Few people actually look forward to filing homeowners insurance claims. The process isn’t always smooth, and if you are filing, it’s likely because some sort of damage occurred to your home. According to the Insurance Information Institute, about one in 20 homeowners (5.3 percent, to be exact) filed an insurance claim in 2014. In an effort to not swear in a family-friendly blog post, let’s just say that you-know-what happens, and when it does, knowing your homeowners insurance policy will back you up is comforting.
However, that comfort doesn’t make the process any simpler. But don’t worry: With some due diligence and a lot of deep breaths, you’ll get through your claim and repair your home. Here are six steps to follow when going through the homeowners insurance claim process:
1. Eyeball the damage and take pictures
For damage to the exterior of your home, it’s likely that you will be filing a homeowners insurance claim after a weather event, such as wind blowing off shingles or a tree branch slamming onto your roof (fortunately, we don’t get many earthquakes here in the DMV, the 2011 temblor notwithstanding). Once the wind dies down—and we can’t stress this enough: Do not go outside while a wicked storm is in progress and definitely don’t climb a ladder—go outside and look at the damage. Although some damage, particularly with your roof, may not be visible to the naked eye (and from ground level), you should get a decent idea if a homeowners insurance claim is in your future. Take plenty of pictures that you can share with your insurance company and any contractors you might call out to look at the damage. And if anything needs immediate attention and you can safely make a temporary repair (e.g., boarding up a broken window), proceed with it so that your home doesn’t suffer additional damage.
2. Call your insurance company
Your next step is to contact your insurance agent or company, preferably as soon as possible after the damaging event. Describe the damage as thoroughly as you can and offer to send pictures to further illustrate the damage. Although you may not file a claim right away (and might not at all, depending on the extent of the damage and on your deductible), contacting your insurance company right away at least gets the process started.
3. Get a contractor’s estimate
Calling contractors to inspect the damage and provide an estimate before an adjuster is sent out is a smart strategy. For starters, a trustworthy contractor can better determine the extent of the damage unseen from ground level. An estimate also gives you an idea if you are going to reach your deductible. Moreover, having multiple estimates in hand will give you something to work with if your insurance company—or the contractor it insists you use (if your policy requires that)—undervalues your claim.
4. Document everything
We’ve already suggested taking copious pictures of the damage to your home. Don’t let the documentation stop there. Take detailed notes from every call and interaction you have with your insurance company. Save receipts that resulted from the damage—anything from the materials you needed to make temporary repairs to the hotel you stayed at because that hole in your roof drove you out for a few days. And read through your policy to see exactly what’s covered and not covered.
5. Be there when the adjuster is there
After you file a homeowners insurance claim, an adjuster may be sent out to your home to inspect the damage on behalf of the insurance company en route to disbursing your claim. Though you technically might not need to be home when the adjuster visits, you should absolutely be there, asking questions, pointing out damage, and being an advocate for getting as much as you can from your claim. Many adjusters are thorough, professional, and compassionate, but even so, their bottom-line interest is to their employer and not your home. Be active in the process and take more notes during the adjuster’s visit to eliminate any gray areas.
6. Be ready to negotiate
Ideally, the insurance company will disburse funds that cover all the damage to your home (within your policy’s limits, of course). If not, be prepared to negotiate. This is where all the documentation, notes, and estimates will help. Most insurance companies, hoping you take the first offer they hand you, are willing to negotiate if you have a valid complaint. Be resolute and, if necessary, consider hiring a third-party claims adjuster to provide an unbiased (and hopefully fairer) report.
Finally, consider these two bits of advice when dealing with the homeowners insurance claim process. First, know your policy inside out. Arguing for a brand-new roof, for example, is going to be difficult if your policy will only cover a prorated cost for an older, damaged roof. Second, if you can choose your own contractor for repairs, work with one that has an excellent track record and experience dealing with insurance claims. You want a professional you can trust to get the job done right after the you-know-what hits the fan.