- Be prepared to use your homeowners insurance by having an up-to-date home inventory with photos and estimates.
- The usual time frame from an event to being made whole varies widely based on the scenario—during major natural disasters, claims can take several weeks.
- You will likely see a rise in the cost of your insurance after a claim, but that too will depend on many factors.
Buying homeowners insurance is one thing, but what about when it comes time to use it? The process can seem daunting, especially because claims are usually filed under bad circumstances, such as after a fire or a burglary. And if you’re one of the 52% of customers who don’t fully understand their homeowners policy, it doubtless seems even more overwhelming.
Take a deep breath. The process may take a while to navigate but with a clear road map and solid documentation, you can easily jump through the hoops of homeowners insurance and repair your home or replace your belongings as needed. You can also take steps to make sure that if something else happens to your home, you’re in the best position to respond quickly.
Inside this article
Your guide to filing a claim
Step 1: Report the damage
The very first thing you should do once you realize your property is damaged or stolen is notify the right people. Your insurance provider should be your first call (if everyone in your home is safe and no crime has been committed).
The Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people make better decisions about insurance, recommends asking your provider the following questions when you call:
Am I covered for the event?
What is the time frame for filing a claim?
If my claim exceeds my deductible, how long will the claim take to process?
Do I need to obtain estimates for repairs?
If your claim involves a crime such as burglary or vandalism, call the police and make an official report. Get a copy of the report and contact information for any officers you speak to in case your insurer requests documentation.
Speaking of documentation, it’s a good idea to document any damage or missing items with photo or video evidence. Again, only do this if it’s safe to do so—don’t start snapping if the storm’s still raging or if there’s structural damage!
Step 2: Protect your property from further damage
After you’ve reported the damage to the right people and documented it, determine if there are urgent repairs you need to make to protect your property from further damage. This may mean putting up tarps to protect a damaged home from rain or using cardboard or plywood to close off a broken window. If you make any urgent repairs, keep the receipts and record your actions.
Tip: Don’t be shy about asking questions—your insurance professional should be happy to assist you with any issues that arise throughout the process or any questions you have ahead of time.
Step 3: Determine if you need additional living expenses
In some cases, you might need to stay somewhere else until your home is repaired. Homeowners policies generally cover additional living expenses, such as hotels and restaurants, if you’re unable to stay in your home. Again, keep all receipts for any meals or rooms you pay for while repairs are underway.
Step 4: Fill out your claim forms
As soon as you’re able, fill out your claim forms. Your insurance company should have sent over the correct forms once you informed them you’d be filing a claim. Include any photos, estimates and other information you have available. Your insurance company has laws that govern how quickly they get you the forms so the forms should arrive in a timely manner—generally within 30 days.
The time frame you’re allowed to file a claim will vary by provider, though 30 days is common. These days many insurance companies have a simple, automated claims process online that can help you file your claim as quickly as possible.
Your insurer’s next steps
After you’ve filed your claim and submitted all required documentation, it’s the insurance company’s turn to act.
Step 5: You’ll be assigned an adjuster
“You’ll be assigned an adjuster who will visit the site and collect most of the information that’s needed,” says Tim Wipert, owner of the Chicago-based insurance agency Chicago Insurance Professionals.
Step 6: The damage will be inspected
The adjuster will inspect the damage to your home and give you an estimate for repairs. The first check you receive from the insurance company won’t be the full amount, and you may receive multiple checks, especially if the damage is significant.
Step 7: You’ll receive payment
“Typically, you’ll receive a partial payment for the cost to repair, minus depreciation,” Wipert explains. “Once the work is completed and supporting documentation submitted, the balance is paid out.”
Don’t expect a check to replace personal belongings up-front. Many insurance providers require you to actually purchase replacements before they fully reimburse you.
If you had to arrange for alternate accommodations during repairs, any repayment check should be payable to you. However, some insurance companies will pay the contractors repairing your home directly. Read any contract between you and your contractor closely and make sure that you’re fully satisfied with the repairs before letting your insurance company pay the contractor.
When will you be fully reimbursed?
The time frame from you noticing the damage to all repairs being made and you being fully reimbursed widely varies.
“If an area is hit hard by hail or a tornado, there will be thousands of claims and insurance carriers will have to fly in adjusters from all over the country to handle the workload,” Wipert advises. “In those cases, it may be several weeks before you’re made whole.” On the other hand, he notes, simpler cases, like a one-off theft of a television, can be closed in a much shorter time frame.
Will my insurance cost go up after a claim?
Unfortunately, the cost of your insurance will almost certainly rise after you file a claim. In fact, research from InsuranceQuotes.com, an online insurance marketplace, found that on average a U.S. homeowners’ home insurance would rise by 9% after filing a claim.
“While your coverage cost will rise, how much depends on several factors, including previous claims, the age of the building and your credit score,” says Wipert. “Many insurance carriers offer a ‘claim free’ discount and after a claim that discount will fall off—not technically a rate change, but it will still mean a higher price for the customer.”
Tip: Remember to shop around occasionally as the insurance marketplace is highly competitive and you may qualify for a lower rate somewhere else.
Your insurance is more likely to go up if the damage is something that’s likely to occur again, such as flooding or an earthquake. On some level, insurers assume that even things like burglaries or fires are more likely to happen again if you’ve already filed a claim.
How to prepare for a claim before it occurs
While you can’t predict when you might need to file a claim, doing some prep work now can help ensure a smoother process when you do. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to keep a complete home inventory somewhere safe.
Tip: Create a video inventory by filming your possessions in such a way as to give a good impression of their value while saying as much information about the product itself as you can. For instance, you could film your couch, noting the condition as well as brand name, features, purchase date and retail price.
There are apps that can help you with the process, but it can also be done the old-fashioned way: with video and receipts or estimates, kept somewhere that won’t be damaged if your home is and preferably backed up digitally. Knowing everything that you own and its value can help streamline an already complex process that often aligns with other stressful events.
By the same token, have your most valuable items and collectibles, such as fine art or jewelry, assessed by a professional and insured separately if needed. While some things can never be replaced, proper preparation can get you as close to the replacement value as possible.
Whether you’re walking through the homeowners insurance claim process now or just trying to understand it for the future, knowing each step you’ll need to take can help you smoothly navigate a potentially confusing process. Follow this guide—and reach out directly to your insurance agent as needed—to restore your home and make yourself whole as quickly as possible.