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How to Handle the Most Common Home Insurance Claims

Many homeowners are able to go several years without filing an insurance claim on their home. In fact, according to analytics company ISO, claims are only filed by about five percent of homeowners each year. It is good that homeowner claims occur less frequently than automobile claims, but with reduced frequency comes reduced expertise. Since property claims occur less often, and because many people start out their adult lives as renters before they purchase their first home, there is generally more confusion about what to do when problems arise.
 

Tips for Before You File a Claim

Regardless of the situation, there are a few things to keep in mind before filing a property claim. Most importantly, in any emergency situation, due diligence should be the first course of action. Here are a few examples:
 

  • When there is a fire, contact the fire department before calling your insurance company.
  • If the loss necessitates a police presence (vandalism, burglary, etc.), contact the police to perform an investigation as soon as possible. Do not wait until after the claim has been filed.
  • It is always acceptable to take steps to stop further damage from occurring before you contact your insurance company. If a windstorm, tornado, or tree caused a giant hole in your roof, you are absolutely allowed to cover the hole until a claims adjuster can inspect the damage.

Next, consider the amount of damage before you file a claim. If the damage is very minor, it probably is not worth your time to claim on your insurance. Today, the average homeowner has a $1,000- $2,500 deductible, so claims smaller than that amount will not be covered. Not sure if the damage is over your deductible amount? Most of the time it is perfectly acceptable to get a repair estimate from a contractor before you file a claim.

Finally, you should always check to make sure your policy covers the loss before you report it to your insurer. Plenty of homeowners end up with rejected claims because they let common misconceptions dictate their beliefs about what was covered under their specific policy. While each policy is different, some of the most common coverages that are not available under a standard home insurance policy include:
 

  • Wear and tear (should be covered by a home warranty)
  • Flooding (this is a separate policy)
  • Damage to or loss of any vehicle including four-wheelers, ATVs, and motorcycles

 

Acts of Nature

These are claims that are virtually impossible to prevent since they are caused by forces of nature. This type of claim is usually approved, as long as the amount of damage is higher than the policy deductible.
 

Wind Damage

One of the most frequent types of damage caused by acts of nature is wind damage to the exterior of the home-- especially the roof. Be aware that in some areas particularly plagued by windstorms and tornadoes, major insurance carriers have begun to put caps on the amount they will pay for this type of claim, so extensive damage will not necessarily result in a new roof.

First Steps to Take
First, you should assess the extent of the damage. Odds are, if you are just missing a couple of shingles, the roof can be repaired for an amount less than your homeowner policy's deductible. In such instances, a claim should not be filed. On the other hand, when a storm causes extensive damage to your home and leaves sections exposed to the elements, it is best to take pictures of the damage before covering the exposed areas with a tarp or other protective covering. Once you have performed necessary preventative maintenance, you can report the claim to your insurer.

Filing the Claim
Take care to note the date and time when the damage occurred, photograph areas of damage if possible, and file the claim right away. Especially when large areas of a community experience storm damage, it is a good idea to file your claim as soon as possible since your insurance company will probably be handling claims for several of your neighbors
 

Lightning

While some houses affected by lightning strike do catch fire, the majority of lightning claims actually cover personal property. How? When lightning strikes a power line, it can travel into the house causing a power surge that destroys electronics plugged into outlets at the time of the strike. This is one of the primary reasons the use of surge protectors is recommended.

First Steps to Take
Initially, you may just notice one or two major appliances are not working. However, most lightning strikes affect entire sections of the home, and more damaged electronics are discovered over the next few days. Keep a record of when the lightning strike occurred, or if you were not home at the time, try to record when you first noticed something was wrong. Then, make a list of what items are damaged.

Filing the Claim
Since the initial loss may seem much lower than your deductible, you may want to notify your agent about the situation with an added note that if the total loss of property totals more than your deductible, a claim will be filed as soon as possible. Additionally, it may be necessary to hire an electrician to repair damaged breakers, fuses, or wiring after a lightning strike. During this process, the electrician may be able to help you identify other electronics that were affected by the strike.
 

Hail Damage

Although hail damage typically affects roofs more than any other part of the home, it is not uncommon for other structures to be damaged if the hail is severe. However, do not fall for the mistaken belief that any hail damage will be covered. Cosmetic damage, like minor dents to shingles, are often not covered as they do not impact the function of the roof itself.

First Steps to Take
Once the hailstorm has ended, and as soon as it is safe to do so, determine the scope of damage. It may be necessary for you to get on a ladder to see what areas, if any, sustained significant damage. Be sure to check other areas, like gutters, downspouts, and shutters that may have been damaged by the hail. Then, if necessary, cover any areas exposed to the elements to prevent further property loss.

Filing the Claim
Hail claims are notoriously hard to decide whether or not the amount of damage exceeds the policy deductible. So unless the damage is extensive-- covering more than half of the roof-- it is generally a good idea to seek the opinion of a licensed roofing contractor to get a repair estimate. Once you have this information in hand, you can proceed to file a claim with your insurer.
 

Frozen Pipes

One of the most important aspects to note about frozen pipe claims is this: more than likely, your policy covers water damage that occurs as a result of frozen pipes, but the pipes themselves are not covered. Typically, water claims due to pipes that freeze in the winter are covered losses, but there are a few exceptions. Pipes that freeze and burst repeatedly may not be covered after the first loss. This is because it is expected that maintenance to prevent reoccurrence should have been performed after the first claim. Additionally, whenever there are signs that basic, necessary preventative measures were neglected and the lack thereof may have contributed to the loss, there is a possibility the claim will be denied.

First Steps to Take
As soon as possible, shut off the main water line to stop further flooding. Then, begin to remove the water and dry out the house by any means necessary (this may include the use of towels, mops, fans, or other implements). During this process, you should take photographs or video to document the extent of the damage since it may be a few days before the insurance company can perform an inspection. Record the evolution of the damage as it changes over time since buckling, peeling, or chipping of walls and floor coverings may become evident as the room/s dry out.

Filing the Claim
This is another type of claim that should be filed as soon as possible. It is imperative that these losses have repairs begin quickly since mold and mildew can begin to grow almost immediately. You may need to have a plumber come repair the broken pipe before an adjuster can see the damage (take pictures while the plumber is working on the pipe if possible, your adjuster will appreciate the documentation), but there is no reason to hesitate in calling your agent to file a claim unless the scope of the damage is very minor.
 

Falling Trees

If your neighbor's tree falls on your house, he files the claim, right? Not necessarily. Because this kind of loss is usually an act of nature that was not preventable, it should be filed on your homeowner's policy, regardless of who the tree belonged to. However, if your neighbor's tree was clearly dead and should have been removed before it fell and damaged your property, it can be considered a liability claim due to negligence, and may be filed on your neighbor's insurance.

First Steps to Take
As with all claims that come as a result of acts of nature, whenever the home is exposed to the elements, you should immediately take steps to protect against further damage. This may include putting a tarp over the hole in the roof, or removing the portion of the tree that fell on the house. If the latter is necessary, be sure to take pictures or video of the tree as it appeared after falling initially, so your claims adjuster can see the scope of the damage before preventative measures were taken.

Filing the Claim
The scope of damage will determine your timeline for filing this type of claim. For instance, if the tree fell on a small shed in your backyard and you are unsure whether or not the damage is enough to file a claim, you may choose to consult with a contractor before you notify your agent. Alternatively, if a large tree fell directly on your home and resulted in major structural damage, you should notify your insurer immediately.
 

Claims of Unfortunate Circumstance

Not all claims occur as a result of Mother Nature. Often, losses are simply due to unfortunate circumstances through no fault of our own. Most of these claims are typically covered by insurance, although they may undergo more rigorous investigations than those that result from weather-driven forces.
 

Fire

The good news is: home fires occur much less frequently than they did a couple of decades ago. However, not all fires are preventable-- like the ones that occur due to lightning strike. Do not be offended if your insurance company performs an extensive investigation while handling your claim. It is necessary to rule out cases of arson.

First Steps to Take
In any emergency, you should call 911 first and let the emergency responders put out the fire before you begin the claim process. Once the fire has been extinguished and a report has been started, you can contact your insurance company.

Filing the Claim
Again, file this type of claim as soon as possible. Do not begin repair work-- other than what is necessary to prevent further damage-- until a claim has been filed. You will need to provide your insurance agent with the date and time of the fire, a report from the fire department, and a list of what property was damaged. Unfortunately, fire claims often take longer to repair than any other type of loss. Remember that the contractors and insurance company do their best to be thorough and this attention to detail can take time.
 

Water Damage

Of all the types of claims that can be filed, water damage is one of the trickiest losses to handle. Why? Homeowner policies tend to be very specific about what is and what is not covered. Some types of water damage are never covered under a homeowner's policy. Flooding is one example. However, other types of water damage, like leaking roofs, are covered under specific circumstances.

First Steps to Take
As soon as the damage is discovered, take steps to prevent its spread if possible. This may mean covering your roof with a tarp so no more water can come in, or buying a new sump pump to drain water out of your basement. There is no reason to speak with your insurance company before you start cleaning up the water. You can take pictures or video of the standing water now and let them review those along with the damaged property later.

Filing the Claim
If you are unsure whether or not the water damage to your home will be covered by your homeowner's insurance, there are three steps you can take to check. First, rule out flooding. Next, check your policy to see if you have something called "water backup coverage" and determine whether or not the company's definition of this loss sounds like the situation at your home. Then, if necessary, contact a restoration company or general contractor to come look at the water damage to help you determine whether or not it may be a covered loss.

Why is it necessary to take all these steps? Most insurance companies will not send out an insurance adjuster to assess damage until a claim has been filed. However, you do not want to file a claim if the damage is due to a loss type that is not covered by your policy. Therefore, in order to prevent filing a claim that will be rejected, it is necessary to take these steps and determine whether or not the damage qualifies as a covered loss before notifying your insurer.
 

Theft or Burglary

Although most types of theft and burglary are preventable, the FBI reports that as many as one in thirty-six homes will be burglarized each year.  Alarm systems can help (and can help reduce your premiums), but they won't always stop a determined burglar.  Small losses may not be covered if the value of the stolen items is less than your deductible, so keep that in mind when filing.

First Steps to Take
Once you are sure that a break-in occurred or the missing items were definitely stolen, not just lost, you should file a police report. Try to identify as many missing items as possible. If there is damage to the exterior of your home where the burglar broke a window or door in order to gain access to the home, you may need to perform temporary repairs to close off this entrance until the insurance adjuster arrives.

Filing the Claim
Your insurance company will want a copy of the police report and a list of the stolen items. If you have receipts or other documentation showing proof of ownership for the stolen property, it will help your claims process immensely. This is one of the many reasons insurers recommend keeping and regularly updating a complete list of your household inventory. These lists are also helpful replacing personal property for "total loss" claims-- when a home is completely destroyed by something like a fire or tornado.

On preventing duplicate claims: do not file more than one claim for thefts or burglaries. If you discover more missing items after the claim is initially filed, you may contact your claim adjuster to add the additional items to the existing claim. When a burglary occurs, it will not be necessary to file two separate claims for the stolen property and damaged exterior; both of these losses will be covered by the same claim.
 

Identity Theft

Many people are unaware that their insurers provide this coverage on their homeowner's policies, but there is absolutely a need for identity theft coverage. According to the most recent data, more than 17 million Americans will be the victims of identity theft each year. Although identity theft coverage does not help reimburse homeowners for the money they lost, it can help find and stop the scammers before they can do more harm.

First Steps to Take
At the first signs of identity theft, you should first contact your bank or credit card company and put a stop on your card. Notify them of all the charges that were not performed by you or other authorized users on your account. Next, you will need to contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about your identity theft and file a police report with your local police.

Filing the Claim
First, be sure that you have this coverage on your policy. Although generally inexpensive, most companies only offer it as an additional coverage. Next, talk to your agent about your situation and determine whether or not the services your insurer provides will be of help for your particular circumstances. Services provided under this coverage vary by company, but often include: legal help, restoring your credit, access to fraud services, and assistance in contacting necessary authorities and reporting agencies.
 

Mysterious Disappearance

This coverage is no longer available under many newer home insurance policies since it has been abused in the past. As it covers the loss of items that have simply gone missing without any suspicion of theft, there has been a tremendous amount of fraud by people who claim to have lost items they never actually owned.

One of the most common reasons for using this coverage is the loss of jewelry. Often when a ring or earring is dropped down a sink drain and cannot be retrieved, the owner may file the loss as a mysterious disappearance.

First Steps to Take
As soon as the item is understood to be missing, rule out theft and take all possible steps to recover the property. In cases like the aforementioned missing jewelry in a sink drain, it may be necessary to contact a plumber in order to attempt retrieval.

Filing the Claim
Once all efforts to reclaim the missing item have been exhausted, you may file a claim with your insurer. It may be necessary to provide proof of ownership in order to be reimbursed for the missing item.
 

Vandalism and Malicious Mischief

There is a broad range of activities that may be described as vandalism or malicious mischief. However, for the sake of this claim, the only forms of vandalism that will be covered are those that result in actual property damage.

First Steps to Take
First, notify the authorities and file a police report. If any areas of the home are exposed to the elements, you may need to perform preventative maintenance to protect against additional damage.

Filing the Claim
Once a police report has been filed, you may contact your insurer to file a claim. Do not worry if there are no suspects; your claim can still be processed even if no charges are filed against the vandals.
 

Liability Claims

Not all claims occur as a result of personal property or structural damage. In fact, many claims come from liability losses, or damage to others and their property. Here are a few of the most common liability claims:
 

Dog Bites

Based on data collected by the CDC, more than 4 million people will be the victims of a dog bite each year, and that number is growing.  Being prepared with the right liability coverage for your dog is important to ensure you're protected before an incident occurs.

First Steps to Take
If your dog bites someone else who is on your property, or if he leaves your property and bites a neighbor, it may be necessary to file a liability claim on your policy. First get the victim's name, address, and phone number if you do not already have this information. Then, advise him or her to seek medical attention if the bite is severe. He or she may want to see records showing that your dog is up to date on its shots.

Filing the Claim
Once you have the victim's information, you may file a claim with your insurance agent. An investigation will be performed and your insurer may also want documentation of your dog's health records.