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How to File a Homeowners Insurance Claim (After a Loss)

If you have a mortgage, it’s very likely you also have an active homeowners insurance policy. Virtually all mortgage lenders require borrowers to carry home insurance, which helps protect the value of their investment — and yours.

You might not think much about your policy. The typical homeowner goes many years without filing a home insurance claim and some never have to. But it’s nice to know your policy is there when disaster strikes.

But insurance companies don’t just send you money when something goes wrong. That’s why it’s important to know what you should expect if and when the time comes to file a claim.

How to File a Homeowners Insurance Claim

Homeowners file home insurance claims for all sorts of reasons, from physical damage caused by storms or fires to monetary losses caused by theft or burglary to injuries sustained by guests on the premises. 

The details of the claims process depend on what happened along with factors specific to the property insurance company. But if you follow this step-by-step guide, you can easily file and manage a homeowners insurance claim. 

1. File a Police Report (if Applicable)

If you have reason to believe you’re the victim of a crime, file a police report as soon as you become aware of it. Common crimes involving residential property include:

  • Vandalism
  • Arson
  • Burglaries and break-ins
  • Home invasions
  • Theft of personal property

To file the report, call your local police department’s nonemergency phone number or visit its website and look for an option to report a crime online. Only if the crime is still in progress or you believe there’s an ongoing threat to your safety should you call 911.

You must provide official identification, such as a driver’s license number, and may be required to visit the police station in person. Expect to meet a police officer or detective at your home as well, as they’ll need to document the damage. Get the name and badge number of every investigator on the case — the insurance company might need this information later.

Don’t clean anything until they tell you it’s OK to do so. And don’t be surprised if it takes them a few days to get to you, especially if you live in an area where property crime is relatively common.  

Don’t file a police report if your home sustained damage in a natural disaster such as a storm, wildfire, or flood. You should only involve the police if you’re the victim of a person or group of people acting maliciously or negligently.

2. Contact the Insurance Company

Next, contact the insurance company or your insurance agent to begin the claims process. 

Most insurance companies make it easy to file straightforward claims online. Expect to work through a claims representative or your insurance agent for more complicated or high-value claims. 

If you’ve set up an online account with your insurance company, log in and look for a Claims tab or button. It should point you in the right direction — either to the digital forms you’ll need to complete or submit or to a phone number you can call to start the process.

During your initial conversation with the insurance company representative, ask:

  • Whether the claim is likely to be covered by your policy based on your description
  • For a rough estimate of the claim value
  • By when you must file the claim
  • What they need from you to process the claim, including any repair cost estimates

3. Document the Damage

If you filed a police report, ask your contact at the police department if you can use the photos and notes they took at your property. 

If you didn’t file a police report or you have trouble getting photos and detailed notes from the department, do the following:

  • Take as many photos as possible of the damage
  • Make a detailed home inventory of damaged, destroyed, or missing items
  • Write up a detailed summary of what happened to the best of your recollection

Even after documenting the damage, don’t clean anything up or make any cosmetic repairs until an insurance company representative visits the property or tells you it’s OK to tidy up. Otherwise, they might not get a complete picture of the damage and might lowball your payout.

4. Make Temporary Repairs Only if Absolutely Necessary

There are two exceptions to the don’t-clean-up rule. If either applies, make temporary repairs as soon as you’ve finished documenting the damage.

First, if the property is unsafe due to structural damage or other hazards, hire an engineer to recommend repairs and a building contractor to execute them. You might need to relocate temporarily to a hotel or short-term rental until they complete the repairs.

Second, if not repairing the damage would make it worse, do whatever’s necessary to stabilize things. For example, if your roof is open because a tree limb crashed through it, remove the limb and replace that section of the roof before the next rainstorm — or at least fit a tarp over the hole so it doesn’t leak. Any amount of water coming into your home’s living area will cause further damage and increase your total repair costs.

Keep all invoices and receipts associated with these repairs, even if you do the work yourself. You can include them with your claim and may qualify for reimbursement.

5. Submit the Claim

Next, complete your insurance claim. Fill out a proof-of-loss form — the claim form — and provide:

  • Details about what caused the loss
  • The part or parts of your home damaged if it’s not a total loss
  • An inventory of the personal property damaged, destroyed, or stolen
  • The estimated value of the loss or damage
  • The police report if you have one
  • Photos or video of the damage
  • Receipts for costs incurred before the company approved your claim, including for emergency repairs and additional living expenses

If the claim has a liability component — say, a guest or worker sustained a serious injury on the property — include additional documentation like:

  • Any medical records related to the claim, such as itemized medical bills 
  • Any legal records or correspondence related to the claim, such as letters from attorneys representing people injured on the property
  • Contact information for third parties involved in the claim, such as health care providers and lawyers

Submit everything through your insurance company’s online claims portal, by fax, or by mail. If you still owe money on your mortgage, notify your mortgage servicing company of the claim. They might want to hold the payout in escrow while your home is being repaired and could be entitled to keep a portion of it. 

6. Prepare for the Insurance Adjuster Visit

Most home insurance claims require a site visit by an insurance claims adjuster. That’s the person who confirms the damage or loss occurred, determines how extensive it is, comes up with a more precise estimate of the value, and confirms it’s covered by your policy.

If the damage is confined to a single part of the home or property and is clearly visible from the outside, you might not need to be around when the adjuster arrives. But if they need to enter your home or inspect less obvious signs of damage, you must be on-site. They might ask you to be there anyway, as there’s a good chance they’ll want to interview you in person.

Before the adjuster arrives, do the following:

  • Write your story in note form to ensure you have clear, truthful answers during the interview
  • Organize photos and videos of the damage in case the adjuster misses anything 
  • Make notes of specific damaged items or parts of the home you definitely want the adjuster to see
  • Write down any questions you have about the process so you can ask them in person

7. Get Repair Estimates

Once the adjuster confirms the damage is covered and gives you an estimate of its value, get repair estimates from local contractors. Look for contractors that:

  • Are licensed in your home state for the type of work you need done
  • Are adequately bonded and insured — ask the contractor for their insurance company’s name and call them to ensure the contractor has a paid-up policy 
  • Accept payments from home insurance companies, as your insurer might insist on paying part of the settlement directly to the contractor
  • Have good reviews from previous clients and few or no complaints with customer protection organizations like the Better Business Bureau

Get at least three quotes for each repair job. Don’t automatically go with the lowest estimate — you want the job to get done right the first time. However, ensure the total value of all repair estimates is comfortably below the estimated settlement amount your adjuster gave you. If the cost of the job increases due to hidden damage or higher-than-expected costs for labor or materials, you could end up spending more than you get from your insurer.

8. Track the Claim & Follow Up

After submitting the claim, use your insurance company’s online claim tracking tool to monitor its progress. You should be able to access this tool through your online account. If you don’t have one, now is a good time to set one up. 

Follow up with the claims department if you don’t see any progress on your claim for several weeks. Most states require insurers to approve or deny claims within a certain period after filing, typically 30 to 40 days.

Respond promptly if the insurance company contacts you by phone, email, or snail mail. They might need more information to process your claim, and failing to respond could delay processing or even result in a denial.

9. Review the Settlement Offer

If your home insurance claim is approved, your insurance company will present you with a settlement offer. This is a proposed payout based on the assessed value of the damage and the cost of repairs necessary to bring the property back to its previous condition.

If you feel the first settlement offer is fair, tell the insurance company you accept it and prepare to receive the payout. If you believe the offer is too low, you can contest it. 

Your chances of getting a higher offer will be much better if you can provide repair estimates from licensed contractors and show that the insurer’s offer isn’t enough to cover the rebuilding costs.

If the insurer continues to lowball your settlement offer, you can hire a public adjuster. This is an independent insurance adjuster whose job is getting you the best possible settlement, not saving the insurance company money. They negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf and advocate for a higher payout.

But a public adjuster doesn’t come cheap. They’ll most likely charge a percentage of the total insurance payout — typically between 15% and 30%, with the proportion declining as claim value increases. For bigger claims where the insurance company’s initial offer was insultingly low, you’ll probably recover this cost and then some. For smaller claims, hiring a public adjuster might not be worth it.

10. Receive the Payout & Make Repairs

Once you’ve accepted the settlement offer, figure out how the insurance company plans to pay it.

For simple claims that involve straightforward repairs, expect the insurance company to cut you a check or execute an electronic transfer for the full balance of the payout. It’s your responsibility to put that money toward repairs and other expenses stemming from the incident.

If your claim is larger or requires complicated repairs, you won’t receive a lump sum for the full payout. 

If you paid for temporary repairs or paid out of pocket to live somewhere else because your house was unsafe, expect a direct payment for part of the claim value. The insurer might even issue this payment before your claim is officially approved.

If you still have a mortgage, the lender is entitled to a portion of your payout. Expect them to hold their portion in an escrow account you or the repair contractor can draw on to pay for repairs as needed. If you live in a condo or co-op, your community manager or homeowners’ association may do the same.

Alternatively, your lender or homeowners association may simply review and approve the proposed settlement amount, clearing the insurance company to send it to you. If that’s the case, you won’t need to go through an escrow account.

The insurer should also send you a portion of the payout directly. You can use it to cover repair costs without going through the escrow account or getting lender approval.

Ensure you understand how the insurer plans to divide your payout and when you can expect each installment. You don’t want contractors to add late payment fees to your already-hefty repair bills or place a lien on your house because you didn’t have enough money to pay them.

What to Do If Your Homeowners Insurance Claim Is Denied

What happens if the insurance company denies your claim? You have options. 

Start by reviewing your claim and insurance policy. It’s possible you missed an exclusion in your policy that clearly rules out the type of claim you made. If that’s the case, the denial is probably legitimate, and you might not have recourse.

If your insurer sent a letter or digital message explaining why it denied your claim, read it carefully. The message should explain the company’s reasoning in plain English and offer clues as to what you can do to get the company to reconsider. If you’re unclear on anything in this letter, call the insurance company’s claims department and ask them to review your file.

If your homeowners insurance policy covers the issue that prompted the claim, it’s possible the insurer denied it because you didn’t provide clear evidence of damage or loss. More or better photos and videos of the damage or more supporting documentation related to a liability claim might be enough to get the insurer to reconsider.

Home Insurance Claim FAQs

If you still have questions about filing a home insurance claim and working through the home insurance claims process, this quick list of frequently asked questions can help.

How Long Does the Home Insurance Claims Process Take?

It depends on how complicated the claim is. Many states require home insurance companies to approve or deny claims within a certain period, often 30 to 60 days. Simple claims can take just a few days to approve.

Insurers typically make the first payment within 30 to 60 days of approving a claim. Depending on the amount of repair work required, further payments might not come for weeks or months. The last payment for a total rebuild might not come for a year or two.

Does Home Insurance Cover Temporary Living Expenses?

Yes, provided your policy specifically says they are. Look for references to “loss-of-use coverage” or “Coverage D,” depending on the insurer. 

Most policies include loss of use coverage. If you’re unsure your policy covers temporary living expenses, review your policy documents or call your insurance company to confirm. 

If you don’t have it yet and don’t want to pay out of pocket for temporary housing, consider adding it before you actually need it. Doing so will raise your premiums a bit, but you’ll be protected if your house becomes uninhabitable for a time. 

Will Filing a Claim Affect My Home Insurance Rate?

Probably. It’s possible your policy allows you a mulligan — that is, it ignores the first claim on the policy when recalculating your rates. Check your policy documents to see if you’re so fortunate.

Otherwise, expect your premium to increase after you file a claim. How much depends on the type of claim you file and your previous claims history.

Insurers are more forgiving of one-off claims and weather-related claims homeowners can’t control. They’re less forgiving of claims related to burglary, theft, and property damage caused by guests. 

They especially frown on liability claims arising from unsafe conditions at your property. In fact, it’s common for insurers to drop homeowners who file liability claims. And your premiums may increase by more for subsequent claims than for the first one made on your policy.

Can I Keep Any Leftover Payout Funds After I Make Repairs?

Often, yes. But some caveats apply:

  • Restrictions Written Into the Policy. Many home insurance policies don’t expressly prohibit homeowners from keeping unused settlement funds. But some do. If yours does, you must return the balance to the insurer once an inspector approves the repairs.
  • Contingent on Inspection. For bigger jobs, expect an adjuster to verify the work is proper and complete. If they suspect you skimped so you could pocket the payout, they may require you to do more work or simply ask for the unused funds back.
  • Funds Withheld or Held in Escrow. You’re not entitled to keep any portion of the payout held in escrow by your lender or withheld by the insurance company pending completion of repair work. If you don’t end up needing those funds, don’t expect to see them.

Final Word

Filing a home insurance claim takes time and can cause considerable frustration. However, it’s often the best way to reduce the financial burden of damage or losses caused by storms, burglars, or unruly guests. If you don’t have an umbrella insurance policy, a home insurance claim might be your best — and perhaps only — protection from a potentially ruinous lawsuit.

However, you shouldn’t file a home insurance claim lightly. Doing so is likely to raise your premiums. Depending on the type of claim, your insurer might even choose not to renew coverage. That could force you to scramble to find backup coverage, likely at a higher cost than before.

Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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