Homeowner insurance buying guide


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, according to our survey of 11,250 subscribers who filed claims in the last few years.

The greater the damages, the greater the likelihood that home insurers paid less than expected, our survey found. Overall, almost 10 percent of respondents reported disagreements with their insurer over the amount of a claim payment. But when damage was $25,000 or more, 19 percent disagreed with their insurer's assessment of what was due. That was more than three times the disagreement rate for claims worth less than $2,500. Among those in the higher-damage group who disputed estimates, insurers paid a median of $7,000 (or 20 percent) less than the claimed loss, leaving the policyholders less satisfied.

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Insurers have transferred the risk of damage from severe weather events to policyholders through higher deductibles on claims stemming from hurricanes, wind, and hail. Instead of the typical $250 to $1,000 deductible under standard coverage, you may have to pay 1 to 5 percent of your home's insured value (up to 10 percent in Florida). So if your home is insured for $200,000 and your policy has a 3 percent deductible for hurricanes, you'll have to pay $6,000 out-of-pocket on a storm-related claim. Many insurers have abandoned hurricane-prone areas.

Insurers are also using contract language to avoid paying claims. For example, got hail coverage? Great. But if your roof is more than 10 or 15 years old, hail damage might be excluded. And even if you have a standard homeowner's policy that covers an overflowing bathtub or burst or frozen water pipe plus flood insurance, you're still out of luck if your sump pump can't handle a monster downpour or if the sewer backs up -- unless you pay $40 to $50 a year more for a specific endorsement covering that.

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At the same time, premiums have increased by 5 to 10 percent annually in recent years, depending on the region, and hikes of up to 12 percent are coming this year, industry sources say.

You might not even be aware of the erosion in coverage until you file a claim. The average homeowner files a claim only once every 6 years, and many policyholders don't read the disclosures, renewal contracts, and updates that insurers send them.

Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.
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