Solved! What Is Homeowners Insurance, And How Does It Work?
This critical contract protects you, your home, and your wallet.
Q: We’re buying our first home, and we were surprised to see that our mortgage company requires that we provide proof of a homeowners policy—and that we pay for it through our escrow account attached to the mortgage. We didn’t factor in this extra monthly expense! What is homeowners insurance, and why do we need it?
A: Homeowners insurance is an expense that many first-time home buyers don’t factor into their budget, and it can add a few hundred more dollars to your mortgage payment, so it’s not a minor cost. Mortgage companies usually require that homeowners carry a policy to protect their investment; after all, until you’ve paid off your loan, the house is the security the bank has against losing their money, so they want to protect the structure from harm and maintain it in good condition in case you default and they need to sell. In this regard, your policy is both homeowners insurance, in that it protects you financially, and house insurance, as it protects the longevity of the structure of the home. It’s a good idea to really understand what homeowners insurance is and what it covers so that you can shop effectively and find the right policy for you, your home, and your budget.
Homeowners insurance is a form of insurance that covers damages or losses related to the assets in your home.
Your home is one of the largest investments you’ll ever make, and once you’ve taken a mortgage, you’re tied to it until the mortgage has been paid off or you sell the home. During that period of time, you’re responsible for keeping the home in good condition through regular maintenance and occasional improvement, which are tasks you can budget and plan for. Sometimes, however, things happen that are outside your control—fires, hurricanes, tornados, thefts, rogue tree branches, errant and distracted drivers—and you find yourself in a situation where your home has sustained significant damage that will be expensive to fix. Or a postal carrier or neighbor slips on the ice in your driveway and sues you to pay for their medical bills. In most of these cases, your homeowners insurance will pay to repair the damage.
Homeowners insurance, like medical insurance, is based on your selection of coverage and is paid through premiums yearly or twice per year. If you have a mortgage, however, you’ll pay an installment each month and your mortgage company will make the payment to the insurance company. This ensures that they know your (and their) investment is protected. In the event of a covered claim, you’ll pay a deductible that is written into your contract, and the insurance will cover the rest up to the limit stipulated in your policy.
Homeowners insurance is considered a necessity.
Mortgage lenders, as a rule, will not allow their customers to go without a home insurance policy. But even if you own your home outright and don’t make mortgage payments anymore, homeowners insurance is not a place to try to save a few pennies; the colossal cost of home repair after serious damage and the potential damages you may be forced to pay after an injury on your property can range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The insurance itself, along with your deductible, is not an insignificant cost, but it pales in comparison to the debt that will mount up should there be an incident at your home.
That said, there are ways to save money through your policy selections. There are three things you can balance against each other when choosing a policy: the premium, or amount you’ll pay each year for coverage; the deductible, which is the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket per incident before your coverage kicks in; and the limit of your coverage per incident and per year. Your policy will list each of these dollar figures, and will allow you, in most cases, to select your priority. If low monthly payments are the most critical factor for you, you can select a higher deductible and a lower payout maximum, so you’re paying less for a bit less protection. If your goal is maximum coverage, you can choose higher maximums and lower deductibles, but you’ll pay more each month. In this way, you can adjust when and where you spend. To establish the best way to balance these elements, you’ll want to get a homeowners insurance quote from at least three or four companies before you make a decision.
Every homeowners insurance policy comes with a dollar amount coverage limit.
Homeowners insurance exists to protect you against financial distress in the case of significant damage to your home. It is not, however, an endless fountain of cash; your policy will list the maximum amount the insurance company will cover per event and the maximum they’ll cover per year, and some may even include a lifetime maximum. These maximums may seem like they’re so high that you don’t need to concern yourself with them, but that’s not really the case. If, for example, you have an older home with outdated electrical and plumbing systems, your town may require that each repair bring the systems up to current code, which can add thousands of dollars to the cost of the repair (there are additional coverage riders you can add on in these cases, but the maximums may still apply). Being aware of your maximum limits allows you to choose your coverage correctly for the age of your home and the degree of natural disaster threats where you live.
There are different types of coverage.
How will your homeowners insurance company decide how much your repair should cost, or how much your damaged property was worth? First, an insurance claims adjuster will visit your home. The adjuster will assess the damage, record the details, and based on their extensive knowledge on the subject, set a value on the damage. But how that value is assigned will be determined by what kind of coverage you have: actual cash value, replacement, or guaranteed replacement cost.
Actual cash value coverage will pay out the current value of items, regardless of what you initially paid. Adjusters may take the original cost of the items and subtract a percentage of depreciation (how long you’ve owned them, how much is left in their expected lifespan, and what condition they were in) to determine how much value remained in the item. Replacement cost does not subtract depreciation, so you’ll be able to repair your home or rebuild it up to its original value without deductions for age or condition. The largest payout will come from policies designated as guaranteed replacement cost, or extended replacement cost. These policies cover whatever it costs to repair or replace your home or property, and the extended replacement cost policies will cover that cost even if the total exceeds your policy’s overall limit.
Homeowners insurance rates are determined by “risk” calculation.
When you file a claim that is fully covered and your policy pays for the repair, it’s easy to think of your insurer as a benevolent protector who is saving you from financial ruin. But remember, insurance companies are businesses that exist to make money. Therefore, they are taking a chance on every homeowner they insure, hoping that each one will get through a decade of paying premiums without needing to file a claim. They assess the risk they’re taking on you based on a number of factors including the claims you’ve filed in the past (both the number of claims and their severity); past claims on your home by previous owners; the neighborhood and crime rate; the likelihood of natural disasters; and the condition, age, and structure of your home. Risk is often particularly tied to the area in which you live: Hurricane- and tornado-prone areas, along with low-lying flood plains, are particularly likely to incur large claims, so if you’re wondering “How much will home insurance near me cost?” and looking at comparisons between different companies, make sure you’ve input your location correctly, as regional differences can be significant.
You can take some steps to reduce this risk assessment and the associated cost. Monitored home security systems reduce the risk to the insurer, as they bring help to the home faster in case of fire or theft and deter thieves and vandals from striking in the first place, so most homeowners insurance companies offer a discount to customers who have them installed. Also, you can periodically assess the value of what you have in your home and make sure you’re not carrying coverage that you don’t need. For example, if you’ve sold your expensive jewelry and it’s no longer in the home, you can remove the jewelry rider from your policy and reduce the coverage that you need. In addition, you can increase your deductible or reduce the maximum coverage, which makes the risk to the company slightly less and may reduce your overall rate.
Any injury that occurs on the insured home’s premises is typically covered by the homeowners insurance.
While it’s always good to keep your pup secured away from passersby, every dog makes a break for it occasionally. If yours manages to break free and bites a delivery person, neighbor, or guest, homeowners insurance will cover their medical costs—but usually only once. After that, you’ll need to take extra care to keep your dog away from potential bite victims or cover the costs yourself. The policy will also cover kids who are injured on swing sets or playing in the house or yard as well as trips and slips by guests or passersby on icy or slippery surfaces. This coverage often limits payouts to a certain financial amount and a certain number of incidents. If a child falls off your swing set and is injured, for example, your insurance company may require you to add mulch or a landing spot or remove the set entirely to maintain coverage.
Some scenarios are not covered by homeowners insurance.
There are certain situations that are excluded from most homeowners policies or can only be covered with an additional policy added on to the main one. For example, most policies will cover the damage caused by wind, rain, and snow—but not water. Flood insurance is a separate type of policy that you may be required to add on, depending on where you live. Similarly, sewer backups are not included in standard coverage or flood riders; if you live in an area that frequently floods, you’ll want to have a backflow valve installed in your sewer line and consider adding sewer coverage to your basic policy. Sinkholes and mudslides also fall into this category, and earthquakes require a separate policy as well.
While most policies offer limited coverage of your liability for dog bites, they may not include certain dog breeds that have been classified (fairly or not) as vicious or high-risk, so if you own a pit bull, German shepherd, American Staffordshire terrier, or other large guard-type dog, check with your insurance carrier to make sure that you’re covered. Certain types of insect infestation may be excluded as well.
Homeowners insurance will not generally cover losses that result from accidents or poor workmanship during construction, or from what your company classifies as large risks, including, in some cases, trampolines, diving boards or water slides, or elaborate outdoor equipment. You’ll want to make sure that your contractors are insured themselves, and consider adding a separate liability policy if you have a lot of play equipment in your home. Finally, most carriers will not cover damage to home business equipment unless the policy covers the business itself, so if you operate your own business out of your home, check carefully to see what’s covered.
If you are, for some reason, forced to leave your home, your expenses will typically be covered.
Often damage that is covered by homeowners insurance can be repaired or corrected while you’re still living in the home. On occasion, however, this is not the case; perhaps the repair requires the removal of asbestos-covered pipes, or there’s a gaping hole in the roof. In these cases you’ll have to leave your house. For short-term absences, your homeowners insurance will cover hotel rooms, transportation, and contribute toward your food expenses. For longer repairs, your policy may even subsidize the short-term rental of an apartment.