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How to file a home insurance claim

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There are many good reasons why you may want to file a homeowners insurance claim - from an injury that occurs on your property to a burglary to damage from the storm or fire.

But you want to make sure your claim is valid and covered, learn the deadline by which you have to file a claim and know what to expect after you file a claim. Reading your policy language carefully can yield crucial answers.

Many homeowners have questions about what's involved with the homeowners insurance claims process: How do home insurance claims work? How are homeowners insurance claims paid? And how long do homeowners insurance claims stay on your record? For answers, read on.

Homeowners insurance claims process

Once you understand your coverage, file a homeowners insurance claim by following these recommended steps:

Homeowners insurance claim tip

  1. Report the issue to your local police if there's a need -- For certain types of homeowners insurance claims, your provider will require a police report, especially if theft or an act of vandalism has occurred. File a police report and give it to your insurance company to support your claim.
  2. Contact your insurance company -- Call your insurer as soon as possible after the incident occurs to file your claim. The claims department will assign a claims number and an insurance adjuster to your case. That person will be responsible for assessing the damage and estimating the costs. The adjuster's job is to help your insurance company determine how much will be paid out to you for replacement or repairs. "Be prepared to give the adjuster a description of the damage to your property, details about the loss and documentation related to your claim. This professional will report the loss immediately to your insurer," says Loretta Worters, vice president of Media Relations for the New York City-based Insurance Information Institute.
  3. Document everything -- If your home has been damaged or burglarized, photograph and/or videotape the aftermath and take detailed notes so you can provide documented proof to your insurance company. You may need this documentation if the insurance company gives you a lower payout than expected and you need to appeal. If there is an injury or damage to your property, write down everything, including the date, time and details of the incident. Providing these details to your insurance company can help the claims process move more quickly. If you have to leave your home and need to claim additional living expenses (ALE), it is crucial to keep receipts to be reimbursed. "Review your ALE coverage - also known as loss of use - which pays additional costs of living away from your home if you cannot live there due to a mandatory evacuation or because of damage to your home from an insured catastrophe," Worters suggests.
  4. Cooperate with your insurer during investigation of the claim. You may be required to allow an inspection, produce documentation, provide a recorded statement or submit to an examination under oath, explains Josue Espinosa, a property insurance attorney in Orlando.
  5. Make repairs in the meantime -- If you have a leaky roof or water damage that may make your home unlivable, consider temporary repairs if doing nothing could cause further damage. "It's the homeowner's obligation to prevent damage from getting worse. For example, you may need to hire a water remediation company if you suffer emergency water damage, or you may have to install a tarp on your roof to prevent interior damage stemming from a roofing problem," notes Espinosa. Keep all the receipts (and make additional copies) for repairs and give them to your insurance company so they can reimburse you. And if you must temporarily move out of your home because it's uninhabitable, keep a record of all your lodging and food expenses. You could submit them to your insurance company for reimbursement.
  6. Consider hiring a public adjuster -- Your insurance company provides an adjuster at no charge to you, while a public adjuster has no relationship with your insurance company and charges a fee of up to 15 percent of the insurance settlement for his or her services. Like a company adjuster, a public adjuster will evaluate your property (either in-person or via phone) will assess any pre-existing damage and ask questions about routine maintenance you've performed or other safety measures you've implemented to reduce the risk of injury, theft or damage on your property. In some cases, you may not agree with the adjuster's final determination. In turn, your insurance company's payout may be significantly lower than expected. In these situations, your only recourse may be to hire a public adjuster to independently assess the cost of the damage and represent you when you appeal.

A report issued by The Florida State Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that policyholders received 574% higher compensation for non-hurricane home insurance claims and 747% higher compensation for hurricane-related claims when they used a public adjuster. So, going this route may be worth the additional expense. Note that while a public adjuster can assist with the claims process, he or she cannot get you more money than you are entitled to under your insurance policy.

How are homeowners insurance claims paid?

Your insurance company may payout this claim in several ways. You may be offered an on-the-spot settlement via check or bank transfer. Or you may receive multiple checks or bank transfer payments at different periods from your insurer as you proceed through the repair process, replace damaged possessions and demonstrate additional living expenses.

"In most instances, an insurance adjuster will inspect the damages and offer you a certain sum of money for repairs, based on the terms and limits of your homeowners insurance policy," says Worters. "The first check you get is often in advance against the total settlement amount, not the final payment."

If you accept a lump-sum settlement upfront and you later discover further damage, you can reopen your claim and file for an additional amount.

"Most policies require claims to be filed within one year from the date of the disaster," Worters adds.

Note that the person or persons due payment are the named insured listed on the declarations page of your insurance policy. If you have a mortgage on your home, the claims check may be made out to both you and the mortgage lender.

"Your lender has a financial interest in your property, and they want to ensure that the necessary repairs are made. They will have to endorse your claims payment check before you can cash it," says Worters. "Depending on the circumstances, your lender may instead want to put the money in an escrow account and authorize payment for the repairs in stages as the work is completed."

How to file a homeowners insurance claim for roof damage

To file a claim for damage related to your roof, follow the numbered steps above.

But be aware that your insurance company will carefully review the condition of your roof before making payment as there has been a significant uptick in fraudulent claims. Many insurers point to exclusions spelled out in a typical policy, including wear and tear, deterioration, faulty defect or design, neglect, and pre-existing damage.

"You have to show a covered peril caused the damage that allowed water to enter your home, such as a hail strike, roof tiles lifted in extreme winds, a tree branch falling, or a lightning strike," says Nicole Shacket, supervising attorney for Insurance Litigation Group in Miami.

If a covered peril causes damage to your roof, "you can contact your insurance company and file a claim. Then, the insurer will send an adjuster to your property to inspect the damages," Shacket continues. "They may also request documentation, pictures, a recorded statement from you, an examination under oath, or a reinspection before they make repairs or replacements."

How to file a homeowners insurance claim for water damage

If your home has suffered water damage, follow the numbered steps listed earlier in this article. However, be forewarned that your policy may or may not cover a claim.

"Standard homeowners insurance provides coverage for burst pipes, wind-driven rain and damage resulting from ice dams on your roof. Some policies also cover sewer and drain backups, but many do not," says Worters. "In general, water that comes from the top down - such as rainfall - is covered by a standard policy. Water that comes from the bottom up, such as an overflowing river, is covered by a separate flood insurance policy."

Additionally, your water damage claim may be denied under certain circumstances, such as:

  • Lack of maintenance - For example, if you had a leaky faucet and failed to repair it
  • A broken pipe caused by wear and tear
  • Plumbing system deterioration
  • Mold, rotting or corrosion
  • Foundation seepage
  • Rising groundwater

"Your insurance policy may also include limits for water damage. For instance, some policies limit water damage payments to $5,000 or $10,000," Espinosa says.

Filing a renters insurance claim

If you have renters insurance, the process is similar to how to file a home insurance claim. One difference involves your landlord. If there's structural damage to your rental, notify your landlord immediately. Most leases and states require that the tenant notify the landlord, who is responsible for structural repairs. Those repairs may include a leaky roof, broken window or water damage caused by a plumbing issue.

Your landlord will need to file a claim with his or her insurance company for damage to the building. You, as a renter, will need to file a claim with your insurer for damage done to your property.

If a burglary has occurred, also notify your landlord. Your landlord's insurance policy should include coverage for any damage that results from the theft, but your renters insurance will provide coverage for your personal property. If there's a burglary at your home, file a police report and document everything and submit this information to your insurer and landlord, if he or she needs to file a claim.

What to avoid when filing a home insurance claim?

When filing a homeowners insurance claim, homeowners often make several errors that can delay their claim or affect their payout:

  • Don't forget to keep your belongings documented: Not having enough proof of what property was damaged or lost could delay the process or affect how much you'll receive. Consider photographing or making a video inventory of your home's contents before you have an issue and save it in a safe place. Keep copies of receipts for higher-value items. That way, you'll be able to show what you've lost if and when it happens.
  • Don't throw away or discard items too soon. Document your loss with as much detail as you can, and don't throw away any evidence until you agree upon a payout.
  • Don't wait too long to contact your insurance company. If you act quickly, you can initiate the claims filing process and get an insurance adjuster to visit your home soon to assess the damage.
  • Don't delay completing claims forms promptly: The claims process can drag on if you don't provide your insurance company with paperwork for proof of loss, receipts and other documentation to approve your claim. Insurers usually are required to send you claim forms within 30 days, depending on state law. The longer you wait to complete these forms, the longer the process takes.
  • Don't stay uninformed about your policy: Standard home insurance often doesn't include flood coverage, which must be purchased separately through the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program. Note that NFIP policy limits are $250,000 for the property and $100,000 on the contents. So if you need more, you'll need to get excess and surplus coverage, available from some insurers. Public adjusters often encounter policyholders who think their policy covers more than it actually does. Policyholders often don't carry enough coverage for personal property, too. However, you should insure your personal property at the same level of coverage at which you insure your home. You can ask your insurer to increase your policy limit so that this coverage is included. Your home is usually insured for replacement cost, but the contents may be insured for the actual cash value (minus depreciation). It's best to make sure you have full replacement cost on both the dwelling and the contents.

How long does it take for an insurer to pay a claim?

Insurance companies are usually expected to pay or deny claims within 90 days of the date the loss was reported.

"This time limit can be extended if the insurer requests information allowed under the policy, such as a proof of loss, recorded statement or examination under oath," notes Shacket. "If 90 days have passed and your insurance company still hasn't paid, your only recourse is to file a lawsuit. If you choose this option, the claim can be settled within weeks or it can take years."

Every state can set its own rules for the deadline by which an insurance company can accept or deny a claim.

"In California, insurance companies have 15 days to acknowledge a claim," Worters points out. "Once acknowledged and all documentation and proof have been received, they have 40 days to approve or deny the claim. If a settlement is reached, they have 30 days to make the agreed-upon payment."

In Florida, meanwhile, insurance carriers have 14 days to review and acknowledge receipt of communication regarding a claim, according to Espinosa.

In South Carolina, insurance companies are granted a "reasonable" amount of time to either deny or payout your claim.

In North Carolina, insurance companies are required to acknowledge receipt of your claim within 30 days, but there's no set time frame on when they must settle because "each claim is different and the length of time to settle may vary," the state says.

The coronavirus pandemic may mean the process may move quicker than before. Social distancing requirements mean your insurance company may not send out an adjuster for smaller home insurance claims. Many insurance companies are replacing a physical inspection with a virtual one, such as telechat, photos and videos. The newer, streamlined virtual process could speed up how long it takes for an insurer to pay a claim.

When not to file homeowners insurance claims

Not every incident requires filing a home insurance claim, especially if you're worried about your premiums going up. Insurance companies all have access to a database called CLUE (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange) that contains information about your claim history.

Insurance claim

Based on this information, does filing a claim increase home insurance rates? Possibly. A history of multiple homeowners insurance claims over a short period, however minor, can affect your premiums, your ability to obtain new homeowners insurance if you face cancellation, or your ability to find lower rates if you need to shop around.

If the cost of repairs is less than your deductible, it's better to pay out-of-pocket to save money in the long run.

How much will my home insurance rate increase after filing a claim?

Insurance.com found in a 2021 homeowners insurance claim analysis that the average percentage rate increases for home insurance claims are as follows:

Claim typeAverage % increaseAverage % increase for two claims
Weather29%60%
Fire27%55%
Theft25%52%
Liability25%50%
Water18%34%
Medical16%29%

 

What can you do if your homeowners insurance claim is denied?

In most states, homeowners undergo an appraisal process (outlined in their home insurance policy) to resolve a homeowners insurance claims disagreement. In Massachusetts, the appeal process is called a reference proceeding or mini-arbitration. It involves a panel of three referees -- one chosen by the insurance company, another the policyholder selects and a third chosen by the two other referees. Both sides make their case to the panel and the referees then make a binding decision.

Experts recommend first trying the internal claims appeal process available to you through your insurance company. If you can't agree, you can file a complaint with your state's insurance department, file a claim in Small Claims Court or file a lawsuit against your insurance company.

The bottom line? It's important to know how to file a homeowners insurance claim and to weigh the pros, cons and costs of filing a claim before you submit it to your insurer. In some cases, the financial losses are too great to avoid filing, but for smaller losses, paying out of pocket may help you preserve a good claim history and prevent an increase in your premiums.

If you're not happy with the home insurance claims process of your current insurer or you're shopping for coverage, use our home insurance tool to compare quotes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you keep your home insurance claims money?

Technically, if you are paid for a claim by your insurance company, you aren't required to spend the money on repairs, remediation or replacement if you own your home outright. But if you pay a mortgage, your lender may require you to use the money to fix or rebuild your home.

Even if you own your home outright or your lender doesn't obligate you to use the claim payout for repairs, think twice before choosing to pocket the money.

"Say you choose to take the claims money, not repair the damage and instead buy a car, for example. If so, your insurance company has every right to amend your policy, exclude damaged property they've already paid out for or even cancel or non-renew the policy altogether. If you do elect to keep the funds and not make repairs, the replacement cost clause becomes null and void," cautions Ben Galbreath, producer and independent insurance agent with Wallace & Turner Insurance in Springfield, Ohio. "When you sign the application for a standard homeowners insurance policy, you are agreeing to transfer the risk of financial loss to repair or replace any damage to your home and put it back to its original status before the loss or better."

How long does a home insurance claim stay on your record?

Typically, an insurance claim related to a recorded loss remains on your record for three to seven years. If you file one or more claims within this period, your premiums may increase or you could be excluded from coverage.

"Insurance companies tend to look at the frequency and severity of claims. If there is a high frequency - meaning high number of claims - they may increase your deductible, force you to purchase specific coverage elsewhere, change the way losses are evaluated from replacement cost to actual cash value, or cancel your policy entirely," Galbreath says.

Do I have to pay my mortgage if my house is destroyed?

If your home is destroyed and the settlement amount you get from your insurer exceeds the outstanding balance on your mortgage loan, you may be able to sign the check over to your lender to pay the balance due.

"If there is any settlement money left after paying off your mortgage, your lender will issue you another check for your portion you can keep or they may insist on rebuilding your home," Worters says.