Maintaining adequate homeowner's insurance is a vital part of owning a residence and your homeowner's policy should be chosen carefully. This Financial Guide discusses the policy provisions to consider when deciding which homeowner's insurance policy to buy to be sure that your home is adequately insured and that you are getting the most insurance value for your money.
Table of Contents
- What Homeowner's Insurance Generally Covers
- Policy Coverage To Consider
- Shopping For A Policy
- Inventory of Belongings
This Financial Guide offers guidance about homeowner's insurance such as what questions to ask your insurance broker or agent and how to find the best insurer for your needs. It also explains why you need to keep a list of personal possessions and provides a homeowner's inventory sheet for you to use to make a list of your belongings, as well as offers useful tips on how to qualify for a discount and helps you purchase the policy that best fits your needs at an affordable price.
Tip: It is equally important that renters maintain insurance. Many renters neglect to obtain insurance, perhaps deterred by cost or perhaps, or because, unlike homeowners, they are not required to maintain insurance. Studies show that about three-quarters of all those who rent a residence do not have renter's insurance. Adequate replacement cost coverage and liability insurance can be obtained for about $200 per year--less if combined with an auto policy for instance since most insurers offer discounts for multiple policies.
Note: Homeowner's insurance is usually required by mortgage lenders
What's CoveredAlthough exact coverage and policy limits vary, homeowner's insurance usually covers damage caused by the following events or catastrophes:
- Theft, including check forgery and counterfeit currency
- Unauthorized use of credit cards
- Falling objects
- Ice, snow, or sleet weighing on vehicles
- Freezing of plumbing
- Flooding due to plumbing overflow
- Hot water heater bursting
- Heating system malfunction
- Power surges
Basic coverage may also include food spoilage, lock replacement, temporary repairs, and removing debris. If these items are not initially included in your basic coverage, it is possible to have them added.
Planning Aid: For information about the standard types of homeowner's policies, see consumer resource library at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
If you incur expenses for temporary living quarters because your home is rendered uninhabitable by an insured event/casualty, most policies will reimburse you in part for this so-called "loss of use."
Tip: Earthquakes and sinkholes are not covered under standard policies; however, earthquake insurance can be purchased as an endorsement for an additional fee in all states except California. Flood insurance, which also includes mudflow, must also be purchased as a separate policy. It is only available National Flood Insurance Program run by the federal government. Other types of water damage such as overflows or backups from a sump pump, sewer system, or drains are also excluded and require a separate endorsement.
There is usually a deductible of $100 to $500 for personal property losses. Raising the deductible can lower the premium.
Actual Cash Value Or Replacement Cost
If you insure your belongings for their "actual cash value," you will not get their replacement value at the time of a loss. Actual cash value refers to the value of your belongings after taking into account depreciation and wear and tear. this is also known as Fair Market Value (FMV). For instance, the actual cash value of a television you bought ten years ago may be worth only $50. On the other hand, "replacement cost" coverage provides you with the costs to replace your belongings. Thus, you would get the $500 you need to replace that ten-year-old television, not the $50 "actual cash value."
Limits on Coverage
You choose the limits on the amounts of coverage on your home and personal property. The premium you pay depends on the limits you choose. Regardless of the policy limit, there is a separate limit on the replacement of high-value items, such as jewelry and artwork. If you want increased coverage for certain items, you must purchase an endorsement or floater (also known as a "rider"). You must generally pay extra for the following:
- High-value items (e.g., jewelry, furs, silverware, weapons)
- Personal computers and other home-office equipment
- Business operated in the home
- Earthquake, flood, and hurricane (depending on location)
Policy Coverage: What to ConsiderIf your home is damaged or your possessions are stolen, will your homeowner's policy pay as much as you are expecting? If you are willing to pay the premium for full protection, here are the policy coverages you might consider.
100 Percent of Rebuilding Costs
The amount of insurance that you buy should be based on the cost of rebuilding--not on the price of your home. The cost of rebuilding your house is usually higher than the price you originally paid for it, and often, even the price you could sell it for today. Most insurance companies recommend you insure your home for 100 percent of the cost of rebuilding it.
Tip: Your insurance agent or company representative may be able to help you calculate rebuilding costs. If not, you could hire an appraiser to do this. Real estate agents can provide you with the names of appraisers.
The cost of rebuilding is affected by local construction costs and by the type of house you have; however, the following are some of the factors that enter into the calculation:
- The type of exterior wall construction such as wood frame, masonry (brick or stone) or veneer
- The square footage of the structure
- The style of the home, ranch or colonial, for example
- The number of bathrooms and other rooms
- The type of roof and materials used
- Whether the home was custom built
- Whether the home has an attached garage, a fireplace, exterior trim, or any special features such as arched or bay windows
Tip: For a rough estimate of the cost of rebuilding your house, calculate the square footage and multiply it by local building costs per square foot for your type of house. Ask a real estate agent or appraiser for average building costs in your area.
If you already have homeowner's insurance, it's very important to make sure that you have enough. If your home is one of the few that are totally destroyed, and it is insured for less than 100 percent of the rebuilding cost, you risk not having enough money to replace it with one of similar size and quality.
Make sure your insurance agent or broker knows about any improvements or additions to your house that have been made since you last discussed your insurance policy. If you haven't increased your policy limits to cover the cost of rebuilding that new deck, a second bathroom, or other improvements that have increased the value of your home, then you risk being under-insured. If you lack sufficient insurance, your insurer may pay only a part of the cost of replacing or repairing damaged items--depending on the kind of policy you have.
Look at your policy to see what the maximum amount that your insurance company would pay if your house was damaged and had to be rebuilt. The limits of the policy usually appear on the Declarations Page under Section 1, Coverage A Dwelling. Your insurance company will pay no more than this amount to rebuild your home--no exceptions.
Some banks require that you buy homeowner's insurance to cover the amount of your mortgage. However, if the limit of your insurance policy is based only on your mortgage, your policy is unlikely to cover the cost of rebuilding. Make certain that the value of your insurance policy keeps up with increases in local building costs.
Caution: If the limits of your policy have not changed since you bought your home, it is likely that you are under-insured.
Tip: Ask your agent about adding an "inflation guard clause," which automatically adjusts the limit to reflect current construction costs when you renew your policy.
Consider buying replacement cost coverage for structural damage. A replacement cost policy will pay for the repair or replacement of damaged property with materials of similar kind and quality. The insurance company will not deduct for depreciation. Depreciation is the decrease in value due to age, wear and tear, and other factors.
If you own an older home, you may not be able to buy a replacement cost policy. Instead, you might buy a modified replacement cost policy that will pay for repairs using standard building materials and construction techniques in use today, rather than repairing or replacing features typical of older homes, like plaster walls and wooden doors, with similar materials.
Insurance companies differ greatly in the way they insure older homes. Some refuse to insure older homes for 100 percent of replacement cost because of the expense of re-creating special features like wall and ceiling moldings and carvings. Other companies will insure older homes for 100 percent of replacement cost as long as the dwelling is in good condition.
Caution: If you cannot insure your home for 100 percent of replacement cost--or choose not to do so--because the cost of replacing a large old home is prohibitive, then make sure the limits of the policy are high enough to provide you with a house of acceptable size and quality.
Guaranteed Replacement Cost Insurance
A guaranteed replacement cost policy will pay whatever it costs to rebuild your home as it was before the fire or other disaster, even if it exceeds the policy limit. This policy protects you against sudden increases in construction costs due to a shortage of building materials, for example, or other unexpected situations, but generally does not cover the cost of upgrading the house to comply with building codes.
Tip: Building codes require structures to be built to minimum standards. If your home is severely damaged, there may be an extra cost in rebuilding it to comply with standards enacted since the home was built. Complying with building code may require a change in design or building materials. Generally, homeowner's insurance policies will not pay for this extra expense, but some insurers offer an endorsement (a form attached to an insurance policy that changes what the policy covers) that pays a specified amount toward these costs.
Note: A guaranteed replacement cost policy may not be available if you own an older home.
If your home is located in an area prone to flooding, contact your insurance agent or the National Flood Insurance Program (800-427-4661).
Tip: Your homeowner's insurance policy does not cover flood damage. If you buy a federal government flood insurance policy, consider insuring your home for 100 percent of replacement cost and buying insurance to cover the contents of your home as well as the dwelling.
This list should include everything you and other members of your household own in your home and in other buildings on the property, except your car and certain boats, which must be insured separately. Among the items you should include are indoor and outdoor furniture, appliances, stereos, computers and other electronic equipment, hobby materials and recreational equipment, china, linens, silverware and kitchen equipment, and jewelry, clothing and other personal belongings.
Tip: Estimate the value of your personal possessions at current prices and not what you paid for it. The total is the amount of insurance you would need to replace the contents of your home with new items if everything was destroyed.
Check your homeowner's policy to find out how much insurance you have for the contents of your home. The limit of the policy is shown on the Declarations Page under Section 1, Coverage, Personal Property. The contents limit generally is 50 percent of the amount of insurance on the dwelling. For example, on a home insured for $100,000 the contents would be limited to $50,000. Now compare the contents limit with the total value of the items on your list of personal possessions. If you think you are under-insured, give your insurance agent or broker a call.
As discussed before, there are two ways of insuring your personal possessions. If you have a homeowner's insurance policy, find out whether claim payments for damage to your personal property would be based on replacement cost or actual cash value. Check your policy under Section 1, Conditions, Loss Settlement or ask your agent. As with insurance for the structure, a replacement cost policy pays the dollar amount needed to replace a damaged item with one of similar kind and quality without deductions for depreciation. An actual cash value policy pays the amount needed to replace the item minus depreciation.
Check the limits on certain kinds of personal possessions, such as jewelry, art, silverware, and furs. This information is in Section 1, Personal Property, Special Limits of Liability. Some insurance companies also place a limit on what they'll pay for computers and other home office equipment. If the limits are too low, consider buying a special personal property endorsement or rider.
Note: An endorsement is an addition to your policy. A floater is a form of insurance that allows you to insure valuable items separately. Under a rider or floater, you will be able to insure these items for higher amounts than under a standard homeowner's policy.
Tip: If you have a claim, the more information you have about the damaged items--a description of each and the date of purchase and purchase price--the faster the claim can usually be settled.
Videotape or take photographs of rooms and their contents. Note where and when you bought each item and the price. Write down the brand names and model numbers of appliances and electronic equipment. Add new items as you buy them, and keep receipts with the list.
Store the list, photos, and other records in a safe place outside the home in a bank deposit box or with a neighbor or relative so that they are not destroyed if your home is damaged.
Shopping For A Policy
The price you pay for homeowner's insurance can vary by hundreds of dollars, depending on the insurance company. Companies offer several types of discounts, but they do not offer the same discount or the same amount of discount in all states. Here are some things to consider when buying homeowner's insurance:
Although it may take a few phone calls to shop around for the best insurance, you could save a few hundred dollars by taking the time to do so. Conduct a preliminary search by compiling a list of possible insurers. Check with your insurance broker or agent, ask your friends, check the Yellow Pages, search online, check consumer guides, and/or call your state insurance department. A thorough investigation of available insurers will give you an idea of price ranges and tell you which companies or agents have the lowest prices.
Tip: Do not consider price alone. The insurer you select should offer both a fair price, good coverage and excellent service. Quality service may cost a bit more, but it provides added conveniences. Talking to insurers will give you a feel for the type of service they offer.
When talking to insurers, ask them what they would do to lower your costs. Once you've narrowed your search to three companies, get price quotes.
Raise Your Deductibles
Deductibles on homeowners' policies typically start at $250. You might save up to 12 percent of the premium by increasing your deductible to $500, up to 24 percent by increasing it to $1,000, up to 30 percent by going up to $2,500, and 37 percent by raising it to $5,000.
Considering Buying Home And Auto Policies From the Same Insurer
Many companies that sell homeowner's, auto and liability coverage will take 5 to 15 percent off your premium if you buy two or more policies from them. This is called a multiple policy discount.
Consider Insurance Cost Before Buying A Home
When buying a home, don't overlook the insurance costs. These may affect the price you are willing to pay for the home. Among the factors to consider:
- The home's construction in relation to the geographical region. For example, brick houses may result in less costly premiums in the East whereas frame houses are less costly in the West. Choosing wisely could cut your premium by 5 to 15 percent.
- Whether the area is prone to floods (if so, you will have to pay additional money for an endorsement). Visit www.floodsmart.gov to determine your flood risk and find out whether you are in a flood zone.
- Whether the home is new or used (insurers may offer you a discount of 8 to 15 percent for a new home).
- The electrical system, plumbing, and structure.
- Whether the town has full-time or volunteer fire service and whether the home is close to a hydrant or fire station (the closer it is, the lower your premium will be).
Don't Insure Land
When deciding how much homeowner's insurance to buy, do not include the value of the land under your house. If it is not at risk against theft, windstorm, fire, or other disasters, why pay for wasted coverage?
Increase Home Security
You can usually get discounts of at least 5 percent for a smoke detector, burglar alarm, or dead-bolt locks. Some companies offer to cut your premium by as much as 15 or 20 percent if you install a sophisticated sprinkler system and a fire and burglar alarm that rings at the police station or another monitoring facility. Although these discounts are incentives to invest in home security and yard maintenance systems, be aware that these systems are not inexpensive and that not every system qualifies for the discount.
Tip: Before you buy an alarm system, find out what kind your insurer recommends and how much you'd save on premiums.
No Smoking Discounts
Insurers may offer lower premiums if all the residents in a house do not smoke.
If you are at least 55 years old and retired, you may qualify for a discount of up to 10 percent at some insurers.
Investigate Group Coverage
Employers, alumni, and business associations can often benefit from an insurance package at competitive rates. Ask your company's human resources department or your association's director if such a package is available.
Stay With the Same Insurer
If you've kept your coverage with one company for several years, you may get a reduction in your premiums of 5 or 10 percent, depending on the insurer.
Check Your Policy Once A Year
Compare the limits in your policy with the value of your possessions at least once a year to make sure your policy covers major purchases and/or additions to your home.
Tip: On the other hand, you do not want to spend money for unnecessary coverage. If your five-year-old fur coat is no longer worth the $20,000 you paid for it, reduce your rider and cut your premium.
Look For Private Insurance First
If you live in a high-risk area, that is, one that is vulnerable to coastal storms, fires, or crime, and have been buying your homeowner's insurance through a government plan, you may find that there are steps you can take to buy insurance at a lower price in the private market. Check with your insurance agent or broker.
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To be sure you have adequate homeowner's insurance, ask your insurance agent questions about the issues discussed in this Financial Guide. A thorough inquiry into specific coverage and costs should result in a policy that offers the best coverage and value. It is also important to ask your agent or broker to explain what factors were used to calculate the policy limits for the dwelling.
Planning Aid: National Flood Insurance Program provides information about National Flood Insurance.
Tip: If you have a problem or need more information, contact the Consumer Federal of America (CFA) Insurance Group.
For your convenience, several common insurance terms are defined below:
- Actual Cash Value. The current value of property measured in cash arrived at by taking the replacement cost and deducting for depreciation brought about by physical wear and tear, age and other factors.
- Endorsement. A written form attached to a policy that alters the policy's coverage, terms or conditions.
- Floater. A policy or endorsement that applies to moveable property whatever its location. The coverage floats or moves with the property.
- Guaranteed Replacement Cost Insurance. Insurance providing for payment of the cost of replacing the damaged property without deduction for depreciation and without a dollar limit
- Inflation Guard Clause Provision. In a policy or endorsement that automatically adjusts the dwelling limit at policy renewal time to reflect current construction costs in your area.
- Replacement Cost Dwelling Insurance. Insurance providing that the policyholder will be paid the cost of replacing the damaged property without deduction for depreciation, but limited by the dollar amount displayed under Section 1, Coverage, A. Dwelling on the Declarations Page of the policy.
- Replacement Cost Contents Insurance. Insurance that pays the dollar amount needed to replace damaged personal property with that of similar kind and quality without deducting for depreciation.
Inventory of Belongings
Use this form to document and determine whether your personal property coverage is adequate. Go through each room and inventory your belongings. Write in the year you bought the item and how much you paid for it. Then write in the approximate cost to replace the item today. Finally, calculate the totals at the end of the form. This list will also help in case you need to submit a claim.
Tip: Make a photographic or video record of your belongings, too, and of the outside of your home. This will help should you ever need to submit a claim.