your claims process. This will not only make it easier for you to keep track of correspondence, but it can lead to more efficient processing on your insurance company’s end too. By centralizing communications with one person, you can put a face to your case and ensure that none of the details get lost in the metaphorical or literal shuffle.
Step 4: Reach out to contractors in your insurer’s network
Many insurance companies have networks of pre-approved contractors who are their preferred providers for repairs and remodels after a home emergency. Ask your insurance agent for a list of guaranteed network providers to begin your rebuilding phase. This list will give you a head start on your rebuilding phase, and give you the added benefit of working with vetted and verified contractors. Some insurance providers even guarantee work completed by their approved providers for years after the work is complete, giving you an extra warranty.
Even if you’re planning on doing the repairs yourself, get written estimates from two to three pre-approved contractors for an accurate breakdown of the costs of materials and work. Not all policies permit a homeowner or policyholder to complete the repairs themself, either. Get confirmation from your insurance provider this is allowed before moving forward with any DIY restorations.
If your insurance doesn’t have a network of contractors, do your research before hiring one. Here are the top things to look out for:
- Verify their license and insurance.
- Get a written estimate.
- Receive written approval from your insurance.
- Get written confirmation from your contractor that they will wait for payment after you receive your insurance payout.
Step 5: Fight for coverage if the damage falls into a gray area
Stewart reflects on a time a close friend had to fight for coverage: “The flood [adjustors] came in and said, ‘No, this is a windstorm problem. This was not caused from a flood [and therefore was not covered]. So, they wouldn’t pay it. She had to hire an attorney to go after them and prove that it was, in fact, a flood.” While this may sound like a nightmare scenario, Steward says, “You can’t avoid it. It’s gonna happen. You just have to be prepared for it.”
Review your original claim
Before taking the next steps in filing a complaint, review your original claim to verify that you’ve included all the details and proof necessary. If you filed it while under extreme stress, you may have left out some vital information. Do you have additional documentation, photos, receipts, or proof of damage to add to your claim? If you do, ask your insurance company if you can add these to your existing claim.
Conduct your own appraisal
If you’re still unable to agree with your insurance provider, consider hiring a public insurance adjuster. These independent appraisers evaluate property loss on behalf of a policyholder, so you can use their estimates as leverage for more coverage. You will have to pay for their services out of pocket, but their appraisal could be the difference between getting the settlement you deserve or not. Just as you did with your insurance and real estate agents, though, vet your adjuster and verify their license before inviting them to evaluate your property.
Hire an attorney
Once you’re sure that you want to proceed with a formal complaint, hire an attorney to litigate and file your complaint with the state. Although insurance claim disputes escalating to this stage are rare and not guaranteed to work, it may be your only option if you feel like you have been wrongfully denied or underpaid.
Review your coverage annually
You never know when the unthinkable might happen. While home insurance might seem like just another monthly bill most of the time, the protection it offers in the case of an emergency is essential for homeowners.
Not all policies are equal, though, and your coverage needs may change from year to year. Remember that it’s your responsibility as a homeowner to choose the best home insurance policy and supplementary coverage for your location. Don’t get caught off guard by your insurance after an emergency, and set a date every year to review your coverage with a trusted local agent. Day says it’s never just about a policy; it’s about “[putting] the customer’s best interest first.”
Header Image Source: (Robbie Down / Unsplash)