Homeowner insurance: How and when to file a claim

You probably know you’re paying more than ever for homeowner insurance, but do you know how it works?

If your home is damaged by a severe storm, fire, break-in, or other catastrophe, Consumer Reports says, as soon as it’s safe, contact your insurer.

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Next, document everything, take plenty of photos and videos, and make a list of what was damaged and needs repair.

If you can’t get to your property, ask your insurer how to proceed to get the process moving. And make sure you are there when the adjuster visits so you see what they see.

Document all contacts with your insurer and keep detailed notes of everything you discuss.

Keep every receipt. A standard homeowners policy reimburses for living expenses if you have to stay outside your home for a period of time. You’ll want these receipts if there’s a disagreement or you end up in court.

“After talking with your insurer, do the stopgap work. That is, repairs that must be done immediately to prevent further damage. For example, you might need a plumber to close off water lines,” said Consumer Reports’ Tobie Stanger.

A standard homeowners insurance policy covers damage to the structure and personal property up to certain limits and minus your deductible.

Replacement cost coverage pays to rebuild your home and replace stolen or damaged items, at today’s prices. Actual cash value coverage pays to rebuild your home and replace stolen or damaged items, but factors in depreciation.

“If it’s minor damage, like a few thousand dollars, it might not be worth filing a claim because, in the long run, it could cost you more money in potential premium increases. And if you file too many claims in a short period, you might get dropped,” Stanger said.

But there might be exceptions after some storms. Take water damage. Small spots on a wall or ceiling could indicate a bigger mess inside a wall or attic. Reporting it now shows you’ve reported promptly.

Finally, you might want to hire a public adjuster if it’s a large claim, like a total loss. They work on your behalf and represent you.

If you think the wording in your policy is misleading, have an attorney specializing in insurance law look it over. The Consumer Federation of America notes that courts have consistently favored policyholders on policy ambiguities. You can also file a complaint with the state Department of Insurance.

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