You're a first-time homebuyer, and you've searched for the perfect house for months. The homeowner accepts your offer, and now you have to learn about a topic that might not be as fun as home-shopping, but it is vital -- home insurance.
Your mortgage lender will likely require you to carry some level of home insurance. Don't rely on the most basic coverage. Make sure that your home insurance protects you from financial disaster.
If you're buying your first home, you may have experience with condo or renters insurance. There are some similarities with home insurance, such as personal property coverage, but there's a lot more to home insurance. That's because there is a lot more to lose when you own a home.
In this guide, we will take you through what home insurance covers and give you tips, so you're a home insurance expert. By the end of this article, you should be more confident about buying your first home insurance policy.
What homeowners insurance covers
The most basic home insurance policy usually covers at least five coverage areas:
Other important information to know about homeowners insurance policies:
The dwelling portion of home insurance covers your home and attached structures, such as a garage. Home insurance will cover you if you need to file a claim for a "covered peril." Covered perils include:
- Fire and smoke damage
- Lightning strikes
- Vandalism and malicious destruction
- Damage from a vehicle
- Damage caused by the weight of snow, sleet or ice
Dwelling coverage isn't just for the physical structure. It also covers wiring, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems.
Other property insurance covers structures on your property that aren't attached to your home. Other property includes a detached garage, a shed, or a fence.
Personal property coverage
Personal property coverage, also called contents coverage, covers the property within your home, including:
You can choose replacement value or actual cash value for your personal property. Here are the differences:
- Reimbursement value reimburses you the full amount to replace items if they are stolen or damaged; actual cash value reimburses you the amount the items are worth now after years of depreciation.
- Replacement value is more expensive than actual cash value.
Let's say a burglar steals your five-year-old flat-screen TV. If you have replacement value coverage, your insurance company reimburses you the money to buy the same type of new TV. Actual cash value gives you what your five-year-old TV is worth after five years of use.
If you have expensive items, you may need a separate endorsement for valuables. You add an endorsement, also called a rider, to your insurance policy to protect valuable property. An endorsement can include jewelry, fine art, guns, and sports memorabilia.
When requesting a home insurance quote, ask whether you should add your expensive items under a separate endorsement.
Home liability insurance coverage
Liability insurance covers you for visitor injuries on your property. Liability insurance covers not only a legal settlement but also your legal fees (up to your liability limit).
According to Donald Griffin, vice president of personal lines for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCIAA), many liability insurance policies will cover you even if an incident happens away from your home.
He recommends buying an excess liability or an umbrella policy that offers coverage of $1 million beyond your home insurance and car insurance policy coverage. These policies are relatively inexpensive, often costing $200 to $300 per year.
"You don't want to lose your home because you failed to buy an insurance policy," says Griffin.
Medical payments also helps to pay for guests who are injured in your home, and you should know the difference between medical payments and liability insurance. Medical payments pays out, typically in limits of $1,000 or $5,000, for injuries regardless of who is at fault, and is for minor incidents.
Additional Living Expenses (ALE)
ALE, also known as loss of use coverage, covers you if your home is damaged and you have to live somewhere else while it's repaired. ALE coverage includes paying for hotel rooms and meals while you're displaced.
If a fire damages your home, you can make a claim for ALE coverage by submitting paperwork documenting your living expenses.
The ALE standard for most homeowner insurance policies is a benefit worth 20 percent of your home's replacement value. When you get a home insurance quote, find out if the policy specifies any limitations or exclusions on ALE.
Buy insurance for your home's replacement cost
One of the most common first-time homebuyer mistakes is: confusing a house's market value with its replacement cost. Your home insurance coverage should cover the cost of rebuilding your house.
"With an existing home, look at the replacement cost rather than the market value," says Griffin.
Going the replacement cost route is often less than what you paid for your home; if you're insuring your house for its market value, you may be over-insuring it. Over-insuring also means overpaying. You have enough fees and charges as a new homeowner -- you don't need to overpay for insurance.
Most home insurance companies use software to determine the replacement cost. The software allows them to enter your home's features and calculate the cost of replacement. Also, most policies include coverage for up to 125 percent of the replacement cost.
You don't want to overpay, but you don't want to underpay either. You might be tempted to purchase less coverage. In that case, you might take on too much risk by inadequately covering your home. Learning how to calculate your home replacement or value is important, and typically can be done by using online tools, calculating it yourself or by hiring an appraiser.
Find out what your policy doesn't cover
Read the exclusions section of your home insurance policy. Understanding what the insurance won't cover is just as important as knowing what the insurance will cover - before you have to make a claim.
You also don't want to file a claim for damage that your policy doesn't cover because it will go onto your claims record. So, in that case, you won't get reimbursement, and it could lead to higher rates because you filed a claim.
For instance, an insurance company might not provide windstorm insurance if you live near the ocean. In that case, they may exclude coverage. You can buy additional windstorm insurance if your policy does not cover you. This type of insurance has a separate deductible, in addition to home insurance.
Home insurance discounts
Home insurance companies provide dozens of discounts, and you may qualify for many of them.
Some of the most common discounts are:
- Bundling (also called multi-policy)
- Security system
- Automatic payment
Check insurance companies' websites to get a list of discounts. Do you qualify for any?
Bundling insurance policies is an easy way to save money on your insurance. Insurers give discounts if you bundle policies, which means getting multiple insurance policies from the same insurer.
You can bundle home, auto, renters, motorcycle, and some companies even offer life insurance.
When shopping for home insurance, you may have to balance discounts. You may find one insurer has a generous bundling discount, but another insurer may offer more discounts for which you qualify.
Rather than focusing on the number of discounts, ask insurance companies for full quotes. That way you can compare annual insurance premiums side by side.
How credit score influences your insurance rate
Insurers in nearly all states use credit scores as a factor when determining home insurance rates. What does credit score have to do with insurance? Insurance companies believe that a person's credit history is a glimpse into a person's risk.
In other words, insurers believe that people with poor credit are more apt to file claims.
Get a CLUE Report
Insurers base your rates on both your claims history and your home's claims history -- before you even lived there.
You should request a Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) Report for your new home to see the claims that the homeowner filed. Insurance companies are all about preventing risk. If they see that the home had multiple claims in the matter of a few years, you will pay higher rates. An insurer may even decline coverage.
Choose a homeowners insurance deductible
The deductible is what you have to pay for repairs if your insurance company approves your claim. It's your share of the repair cost.
The higher the deductible, the lower the insurance premiums. If you have a $500 deductible, you're going to pay more on your premiums than if you have a $2,000 deductible.
Going with a higher deductible will save you money. It will also reduce your home insurance claims. That’s why it’s important to know the trade-off you’re making – and be comfortable with it -- when choosing a home insurance deductible.
Let's look at an example: a pipe bursts and dumps a few gallons of water on your floor before you quickly turn off the water to your home and call a plumber.
You get an estimate and find that you will need to have the floor and ceiling repaired. It will cost about $700.
Your deductible is $1,000. In this case, you wouldn't file a claim because your deductible is more than the needed repairs.
The same goes for if the damages cost slightly more than your deductible. It's not worth filing a claim if it raises your rates, costs you more in the long run through higher premiums and it goes onto your claims record.
Home insurance doesn't cover flood damage
One of the biggest home insurance misconceptions is about flood coverage. Home insurance does not cover for flood damage.
Instead, you need to buy a separate flood insurance policy to cover you for damages caused by outside flooding. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees, runs the flood program.
Flood insurance covers:
- The structure
- Electrical and plumbing systems
- Carpeting and flooring
- Personal property, such as furniture, small appliances, rugs, clothing, furniture, and electronics
- Valuable items, such as artwork and jewelry, up to $2,500
Flood are the number one natural disaster in the United States. Mortgage lenders usually require homes in risky food areas to have flood insurance. This type of insurance is also a good idea for homes in low-to-moderate flood areas. About one-quarter of flood-related claims come from low-to-moderate flood areas.
You can see the flood map for your area by typing in your address on the FEMA Flood Map Service Center page.
One good thing about flood insurance -- you don't have to shop and compare insurer rates. You can buy flood insurance by NFIP or licensed brokers. NFIP bases the cost of flood insurance on the risk of the area and home. Regardless how you buy flood insurance, you will pay the same rates because costs vary by house -- not by the company.
Flood insurance costs on average $700 annually. But you'll pay much less (about $150) if you live in a low-to-moderate flood risk area.
Do you need earthquake insurance?
Homeowners insurance does not cover earthquake damage.
If you live in an active earthquake area, you need to get either a separate earthquake insurance policy or a home insurance endorsement.
You can buy earthquake insurance from private insurance companies. California also has policies through the California Earthquake Authority (CEA).
Earthquake insurance covers:
- Damage to your home and attached structures
- Personal property, such as furniture, clothing, and electronics
- Additional living expenses (ALE)
Earthquake insurance has a separate deductible. The deductible is a percentage of the value of your dwelling and personal belongings. Earthquake deductibles are not a dollar amount like regular home insurance policies.
Earthquake deductibles can range between 2 and 20 percent of your dwelling coverage limit depending on risk.
Much like home insurance, earthquake insurance costs vary greatly by company and state. It's a good idea to get at least three earthquake insurance quotes from insurance companies.
Only go with trusted insurers
You want to make sure you're comfortable with whichever insurance company you choose.
Just because one insurer will give you the best rates doesn't mean that's the one for you.
Griffin reminds new homeowners that it is important to choose a financially stable insurance company. Financial strength ratings are available from A.M. Best, for example.
"Remember," he says, "you are buying a promise from that insurance company that they will be around when you need to make a claim."
Shopping for home insurance
Before getting home insurance quotes, you'll need to answer these questions:
- What is your deductible? The higher the deductible, the lower the premium. But you will want to be able to afford the deductible if you have to file a claim.
- Do you want replacement cost or actual cost value for your contents insurance?
- What is the claims history for your new home?
- Should you bundle your policies? What other discounts could you get?
- Do you need an insurance endorsement for expensive items?
- Do you need umbrella insurance?
- Should you get flood insurance?
Once you get the answers to those questions, it's time to shop. Don't just go with your car insurance company or your family's insurer. You can start there, but get quotes from at least three insurance companies.
Compare quotes. Investigate each company's record by reviewing financial and customer service ratings.
Once you compare rates and review insurance companies' reviews and customer service ratings, you are ready to choose the right insurance company and coverage for you.
To give you an idea of how much homeowners insurance costs, here are rates for major companies, by state and coverage levels. Additionally, you by using Insurance.com's tool, you can see average home insurance rates by ZIP code for 75 coverage levels. You'll also see the highest and lowest rate fielded from up to six major insurers, so you can compare prices and be sure you don't overpay.
Rates in Your State
A local independent insurance agent can compare pricing between multiple reputable companies. Also, you'll be dealing with an experienced professional, not a web service, who can help you understand exactly the types of coverage and pricing for your individual situation.