Homeowner's Insurance Guide: A Beginner's Overview
Homeowner's insurance (also known as home insurance) isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. And not just because it protects your home and possessions against damage or theft. Virtually all mortgage companies require borrowers to have insurance coverage for the full or fair value of a property (usually the purchase price) and won't make a loan or finance a residential real estate transaction without proof of it.
You don't even have to own your home to need insurance; many landlords require their tenants to have renter's insurance coverage. But whether it's required or not, it's smart to have this kind of protection anyway. We'll walk you through the basics of this type of policy.
What a Homeowner's Policy Provides
The elements of a standard homeowner's insurance policy provide that the insurer will cover costs related to:
Damage to the interior or exterior of your house – In the event of damage due to fire, hurricanes, lightning, vandalism or other covered disasters, your insurer will compensate you so your house can be repaired or even completely rebuilt. Damage from floods, earthquakes and poor home maintenance is generally not covered and you may require separate riders if want that type of protection. Freestanding garages, sheds or other structures on the property may also need to be covered separately using the same guidelines as for the main house.
For example, a woman wanting to insure her diamond engagement ring would obtain an endorsement to her homeowners' policy in order to prove not only that she owned the ring, but also its value. She would do this by obtaining a formal appraisal of the ring from a jeweler and sending the appraisal to the insurance carrier for special notation on the insurance contract. Formal endorsements such as these will help in the claims process and ensure the homeowner gets the full dollar value of the item if it is lost, stolen or damaged in a disaster. Typical items that are endorsed in addition to jewelry include furs, art works, antiques and collectibles. (For related reading, see: 6 Types of Insurance Coverage You Didn't Think You Needed.)
Personal liability for damage or injuries caused by you or your family – Liability coverage protects you from lawsuits filed by others. This clause even includes your pets! So, if your dog bites your neighbor, Doris, no matter if the bite occurs at your place or hers, your insurer will pay her medical expenses. Or, if your kid breaks her Ming vase, you can file a claim to reimburse her. And if Doris slips on the broken vase pieces and successfully sues for pain and suffering or lost wages, you'll be covered for that, too, just as if someone had been injured on your property. (Note: Off-premises coverage often doesn't apply for those with renter's insurance.) While policies can offer as little as $100,000 of coverage, experts recommend having at least $300,000 worth of coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute. For extra protection, a few hundred dollars more in premiums can buy you an extra $1 million or more through an umbrella policy.
Hotel or house rental while your home is being rebuilt or repaired – It's unlikely, but if you do find yourself in this situation, it will undoubtedly be the best coverage you ever purchased. This part of insurance coverage, known as additional living expenses (ALE), would reimburse you for the rent, hotel room, restaurant meals and other incidental costs you incur while waiting for your home to become habitable again. Before you book a suite at the Ritz-Carlton and order caviar from room service, however, keep in mind that policies impose strict daily and total limits. Of course, you can expand those daily limits if you're willing to pay more in coverage.
Different Types of Coverage
All insurance is definitely not created equal. The least costly homeowner's insurance will likely give you the least amount of coverage, and vice versa.
In the U.S. there are several forms of homeowner's insurance that have become standardized in the industry; they are designated HO-1 through HO-8 and offer various levels of protection depending on the needs of the homeowner and the type of residence being covered. (For related reading, see: With HO5 Insurance, You're in Charge.)
There are essentially three levels of coverage:
- Actual cash value – This value covers the house plus the value of your belongings after deducting depreciation (i.e., how much the items are currently worth, not how much you paid for them).
- Replacement cost – This is the actual cash value without the deduction for depreciation, so you would be able to repair or rebuild your home up to the original value.
- Guaranteed (or extended) replacement cost/value – The most comprehensive, this inflation-buffer policy pays for whatever it costs to repair or rebuild your home—even if it's more than your policy limit. Certain insurers offer extended replacement, meaning it offers more coverage than you purchased, but there is a ceiling; typically, it is 20–25% higher than the limit. Some advisors feel all homeowners should buy guaranteed replacement value policies if they plan to stay in a home for any length of time. Because you don't need just enough insurance to cover the value of your home, you need enough insurance to rebuild your home, preferably at current prices (which probably will have risen since you purchased or built). According to Adam Johnson at QuoteWizard.com, “Often shoppers make the mistake of insuring [a house just] enough to cover the mortgage, but that usually equates to 90% of your home's value. Due to a fluctuating market, it's always a good idea to get coverage for more than your home is worth." Guaranteed replacement value policies will absorb the increased replacement costs and provide the homeowner with a cushion if construction prices increase.
What Isn't Covered?
While homeowner's insurance covers most scenarios where loss could occur, some events are typically excluded from policies, namely natural disasters or other "acts of God," and acts of war. (for related reading, see: Homeowner Insurance Gaps to Watch out for.)
What if you live in a flood or hurricane area? Or an area with a history of earthquakes? You'll want riders for these, or an extra policy for earthquake insurance or flood insurance. There’s also sewer and drain backup coverage you can add on, and even identity recovery coverage that reimburses you for expenses related to being a victim of identity theft.
How Are Rates Determined?
So what's the driving force behind rates? According to Noah J. Bank, a licensed insurance broker with The B&G Group, Inc. in Plainview, NY, it's the likelihood a homeowner will file a claim—the insurer's perceived "risk." And to determine risk, home insurance companies give significant consideration to past home insurance claims submitted by the homeowner as well as claims related to that property and the homeowner’s credit. “Claim frequency and severity of the claim play a considerable role is determining rates, especially if there's more than one claim relating to the same issue like water damage, wind storms, etc.,” says Bank. (For related reading, see: How Are Home Insurance Rates Determined?)
While insurers are there to pay claims, they're also in it to make money. Insuring a home that has had multiple claims in the past three to seven years, even if a previous owner filed the claim, can bump your home insurance premium into a higher pricing tier. You may not even be eligible for home insurance based on the number of recent past claims filed, says Bank.
Neighborhood, crime rate and building material availability will all play a part in determining rates, too. And of course, coverage options like deductibles or added riders for art, wine, jewelry, etc., and the coverage amount desired also factor into the size of an annual premium.
“Pricing and eligibility for home insurance can also vary depending on an insurer’s appetite for certain building construction, roof type, condition or age of the home, heating type (if an oil tank is on premise or underground), the proximity to the coast, swimming pool, trampoline, security systems and more,” says Bank.
Depending on the breed, man’s best friend residing at your home can also raise your home insurance rates, says Billy Van Jura, owner, Birchyard LLC, an insurance planning firm and brokerage in Poughkeepsie, NY. “The condition of your home could also reduce a home insurance company’s interest in providing coverage,” says Van Jura. “A home that’s not well-maintained increases the odds the insurer will pay on a claim for damage.”
Cost-Cutting Insurance Tips
1) Maintain a security system and alarms: A burglar alarm monitored by a central station or tied directly to a local police station will help lower the homeowner's annual premiums, perhaps by 5% or more. In order to obtain the discount, the homeowner must typically provide proof of central monitoring in the form of a bill or a contract to the insurance company.
Smoke alarms are another biggie. While standard in most modern houses, installing them in older homes can save the homeowner 10% or more in annual premiums. CO2 detectors, dead-bolt locks, sprinkler systems and in some cases even weatherproofing can also help.
2) Raise your deductible: Like health insurance or car insurance, the higher the deductible the homeowner chooses, the lower the annual premiums. However, the problem with selecting a high deductible is smaller claims/problems such as broken windows or damaged sheetrock from a leaky pipe, which typically will cost only a few hundred dollars to fix, will most likely be absorbed by the homeowner.
3) Look for multiple policy discounts: Many insurance companies give a discount of 10% or more to customers who maintain other insurance contracts under the same roof (such as auto or health insurance). Consider obtaining a quote for other types of insurance from the same company that provides your homeowner's insurance. You may end up saving on two premiums.
4) Plan ahead for construction: If the homeowner plans to build an addition to the home or another structure adjacent to the home, he or she should consider the materials that will be used. Typically, wood-framed structures (because they are highly flammable) will cost more to insure. Conversely, cement- or steel-framed structures will cost less because it is less likely to succumb to fire or adverse weather conditions.
Another thing most homeowners should, but often don't, consider is the insurance costs associated with building a swimming pool. In fact, items such as pools and/or other potentially injurious devices (like trampolines) can drive annual homeowner's insurance costs up by 10% or more. (For related reading, see: 6 Ways to Save on Insurance.)
5) Pay off your mortgage: Obviously this is easier said than done, but homeowners that own their residences outright will most likely see their premiums drop. Why? The insurance company figures if a place is 100% yours, you'll take better care of it.
6) Make regular policy reviews and comparisons: No matter what initial price you're quoted, you'll want to do a little comparison shopping, including checking for group coverage options through credit or trade unions, employers, or association memberships. And even after purchasing a policy, investors should, at least once per year, compare the costs of other insurance policies to their own. In addition, they should review their existing policy and make note of any changes that might have occurred that could lower their premiums. For example, perhaps you have disassembled the trampoline, paid off the mortgage, installed a burglar alarm or installed a sophisticated sprinkler system. If this is the case, simply notifying the insurance company of the change(s) and providing proof in the form of pictures and/or receipts could significantly lower insurance premiums. “Some companies have credits for complete upgrades to plumbing, electric, heat and roof,” says Van Jura.
Loyalty often pays, too. The longer you stay with some companies, the lower your premium can become, or the lower your deductible will be.
To know if you have enough coverage to replace your possessions, make periodic assessments of your most valuable items, too. According to John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada.com, “Many consumers are under-insured with the contents portion of their policy, because they have not done a home inventory and added the total value to compare with what the policy is covering.”
Look for changes in the neighborhood that could reduce rates as well. For example, the installation of a fire hydrant within 100 feet of the home, or the erection of a fire substation within close proximity to the property may lower premiums.
How to Compare Home Insurance Companies
Before you sign on the dotted line, here's a checklist of search tips.
1. Compare statewide costs and insurers
When it comes to insurance, you want to make sure you are going with a provider that is legitimate and credit worthy. Your first step should be to visit your state’s Department of Insurance website to learn the rating for each home insurance company licensed to conduct business in your state, as well as any consumer complaints lodged against the insurance company. The site should also provide a typical average cost of home insurance in different counties and cities.
These will help you determine which carriers you want to compare.
2. Do a company health check
Investigate home insurance companies you’re considering via their scores on the websites of the top credit agencies (such as A.M. Best, Moody's, J.D. Power, Standard & Poor's) and those of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and Weiss Research. These sites track consumer complaints against the companies as well as general customer feedback, the processing of claims and other data. In some instances, these websites also rate a home insurance company's financial health to determine whether the company is able to pay out policies in the event you need to file a claim.
3. Look at claims response
Following a large loss, the burden of paying out-of-pocket to repair your home and waiting for reimbursement from your insurer could place your family in a difficult financial position. A number of the insurers are outsourcing core functions including the handling of claims.
Before purchasing a policy, find out whether licensed adjusters or third-party call centers will be receiving and handling your claims calls. “Your agent should be able to provide feedback on his or her experience with a carrier, as well as its market reputation,” says Mark Galante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at the PURE Group of Insurance Companies. “Look for a carrier with a proven track record of fair, timely settlements and make sure to understand your insurer’s stance on holdback provisions, which is when an insurance company holds back a portion of their payment until a homeowner can prove that they started repairs.”
4. Current Policyholder Satisfaction
Every company will say they have good claims service. However, cut through the clutter by asking your agent or a company representative what percentage of policyholders renews each year. Called the insurer’s retention rate, many companies report retention rates between 80% and 90%. You can also find satisfaction information in annual reports, online reviews and good old-fashioned testimonials from people you trust. (For related reading, see: Who are the best rated home insurance companies in the U.S.?)
5. Get multiple quotes
“Obtaining multiple quotes is important when looking for any type of insurance; however, it is especially important for homeowner's insurance since coverage needs can vary so much," says Eric Stauffer, president, ExpertInsuranceReviews.com. "Comparing several companies will yield the best overall results."
How many quotes should you get? According Sarah Brown, insurance expert at Obrella.com, “Contact five or more companies so that you know what people are offering and you have leverage in negotiations. But before collecting quotes from other companies, request a price from insurers you already have a relationship with. As previously mentioned, in many instances, a carrier you’re already doing business with (for your auto, boat, etc.) may offer better rates because you're an existing customer.
Some companies provide a special discount for seniors or for people who work from home. The rationale is both these groups tend to be on premises more often—leaving the house less prone to burglary.
6. Look beyond price
The annual premium is often what drives the choice to purchase a home insurance policy, but don't look solely at price. “No two insurers use the same policy forms and endorsements, and policy wording can be very different,” says Bank. “Even when you think you're comparing apples to apples, there's usually more to it, so you need to compare coverages and limits.”
7. Talk to a real person
Stauffer feels the best way to get quotes is to go directly to the insurance companies or speak to an independent agent who deals with multiple companies, as opposed to a traditional “captive" insurance agent or financial planner who works for just one home insurance company. Bear in mind, though, “a broker licensed to sell for multiple companies often attaches their own fees to policies and policy renewals. This could cost hundreds extra a year simply by using them over a captive agent,” he notes.
Bank urges consumers to ask questions that give them a detailed sense of their options: “You want to consider different deductible scenarios to best weigh if it makes sense to opt for a higher deductible and self-insure,” he says.