Homeowners Insurance Buying Guide
The Promise of Protection

Homeowners buy insurance to protect against disaster. But when disaster strikes, your insurer might not live up to your expectations, especially if you have a large claim of $20,000 or more, according to our latest survey of 7,418 subscribers who filed claims in the last few years.

The greater the damage, the higher the likelihood that there will be a disagreement over the value of the damage, our survey found. For claims of less than $20,000, only six percent of respondents reported disagreements with their insurer over the amount of a claim payment. But when damage was valued at $20,000 or more, 10 percent disagreed with their insurer's assessment of what was due and about three percent of those people also reported that their insurer delayed paying their claims. That was triple the rate for those with losses below $20,000.

1

Insurers Transfer the Risk to You

The typical deductible for standard homeowners insurance policies ranges from $500 to $1,500. But when it comes to claims from severe weather events such as hurricanes, wind, and hail you may be responsible for paying up to 5 percent of your home's insured value to cover damage expenses (up to 10 percent in Florida).

So if your home is insured for $235,000 (the November, 2016 median home price) and your policy has a 5 percent deductible for hurricanes, you'll have to pay $11,750 out-of-pocket on a storm-related claim.

Many insurers have abandoned hurricane-prone areas altogether and they are using contract language to avoid paying other kinds of claims. For example, even if you've got hail coverage, if your roof is more than 10 or 15 years old, it might be excluded. Or even if you have a standard homeowners policy that covers an overflowing bathtub or a burst water pipe plus flood insurance, you're still out of luck unless you pay $40 to $50 a year more for a specific endorsement covering that.

Unfortunately, many consumers shop for home insurance once and then forget about it. Home-loss claims are uncommon to begin with, and half of all losses are $8,000 or less. That means consumers don't develop much expertise shopping for this product and rarely get a chance to "test" firsthand how it performs. That's exactly why our ratings are based on our subscribers' claim-filing experience.

To refresh your knowledge, read on, and be sure to also visit our Insurance Center for ways to save money on other types of insurance.

Outdated assumptions about your coverage can cost you a bundle. Here are some guidelines to help you get the right coverage for your home and budget:

2

Get the Right Coverage

The best test of an insurer is how well it handles claims. Some major insurers provided significantly better satisfaction when it comes to handling claims than others. The single best predictor of how satisfied customers were was based on the company's damage estimates. Lower-rated insurers tended to have a greater percentage of customers who disagreed with their damage estimates and felt their final settlement was too small.

See our Homeowner Insurance Ratings for details on the top-rated homeowners insurance companies.

3

Fight for Your Claim

Don't be afraid to make a small claim. According to our subscribers, 57 percent suffered no price hike after making a claim if their claim was for less than $5,000. Of those who did see an increase, on average premiums rose less than $150 per year.

For claims of all sizes, in most cases our survey respondents had no argument with their insurer. But in 6 percent of cases, customers and insurers failed to see eye to eye on damage amounts. Disputes also tend to be more common after major hurricanes, our 2011 survey found.

In such cases it can pay for you to negotiate with your insurer. Our 2011 survey found that among readers who were unhappy with a claim, those who challenged it got a payout that was about $6,000 more, on average, than those who didn't.

If the adjuster says your policy doesn't cover certain damage, ask to see the specific contract language.

If the dispute is over the damage amount, request a sit-down with the contractor and adjuster to go over the estimate line by line, which is standard practice at Amica.

Still disagree? Get a second opinion from an independent contractor. Patience, persistence, and legwork getting multiple estimates are important.

If you reach an impasse, consider a public adjuster, who will negotiate for you for a fee of up to 10 to 25 percent of the payout, depending on state limits and whether the claim is related to a declared emergency.

A 2010 study of 76,000 claims, by the Florida legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, suggests that the cost of a public adjuster can be money well spent: Policyholders who used a public adjuster settled with their insurance company for 19 to 747 percent more on hurricane-related catastrophe claims vs. those who didn't, and 574 percent more for non-catastrophe claims. But such cases take longer to close. Among our survey respondents who had a claim-related disagreement with their insurer, 10 percent hired their own adjuster to negotiate a resolution.  

To find a public adjuster, go to napia.com, the website of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters, and click on "Find an adjuster." Look for good references, several years' experience, and a state license, if required.

If you've been misled by an insurance salesperson about policy wording, contact a lawyer who specializes in insurance law. Lawsuits were rare among our subscribers, but the Consumer Federation of America notes that courts have consistently ruled in favor of policyholders on such ambiguities. Arbitration is another option.

4

Look for a Better Deal

Home insurance is not as price-competitive as auto insurance, but you can still save hundreds to more than $1,000 a year in premiums by shopping around. About nine percent of our survey respondents had switched insurers in the previous three years, mostly because they got a better price from their new carrier.

Residents of California, Florida, and other states whose insurance departments publish rate comparisons for standardized coverage can zero in on the lowest-priced insurers and then contact them for custom quotes. If your state doesn't offer such guidance, contact an independent agent who sells insurance from multiple carriers. To find one, go to iiaba.net, the website of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. You can also use online shopping sites such as Insure.com, NetQuote.com, and SelectQuote.com.

While shopping for a cheaper insurer, consider buying your homeowners and auto coverage from the same company for as much as a 30 percent savings.

And be aware that most insurers use credit-based insurance scores to set premiums and eligibility for coverage. In general, the better your credit score, the lower your premium. Unfortunately, 74 percent of our survey respondents said their insurer never told them that their credit score would be used to set their premium. Among those whose insurer did tell, 66 percent said they were not told how much more or less their premium was because of their score.

5

Don't Underinsure

You can also save by avoiding out-of-pocket costs arising from coverage that's inadequate to begin with. Eight percent of subscribers who filed claims found themselves underinsured. That problem is much bigger when a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or earthquake makes a home a total loss.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that your coverage limits will automatically adjust to your home's rising or falling market price. Fact is, replacement value, or the cost of labor and materials required to rebuild, is what you need to consider. That can be significantly higher than the market price your home will fetch.

Ask your insurer for a customized estimate of your home's replacement cost, which should take into account its unique features, construction details, age, and any costs of meeting new local building-code requirements. You should review your coverage needs every few years.

Even if your coverage level is correct, a standard homeowners policy still leaves you insufficiently protected. If you want to protect against the surge in material and labor prices that often follow a natural disaster, you'll have to buy an "extended coverage" rider, which adds up to another 30 percent to your replacement-value limit.

You'll also pay extra for an ordinance or law endorsement rider to pay any extra cost of rebuilding your house in compliance with local building codes. Coverage for a sewer backup is also not included in a standard policy, but you can pay extra for it. To avoid paying out of pocket for damage, you’ll need additional policies for flooding and earthquakes. Also, you may need separate policies for hurricanes, wind, and hail if you live in a high-risk zone.

Coverage for your furniture, electronics, clothing, and other belongings is standard, but if you have expensive furs, jewelry, silverware, or artwork, they're subject to coverage limits. You'll need to purchase a special endorsement or floater to cover their full value.

Liability protection for visitors injured in your home or for damage that you, your children, or your pets cause to others is also standard. Coverage usually starts low, at $100,000; increase it to at least $300,000. The more assets you own, the more advisable it is for you to buy an umbrella or excess-liability policy with coverage of $1 million or more.

Of course, all those add-ons increase your total premium, but you can offset part of the cost by raising your deductible to $500 or $1,000, which reduces the premium. Make sure you have sufficient savings to cover the deductible if your luck runs out–and that includes the higher deductibles for hail, wind, and hurricanes.

6

Reduce Your Risks

Losses beget out-of-pocket expenses and 29 percent of the time, higher premiums. So nip them in the bud by reducing your risks.

• Start by doing what insurers explicitly give discounts for. Smoke detectors, burglar alarms, and dead-bolt locks can be worth a 5 percent premium discount. A sophisticated sprinkler system with alarms that alert first responders could get you 15 to 20 percent off.

• Impact- and fire-resistant roofing materials made of asphalt, rubber, cement, and metal can get you further discounts because they stand up better against hail, debris, and embers—the primary cause of damage from wildfires. Noncombustible siding provides increased protection.

• In hurricane-prone areas, storm shutters for doors and windows, hurricane-resistant siding, and a code-standard roof that can withstand winds up to 130 mph will help your home withstand a storm. Fortified homes can sustain a Category 4 hurricane.

• Fire, lightning, and debris removal lead to the highest claims of all insured perils—$27,700 per claim on average, our 2011 survey found. Cooking equipment is the leading cause of home fires, so never leave a stove unattended and keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

• In earthquake-prone areas, make sure your home's building frame is properly bolted to its foundation. For more information on reducing risks from earthquakes, freezing weather, lightning, wildfires, and more, go to the website of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, at disastersafety.org.

• Insurers recommend a simple fix to help prevent a minor disaster that can cause thousands of dollars in water damage if it happens when no one is home: Replace the standard rubber hoses that come with your washing machine with steel-braided reinforced hoses. The cost is about $20. 

7

See Our Homeowners Insurance Ratings

Our homeowners insurance findings reflect our readers' experiences, not necessarily those of the general population. The reader score reflects overall satisfaction with homeowners insurance and isn't limited to the factors listed under survey results. Ratings for companies within a group might vary.

Each rating category under Survey Results—ease of reaching an agent, simplicity of the process, prompt response and attentiveness, damage estimate, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely paymentreflects average scores on our 6-point satisfaction scale ranging from “completely satisfied” to “completely dissatisfied.” 

Allstate, the nation’s 2nd-largest home insurer, ranked in the second tier of our ratings. Fourteen percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” slightly above the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
American Family, the nation’s 8th-largest home insurer, ranked in the second tier of our ratings. Thirteen percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” higher than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Amica was one of five top-rated home insurers, which also earned top scores across-the-board for ease of reaching an agent, simplicity of the claims process, prompt response and attentiveness, damage estimate, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely payment. Only four percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing and the best among 15 insurers on this measure. This Rhode Island-based mutual insurance company, which sells homeowners, renters, and condo insurance in 48 states (not Alaska or Hawaii), has also demonstrated impressive consistency: Amica received the highest score in our chart in all eight home insurance rating surveys we've conducted since 1989.
Auto Club Group ranked in the third tier of our ratings. Thirteen percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” higher than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Auto-Owners was one of five top-rated home insurers. It also earned top scores for ease of reaching an agent and agent courtesy and professionalism. Only seven percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Erie, the nation’s 10th-largest home insurer, was one of five top-rated home insurers. It also earned top scores across-the-board for ease of reaching an agent, simplicity of the claims process, prompt response and attentiveness, damage estimate, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely payment. Only seven percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Farmers, the nation’s 4th-largest home insurer, ranked in the second tier of our ratings. Twelve percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Hartford ranked in the second tier of our ratings. It also earned top scores for ease of reaching an agent, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely payment. Nine percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” which was the average for all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Liberty Mutual, the nation’s 3rd-largest home insurer, ranked in the second tier of our ratings. Eleven percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” higher than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Metlife was one of five top-rated home insurers. It also earned top scores for ease of reaching an agent, prompt response and attentiveness, damage estimate, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely payment. Only seven percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Nationwide, the 7th-largest home insurer in the U.S., ranked in the second tier of our ratings. It also earned top scores for ease of reaching an agent, prompt response and attentiveness, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely payment. Only seven percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
State Auto ranked in the third tier of our ratings. Sixteen percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” the highest of all the home insurers we compared.
State Farm, the nation’s biggest home insurer and the carrier most-used by our subscribers, ranked in the second tier of our ratings. Eleven percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” slightly above the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing.
Travelers, the nation’s 6th-largest home insurer, ranked in the second tier of our ratings. Nine percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” which was the average for all survey respondents who said the same thing.
USAA was one of five top-rated home insurers. This 5th-largest U.S. home insurer also earned top scores across-the-board for ease or reaching an agent, simplicity of the claims process, prompt response and attentiveness, damage estimate, agent courtesy and professionalism, and timely payment. Only five percent of claimants said the amount paid by this carrier was “less than expected,” better than the nine percent of all survey respondents who said the same thing and second-best among 15 insurers on this measure. This San Antonio, Tex., based insurer has also demonstrated impressive consistency: USAA was among the highest scorers in seven of eight home insurance surveys we've conducted since 1989. To be eligible for coverage, you must be among the 60 million people who are members of the U.S. military, honorably discharged veterans, or the descendants of USAA policyholders.
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