Ah, dreams. It’s easy to forget we build them with some very real materials.
Take the dream of homeownership.
Your home could be the cornerstone of your financial future, a large asset whose value will grow as time passes.
Owning a home means you can:
- borrow against the home’s value for other needs.
- sell the property and use the profit to gain footing in more valuable property.
- rent it to someone else to earn income.
Or, you can just enjoy never paying rent to anyone for the rest of your life.
These dreams depend on the real materials — the bricks, wood, shingles, glass, aluminum, vinyl — that separate your home from the rest of the world.
Left alone, materials fall apart. They turn moldy, squeaky, rusty, weedy. As a homeowner, you battle against this reality to maximize your property’s value and keep your dream growing.
But if disaster strikes, all your years of loving, regular home maintenance cannot prevent major financial losses.
Be it lightning, wind damage, fire — or even a piece of a falling space station — you’d face expensive repairs or replacement costs which could jeopardize everything you’d worked for.
Which is precisely why getting the right homeowners insurance and knowing how and when to use it matters so much.
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If you have a mortgage, your lender will require you to buy homeowners insurance.
If you’ve paid off the mortgage and own your property outright, that’s all the more reason to protect your investment with the right homeowners policy.
First Things First: What Does Homeowners Insurance Cover?
Just like auto insurance, homeowners insurance comes as a package — it offers a variety of protections for various aspects of your property.
Your homeowners’ insurance should protect:
- Your dwelling, which is a term insurers use for your actual house.
- Other buildings on your property such as a detached garage or storage building.
- Your personal property such as furniture, electronics, and appliances.
- Your liability in case someone gets injured on your property.
- Your additional living expenses in case damage to your home requires you to move out for a while.
These protections seem straightforward enough at first glance, but when buying coverage, you’ll need to make sure you know exactly what your policy covers.
So let’s take a closer look at each area of coverage.
Your dwelling itself
Naturally, your homeowners policy will cover your house itself, along with attached structures such as a garage or attached tool shed. When you think of home insurance, this coverage may first come to mind.
A typical policy will pay to repair or replace your dwelling if it’s damaged or destroyed by common perils such as:
- Vandalism and theft
- Falling objects such as tree limbs
- Damage from aircraft or other artificial falling objects
- Wind damage
- Lightning strikes
- Damage from a volcanic eruption
- Fire and smoke
- Water damage from appliances (but probably not floods; more on this later)
- Being struck by a car
- Damage from civil disruptions such as a riot
- An explosion
- Damage from the weight of snow or ice.
If these sorts of mishaps damaged or destroyed your home, you could file a claim with your homeowners policy.
Depending on your coverage amount, your deductible, and other important policy details that we’ll get into below, your insurance company would help get you back on your feet again.
Other structures on your property
Your homeowners policy includes coverage for detached buildings on your property, too, such as:
- A detached garage
- A pool house
- A storage shed
- A detached apartment
- An in-ground pool
- Even a fence.
Generally speaking, your coverage for these structures will be set as a percentage of your dwelling coverage.
If you need more than that — say you have a detached apartment behind your home — check with your insurer about increasing that aspect of your coverage.
Insurers consider stuff in your home that can be removed personal property, and your homeowners policy should protect these items, too.
It makes sense: If smoke or fire, for example, damaged your walls and roof, it would probably destroy some furniture and electronics, too.
Likewise, a thief who breaks a window probably won’t stop there. He’ll steal some of your stuff after gaining access to your home.
Of course, you’ll need to prove that you owned the personal property, so it’s important to have an up-to-date inventory.
We’ll get more into this later.
If your neighborhood postal carrier steps in a sinkhole in your front yard and sprains her knee, you could be held personally responsible for the resulting medical care or lost wages.
The same could be true if someone tripped over a loose paver or stepped on a rake during your fall barbecue.
Yes, your yard and home most likely won’t be the scene of a blooper reel, but accidents do happen, and the resulting injuries and medical bills would not be funny.
Your homeowners liability coverage should protect you from this kind of unexpected expense.
Additional living expenses
If the worst happened and you couldn’t live in your home — either because it had been damaged or destroyed — you’d need some way to pay for somewhere else to live.
Your homeowners policy should address this through Additional Living Expenses (or ALE) coverage.
Structures, liability, personal property, additional living expenses — your homeowners policy has a lot of work to do. It’s essential to set it up so it can best protect your investment.
Not all accidents result in a lawsuit. If a visitor were injured at your home and you wanted to make it right by paying the medical bills, some homeowners policies can help.
Most policies cap this kind of expense around $1,000, but you could opt for more coverage. Some insurers offer as much as $5,000 in coverage.
This coverage won’t pay for all kinds of medical expenses.
For example, if your friend caught the flu at your house and wanted your insurance to pay for the case of canned chicken soup he bought, that’s not going to happen.
It makes sense if you think about it from your insurer’s point of view: Could your friend really be certain she’d gotten the flu from your house?
Savers Beware: Scrimping on Homeowners Coverage Can Cost You!
Most of us like to save money and stretch our resources, especially on recurring expenses such as insurance.
A word of caution, though: Sacrificing homeowners coverage to ease the monthly budget can become very expensive in the long run.
If a tree limb fell through your kitchen, for example, and you didn’t have enough coverage to repair the roof, the wall, the windows, and the appliances — along with any water damage that may have also resulted — you’d need to pick up the tab after the insurance coverage stopped paying.
Talk about a budget buster!
And it could get worse: If it took two weeks to get your place up to code again, you may need to pay for a hotel or an apartment out of pocket if you didn’t have enough additional living expenses coverage in place.
This isn’t to say you should simply max out your coverage any more than you should jump at the lowest levels of coverage you can find.
Instead, you should take the smart and efficient approach: Determine your actual needs and build a coverage plan to maximize the coverages you need while spending less on coverages you won’t be relying on as much.
For example, if you live alone in a small condo with no yard and you seldom entertain guests, you might not need to max out your liability coverage.
If several of your neighbors have had break-ins, though, you may want to invest more in personal belongings coverage.
To save money while protecting your dream, customize your coverage so you’re not paying for what you don’t need.
Deductibles and Maximums: The Real Cost of Homeowners Coverage
You can also relieve some pressure on your monthly budget by opting for a higher homeowners insurance deductible.
A $2,000 deductible, for example, would give you access to premiums that are noticeably lower than a policy with a $500 deductible. Rates vary from state to state, so you’d need to get actual quotes to see how much you could save.
Before buying such a policy, though, give the decision some thought and make sure such a policy jibes with your lifestyle.
With a $2,000 deductible on property damage insurance, you’d be responsible for the first $2,000 in repairs to your home. Which is fine if you can come up with that $2,000.
If you know you couldn’t come up with the deductible, though, you may want to pay a higher premium in exchange for a lower deductible.
Meeting your deductible unlocks the coverage that your monthly premiums pay for, so if you can’t meet your deductible, your homeowners policy won’t be as useful as you seek to protect your dream.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can also save money with a policy that places a lower cap on payouts when you file a claim.
You can save a lot in premiums this way, but once again, be careful. Limiting how much your coverage will pay could put your home, and even your other property, at risk.
If you have only $50,000 in liability coverage, for example, and you own assets worth $100,000, you’d be leaving your assets unprotected.
If someone was injured in your yard and successfully sued you for damages, the court could order your other assets sold to pay for what your insurance won’t cover.
Nobody expects terrible things to happen to their property.
But bad things do happen — injuries, accidents, fires, dangerous weather.
Get a policy durable enough to help you weather the storm if the unexpected happens.
How Do You SAVE Money On Homeowners Coverage?
So far we’ve talked about how not to save money on homeowners insurance:
- Don’t opt for a higher deductible unless you can come up with the deductible.
- Don’t limit your coverage if it exposes your assets or can’t protect your investment.
Enough with the don’ts. Let’s get into how you can save on your coverage.
The Internet has made home insurance shopping — like so much else — so much easier.
Just enter your information in a quote form, like the ones you’ll find on this page — and you’ll immediately get an idea what you’d pay for coverage from a variety of insurers.
Insurance rates vary from state to state, so be sure you’re putting in your ZIP code and other required information.
And keep in mind: a quote is only as good as the information you provide the insurer.
If it turns out your home is worth $50,000 more than you thought you may need more coverage than you thought and you’ll need new quotes.
If you’re not a huge fan of shopping online, find an independent insurance agent near you — one who will help you compare quotes from a variety of insurers.
An independent agent can also guide you through the nuances of homeowners policies.
Look for discounts
Chances are you already have another kind of insurance — auto, life, etc. If you’re happy with the company you’ve been dealing with, and if your existing insurer offers homeowners coverage, you may qualify for a multiple policy discount.
Lots of insurers give their best rates to existing customers.
Multiple policy discounts aren’t the only way to save. See if your employer or professional organization offers discounts on insurance.
And check with your insurer about whether installing a security system or completing certain kinds of renovations may save you some money on premiums.
Many insurers offer discounts for:
- Not smoking
- Getting a new roof
- Paying the policy up front in full
- Having a backup power generator
- Having a new (or newer) home.
Every insurance company has a different approach, so don’t expect to find each of these at every company.
Think twice before filing a claim
Yes, you pay insurance premiums so your policy will be there when you need it. But if you file too many claims, your insurer may increase your premiums.
It sounds counterproductive, but it’s still the reality: frequent fliers in the claims department often pay higher rates.
Changing insurance companies likely won’t protect you from this reality. If you move to another state and need a different insurer, the new company may access your claims history with your old company and charge higher premiums.
Let’s be clear: If you really need help from your insurance company, by all means, file a claim.
For example, if you have thousands of dollars worth of damage to your roof because of an ice storm, you’ll want to use your policy.
Or if someone breaks in and steals $10,000 worth of furniture, technology, or appliances, use your policy.
But if your washing machine leaks and you need to replace some floor tiles, consider paying that out of pocket.
Get coverage that’s just right
If you needed a new pickup truck and never hauled anything more than your recycling or an occasional sofa for a friend, a mid-size pickup would probably do the job.
You probably wouldn’t go shopping for moving vans or tractor-trailers.
Yet that’s what happens sometimes with insurance. Shoppers opt for more coverage than they need which means they pay more than they need to.
For example, if your home could be re-built for $175,000, you might not need $350,000 in coverage for your dwelling. If you have $75,000 in assets, $200,000 in liability coverage may be more than you need.
We mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: To find great coverage at a great price, go through your policy section by section and figure out whether each kind of coverage adequately protects your investment without over-protecting it.
Think of it like a new raincoat.
You won’t stay dry in a coat three sizes too small. But if it’s three sizes too large, you can create a new set of problems.
How Do You Know How Much Coverage You Really Need?
Pickup trucks and raincoats are one thing. It’s easy to find the right sizes when you’re shopping for durable products.
Insurance is different, though, right? It’s abstract and invisible. It’s just numbers with some probably’s and maybe’s mixed in.
Yes, abstractions and variables come with the territory, but you can still determine an ideal coverage amount.
You’ll just need to interject some reality into all the hypotheticals.
Let’s go through each component of a homeowners policy to explore this question some more.
At first, this question seems simple enough. You need enough coverage to fix or replace your home in case a fire or a tornado, or some other unforeseen disaster destroys it.
But how much money would that actually take? How can you find out?
Your local real estate market can give you an idea. So can your local tax assessor’s office. Your mortgage company may have yet another number in mind.
You can get your home’s value from any of those sources, but keep in mind:
- Realtors base your assessment on comparable recent home sales in your area which may not reflect some of the nuances of your property.
- The tax assessor’s office calculates the value based on a formula so it can levy property taxes.
- Your mortgage company calculates a home’s value to avoid lending more money than the house could likely sell for.
In other words, all of these assessments have their own goals which may or may not be aligned with your goal.
So, the first question to ask yourself is this: What would be my goal if my home were destroyed?
If you wanted only to pay off your mortgage, a policy the size of your mortgage debt would suffice, and this plan would keep your lender happy.
However, this approach will not protect your investment, only your lender’s. If your policy pays only your lender, you’d be losing the equity you’d built up in the home, not to mention all the sweat equity and all the possibilities you’d dreamed of.
To protect you and your mortgage company, you’ll need a policy strong enough to rebuild your home if it were destroyed.
Your rebuilding costs would depend a lot on where you live. Construction costs vary widely from state to state since they depend on local labor and material costs, weather conditions, and local building codes.
On average, Home Advisor estimates a cost of $150 per square foot. At that rate, a 2,000-square-foot home would cost about $300,000 to build. You’d spend a lot more for custom features or a lot less if you’re building a modular home.
You can get a general idea about your local costs using a site like this one.
It’s up to you to make these decisions and get homeowners dwelling coverage that will protect your future if tragedy rears its ugly head.
After a disaster is not the time to find out you didn’t have adequate coverage.
Detached structures coverage
A standard homeowners policy will provide coverage for detached structures such as your garage, pool house, gazebo, and other non-business related buildings.
Usually, your coverage for these structures adds up to 10 percent of the coverage on your dwelling.
If you have $300,000 in coverage for your house, for example, you’d have $30,000 in coverage for detached buildings.
If you need more than this standard level of coverage, ask your insurance company about boosting this part of your policy. A lot of insurance companies call this Coverage B.
However, if you use a detached building as an office or a pottery store or a farmers market, consider getting a separate, business policy. Your homeowners policy won’t be built to protect your business, especially when it comes to liability coverage as customers come and go.
Personal property coverage
Insurers tend to calculate this part of your coverage — which covers your personal belongings such as electronics, appliances, furniture, books, musical instruments, etc. — as a percentage of your dwelling coverage.
Standard policies usually set this coverage between 20- and 50-percent of your dwelling coverage.
You may want to lean toward the higher end of the coverage scale if you buy top-of-the-line appliances or electronics which would cost more to replace.
You can save money on premiums by lowering this coverage some if you don’t own as many valuable items.
Personal belongings coverage provides some of the most versatile protection in the insurance industry. It can even protect your stuff when it’s outside your home.
Still, the coverage has some limits that you’ll want to know about:
- Jewelry: Most policies cap payouts on stolen or damaged jewelry, so if you have a lot of expensive, irreplaceable jewelry in your home, ask an agent about additional or separate coverage to protect it.
- Collectibles: Standard coverage will also put a limit on payouts for collectible items such as rare figurines or baseball cards or a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 worth $135,000 or so. You’d need to address this coverage separately.
- Named vs. Open Peril: Some policies pay on claims resulting from perils specifically named in the policy; others take the opposite approach, covering all risks not excluded in the policy. This sounds like petty semantics, but you’d discover its importance when filing a claim.
Create an inventory of your stuff
Making an inventory of your personal belongings takes time and attention to detail.
But if someone broke in and stole your computers, appliances, or stereo and TV, an inventory would make it easier for your insurance company to pay your claim. The inventory may also make it easier for police to find your belongings.
You can create an inventory in several ways. Many people still take the pencil-and-paper approach, writing down serial numbers and model numbers for their valuables. Be sure to take pictures, too.
Keep the inventory in a safe place — a fire-proof safe, a safety deposit box at your bank, or at least in a locked file cabinet or desk drawer at your office.
Sound too complicated? Now you can find smartphone apps that make the process easier. Apps can store photos, serial numbers, and descriptions on the cloud so your data won’t evaporate if the worst happens.
Liability coverage protects you financially if a visitor gets injured on your property. It’s one of the more hypothetical aspects of your homeowners coverage, which makes it harder to gauge how much coverage to buy.
Anyone who’s been in a hospital and opened the bill knows you can rack up a five-figure balance in a hurry if an accident at your home required hospitalization.
Then, consider the legal fees if you get sued. Assuming a judge finds you liable, you’d be paying the plaintiff’s legal fees as well as your own.
A standard policy usually offers up to $100,000 in liability coverage, but you can increase that amount.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Get enough liability coverage to match your personal assets.
Let’s say, for example, you have $150,000 worth of assets — whether it’s in the form of money in the bank, property you own, or investments is up to your imagination.
Let’s also say your dog is having a bad day. He bites your neighbor who came to the do