How to file a homeowners insurance claim

Everything you need to know about filing a homeowners insurance claim and getting reimbursed what you're owed by your insurer.

Pat Howard 1600

Pat Howard

Published October 15, 2018

Homeowners insurance reimburses you when your home or personal property are damaged, burglarized, or destroyed by a peril that’s covered in your policy. In order to make use of that coverage, you need to file a homeowners insurance claim.

The claims process can be long and arduous, and your insurer may even reject your claim if they determine that the damages aren’t covered by your policy, or there’s no record of you having ownership of whatever property you’re claiming a loss. Having foresight and being prepared is crucial to filing a successful claim, and it starts with understanding what your policy covers and doesn’t cover, creating a home inventory, and understanding the claims process, which we’ll go over in the following guide:

Read on:

Create an inventory

Prior to taking out a homeowners insurance policy, you should take a detailed inventory of everything you own. Your inventory will ideally include the name of the item, a short description, its model number, and lastly how much it costs.

Having a home inventory is useful for choosing a policy that’s right for you and your coverage needs, but it’s also a crucial resource for filing a personal property damage or theft claim. Say your $1,000 record player is damaged in a bad storm or is stolen when your house gets broken into. You don’t want to replace it with just any record player, you want that exact record player. When filing a claim, your chances of getting properly reimbursed will increase dramatically if you can point to a specific model number in your home inventory.

Prior to filing a claim

If your home and personal property are damaged or burglarized, you’ll want to take a number of steps prior to calling your insurer and filling out the physical claim forms.

Call the police

If you come back to a home that was clearly robbed or vandalized, report it to the police immediately. You’ll also want to make sure that you get the names of every law enforcement officer that you spoke with about the crime, as your insurer may ask for those details and police reports are an easy way for you to validate your theft claim.

Document the damage

Your first instinct when you come back to a home that was burglarized or damaged may be to clean everything up or mitigate the damage so that you can continue to live your life as you did before. But if you want a maximum claim reimbursement, that may not be the best idea. In fact, you may be better off leaving everything in its place for the time being and use that opportunity to photograph or film the damage.

If your insurer acts quickly and sends an inspector over promptly, you could also just leave everything in its place for the inspector to examine. Nevertheless, documentation is a necessary precaution if your want a fair reimbursement for your losses.

Gather receipts and home inventory

As we discussed earlier, having a home inventory and proofs of purchase are valuable when filing a property claim, but holding onto your receipts also matters when you’re trying to be reimbursed for additional living expenses. Also known as loss-of-use coverage, this provision of your policy may reimburse you if your circumstance forces you to relocate to a hotel and live away from your home for a while.

Be sure to hold on to travel receipts if you’re forced to flee the home in the event of a natural disaster, and hold onto those hotel and restaurant receipts as well. Your home insurance company may reimburse you for those expenses.

Find your insurers contact information

This can be easily be found on your homeowners insurance policy or a quick Google search. To make a claim, the easiest way may be to just give your carrier a call, but more and more companies now have online claim-filing portals that you can use as well.

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How to file a claim

Now that you’ve gotten through to an agent, you’ll want them to clarify a few burning questions before you can get the claim-filing process underway. You should start by asking him or her:

  • Does my policy cover the loss?
  • How much time do I have to submit my claim documentation?
  • Does my loss exceed my deductible? (If the cost of damage doesn’t exceed your deductible, it may not be worth filing a claim.)
  • How long is it going to take to process my claim?
  • Do I need to get damage estimates for repairs to the home?

If the loss is covered by your policy, you’ll want to provide as many details as possible about what caused the loss (storm, burglary, fire). You may also be asked to give a brief description of the type of loss (dwelling, personal property, personal liability) so that you can be directed to the right claims department and sent paperwork that applies to the policy component you’re filing the loss under, which we’ll go over now.

Filing a claim for damage to your house or other structures

Damage to the structure of your home, garage, gardening shed, or guest house may be covered under the dwelling and other structures portions of your policy. Your dwelling coverage covers your house, while other structures coverage covers any other structures on your property.

Before filing a dwelling and other structures claim, you’ll want to make sure that any openings or damage to the structures don’t balloon into further damage. If you notice a leak, or a hole in the siding that could allow for water damage or unwanted furry guests, make temporary repairs and hold onto the receipts for those repairs. If you let any storm-induced leaks to persist and don’t take action to make repairs or limit the damage, your insurer may conclude that the damage was caused by neglect, and may not cover your claim.

You’ll also want to obtain damage and repair estimates from local contractors, roofing companies, or appraisers depending on the type and extent of the damage. Once you have proper estimates, you’ll fill out claim documents sent to you by your insurer. One such document is your proof-of-loss form, where you provide your personal information, the cause of the loss, the part of your house that was damaged, and the damage estimate.

By law, claim forms must be sent to you within a certain time-frame after your initial contact with the insurer. Once you’ve filled out the necessary paperwork, be sure to send it back to your insurer quickly to avoid delays.

Filing a claim for personal property loss or damage

Damage to your stuff inside the house, garage, or elsewhere on your property may be covered under the personal property portion of your policy.

As we suggested earlier, your first instinct will be to throw away items that were damaged by the typhoon that just destroyed your stuff, but you shouldn’t do that. Document the damage, determine which items in your inventory were included in the loss, and call your insurer to report the loss. Some insurers even allow you to upload photos and videos through their online claims portal or smartphone app.

Similar to dwelling claims, you’ll fill out a proof-of-loss form, or any documents pertaining to the loss, where you’ll list the item name, description of the item, and its value. If you replace the items on your own before filing a claim, hold on to the receipts so that your insurer can reimburse you later on.

Filing a personal liability or medical payments claim

If someone is injured in your home and sues you or requires medical care, that’s where your personal liability and medical payments coverages come into play. Personal liability coverage may reimburse you for legal expenses if someone is hurt on your premises and sues, and medical payments coverage may cover their medical expenses if they’re hurt and decide not to sue. Personal liability coverage also may cover your neighbor’s personal property if, say, your pyromaniac nephew accidentally shoots a firework at their house and causes damage to their property.

The most common personal liability claims generally result from dog bites, accidents in the home, trees falling on your neighbor’s house or vehicle, intoxicated guests wreaking havoc, and injuries to domestic workers.

If a circumstance arises that you suspect could result in a lawsuit, contact your insurer as soon as possible. Providing details like the type of accident that occurred, the contact information of the injured person, a description of injuries, and any witness information are all crucial if you’re held responsible and need to file a claim.

If it’s determined that you’re responsible for the injury and a lawsuit is filed against you, you’ll need to forward any litigation-related documents to your insurer so that they can review the incident and determine whether they’re going to accept liability for the lawsuit or not. If they accept liability, you’ll be required by your carrier to fill out a number of forms related to the lawsuit and may be required to provide evidence relating to the suit.

Filing an additional living expenses claim

If your home becomes uninhabitable after a bad storm or fire, you may need to relocate to a hotel or temporary living situation while your home is repaired or rebuilt. Your loss-of-use coverage may reimburse you for hotel fees, gas expenses, and food costs while you were away.

Be sure to ask your agent if your additional living expenses are covered, and if so, how much. If you can’t afford the expenses, ask if they’d consider sending you a check in advance to pay for everything up front. Be sure to hold onto those receipts.

Prepare for the adjuster

Your claims process may also include a visit from the insurance adjuster, particularly for large claims involving damage to the structure of your home. The adjuster’s role is to survey the damage and confirm several details before reimbursement can proceed. The inspection may include, but isn’t limited to:

  • Confirming that the cause of the loss is covered in your policy.
  • Detailed inspection of your home’s structure and any personal property that was damaged.
  • If it's a liability claim, the adjuster may contact doctors, lawyers, or anyone familiar with the claim.
  • A thorough interview with you, the policyholder.
  • Compilation of any discoveries that may prove you filed the claim fraudulently.

To that last bullet point, your claims adjuster determines how much you’ll be reimbursed for, but they’re also trained to detect fraudulent activity, so you’ll want to be honest with them. Any detection that you’re lying could result in an insurance fraud investigation and potential charges.

How to get the most from your claim

How much you get reimbursed for a claim is often dependent on how your insurance company handles the claims process, but there are some things you may have control over, like the policy’s reimbursement terms. You should also be as descriptive as possible when describing a damaged item.

Reimbursement terms

There are two types of reimbursement terms that determine how much money you get back for a loss: a replacement cost value (RCV) policy pays for a replacement of the item you lost, and an actual cash value (ACV) policy only pays you for what your item was worth after depreciation at the time it was damaged or stolen.

In order to get the most back for your personal property and ensure you’re getting properly reimbursed when you file a claim, you’ll want to consider the type of homeowners insurance policy you have. For example, it may be worth the added expense of buying a broad-form, HO5 policy that reimburses both your home and your personal property under RCV terms. HO3 policies (the most common) typically always cover your home’s structure under RCV terms, but personal property is usually covered by ACV. Look over your policy to see how your personal property is reimbursed, and if you have the option, see if your insurer will let you pay a little more to have your personal property covered under RCV terms.

Be descriptive

When filing a claim for personal property loss, or any other type of loss, it helps to be as descriptive as possible when filling out your claims. The more information you can provide about an item, the more money you’re likely to get back from you insurer.