Shopping for Homeowners Insurance
Updated September 2010
Note: This information was developed to provide consumers with general information and guidance about insurance coverages and laws. It is not intended to provide a formal, definitive description or interpretation of Department policy. For specific Department policy on any issue, regulated entities (insurance industry) and interested parties should contact the Department.
Why You Need Insurance
Homeowners insurance is an important purchase for many people. There are two major reasons to buy homeowners insurance:
- To protect your assets.
- Homeowners insurance covers the structure of your home and your personal property, as well as your personal legal responsibility (or liability) for injuries to others or their property while they’re on your property.
- To satisfy your mortgage lender.
- Most mortgage lenders require you to have insurance as long as you have a mortgage and to list them as the mortgagee on the policy. If you let your insurance lapse, your mortgage lender will likely have your home insured. Compared to a policy you would buy on your own, the premium might be much higher and the coverage will be limited to damage to the structure of your home. The lender can require you to pay this higher premium until you get your own homeowners insurance again.
Coverages in a Homeowners Policy
Most homeowners insurance policies provide a package of coverages. The main types of coverage are described below. Keep in mind that you’re covered only if the loss is caused by a peril your policy covers. For example, if your home becomes unlivable due to an earthquake and your homeowners policy doesn’t cover earthquakes, your policy won’t pay for loss of use of your home. Review your policy for the limits of your coverage.
- Dwelling. Pays for damage to your house and to structures attached to your house. This includes damage to fixtures, such as plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and permanently installed air-conditioning systems.
- Other Structures. Pays for damage to fences, tool sheds, freestanding garages, guest cottages and other structures not attached to your house.
- Personal Property. Reimburses you for the value of your possessions, including furniture, electronics, appliances and clothing, damaged even when they aren’t on your property, such as those at an off-site storage locker or with your child at college.
- Loss of Use. Pays some of your additional living expenses while your home is being repaired.
- Personal Liability. Covers your financial loss if you are sued and found legally responsible for injuries or damages to someone else.
- Medical Payments. Pays medical bills for people hurt on your property or hurt by your pets.
Peril is an insurance term for a specific risk or reason for a loss. Some policies cover all perils except ones specifically excluded. At the other extreme are policies that cover only the perils named in the policy.
Types of Homeowners Policies
To be reimbursed for damage to your property, a covered peril (such as fire, theft or windstorm) must have caused your loss. Which perils your policy covers depends on the type of policy you buy. The most common types of homeowners policies are listed below. All of the policy types except the dwelling fire form cover your dwelling and its contents, as well as personal liability and medical payments. Read Table 1 to learn the specific perils each type of policy covers.
A type of homeowners policy is called a Form.
- The Dwelling Fire Form covers only your dwelling. It does not cover your personal property, personal liability or medical payments. It also covers only a few perils. It’s the type of policy your mortgage lender will buy for you if you let your homeowners policy lapse. It’s also used for vacation homes and when you can’t find other coverage.
- The Basic Form insures your property against only the list of perils shown in Table 1.
- The Modified Coverage Form is for older homes, where the cost to rebuild is greater than the market value. It covers the same set of perils as the Basic Form.
- The Broad Form insures your property against the perils shown on Table 1.
- The Special Form is the most popular of all homeowners forms. It insures your property against all perils, except those the policy specifically names as not covered. Perils commonly excluded are flood and earthquake but coverage may be available which will be addressed later the Guide.
- The Tenants Form is for renters. It insures your personal property against all of the perils in the Broad Form.
- The Condominium Unit Owners Form is for owner-occupants of condominium units. It insures your personal property and your walls, floors and ceiling against all of the perils in the Broad Form.
There are other types of insurance for other types of residences. If you own a townhouse, you may insure it through either an individual homeowners policy or an association master policy. If you live in a mobile home that has wheels and doesn’t rest on blocks or a permanent foundation, in most states you’ll buy a form of automobile insurance. This insurance offers far less coverage than homeowners policies. If your home is on land used for farming or raising livestock, ask about a farmowners policy.
The standard homeowners’ insurance policy does not cover flood damage.
What is a flood?
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) defines flood to be a general and temporary condition of partial or complete inundation of two or more acres of normally dry land area or of two or more adjacent properties (at least one of which is the policyholder's property) from: overflow of inland or tidal waters, unusual and rapid accumulation or runoff of surface waters from any source, mudflow, or collapse or subsidence of land along the shore of a lake or similar body of water as a result of erosion or undermining caused by waves or currents of water exceeding anticipated cyclical levels
What is flood insurance?
- Flood insurance is a special policy that is federally backed by the NFIP.
- You may buy flood insurance that covers up to $250,000 for flood damage to your home. A standard flood policy will cover structural damage to your home, including damage to your furnace, water heater, air conditioner, floor surfaces (carpeting and tile) and debris clean up.
- For an additional premium, you also may buy flood coverage for up to $100,000 of damage to the contents of your home due to a flood.
- Coverage is available up to $500,000 for non-residential buildings and their contents.
How Can I Buy Flood Insurance?
You can buy NFIP flood insurance directly from your property and casualty insurance agent or insurance company if your community participates in the NFIP. You can find out if your community participates by visiting the following NFIP Web link: http://www.floodsmart.gov/floodsmart/.
Your insurance agent or insurance company also can confirm whether flood insurance is available to you and what it would cost.
It is very important to plan ahead. A flood insurance policy will not go into effect until 30 days after you buy the policy.
Other Things to Know
- According to FEMA, between 20 and 25 percent of flood claims occur in medium or low risk flood areas.
- You can buy flood insurance for your home or business regardless of whether the property is in or out of a floodplain, as long as the property is located in a participating community.
- You can obtain more information about flood insurance at the NFIP Web site at http://www.fema.gov/nfip.
Limits of Coverage
Your insurance agent usually will help you decide how much dwelling coverage to buy when you first get homeowners insurance. Your coverage should equal the full replacement cost of your home. Note that replacement cost and market value are not the same. The market value, which includes the price of your land, depends on the real estate market.
You should review your dwelling coverage from time to time to be sure it doesn’t drop below the cost to replace your home. If it drops below 80% of the full replacement cost of your home, your insurance company may reduce the amount that it will pay on a claim.
The limits of your coverage for other structures, for personal property and for loss of use of your home are expressed as percentages of your dwelling limit. The coverage is usually a set percentage (see Table 2). For example, if your dwelling coverage limit is $150,000 and your coverage for personal property is limited to 50% of your dwelling coverage, your coverage for personal property would be $75,000. Check your policy, as coverage limits might be based on percentages different from those in Table 2. You choose your coverage limits for your personal liability and for medical payments.
Table 2. Policy Limits
|Coverage Component||Typical Limit of Coverage|
|Other Structures||10% of Dwelling Coverage Limit|
|Personal Property||50% of Dwelling Coverage Limit|
|Loss of Use||20% of Dwelling Coverage Limit|
|Personal Liability||You Choose|
|Medical Payments||You Choose|
A deductible is the money you have to pay out-of-pocket on a claim before the policy pays the loss. The deductible applies to coverage for your home and personal property and is paid on each claim. Higher policy deductibles mean lower policy premiums. A policy with a $1,000 deductible will have a lower premium than the same policy with a $500 deductible. In some locations, there are also catastrophe deductibles, which are expressed as a percentage instead of a dollar amount.
Having a higher deductible can be a good way to save money on your homeowners insurance premium and to submit fewer claims. However, be sure you can afford the deductible in case you have a loss.
Replacement Cost and Actual Cash Value
You can choose to insure your home and its contents for either replacement cost or actual cash value. Replacement Cost is the cost to rebuild your home or repair damages using materials of similar kind and quality. Actual cash value is the value of your home considering its age and wear and tear. Actual Cash Value coverage pays you for your loss, but often doesn't pay enough to fully repair or replace the damage.
You can add other coverages. Sometimes, you can add coverage by buying an endorsement; other times, you must buy another policy to cover a specific peril or a specific item of property. Some reasons you might want to add coverages are:
- To cover perils most homeowners policies don’t cover. The National Flood Insurance Program writes most flood insurance policies, although some insurance companies also sell it. Many insurance companies sell earthquake insurance as a separate policy or as an endorsement to your homeowners policy. While homeowners policies in most states cover damage caused by windstorm and hail, policies in coastal areas often exclude this coverage, in which case you would need to buy a separate policy to protect from this risk. You might be able to buy endorsements to cover damage caused by mold or by sewer or drain backups and sump pump overflow since most homeowners policies offer limited or no coverage for these types of events.
- To increase your current coverage. Guaranteed replacement cost coverage pays to completely rebuild your home, while a personal property replacement cost endorsement pays to replace your personal property. An inflation guard endorsement raises your dwelling coverage limit annually in line with inflation. Personal umbrella liability insurance increases your liability coverage above the level available in a homeowners policy. A scheduled personal property endorsement (or “personal article floater”) covers jewelry, furs, stamps, coins, guns, computers, antiques and other items whose value might be greater than the normal limits in your homeowners policy. An ordinance or law endorsement pays for the extra expense to rebuild your home in compliance with building codes and other ordinances or laws that didn’t exist when your home was originally built.
Business Use of Your Home
While homeowners insurance isn’t designed to cover most business uses of your home, some policies might cover some business uses, at least partially. For example:
- Computers and laptops. If you use your home computer or laptop for business purposes, it’s often covered, but you should check your policy limits. Your laptop might be covered, even if it’s lost, damaged or stolen when it’s away from your home.
- Daycare coverage. Most homeowners policies provide a limited amount of liability coverage if you care for a friend’s children and aren’t paid. But if you’re paid to provide daycare in your home, you must buy more insurance to cover your related liability.
Other Types of Home-Related Insurance
You might hear about other types of insurance, especially when you buy your home. Lenders usually require private mortgage insurance (PMI) if your down payment is less than 20% of the home’s purchase price. PMI protects the lender if you default on your mortgage. The PMI premium is often included in your monthly mortgage payment.
Title insurance protects you and the lender against any monetary loss due to errors in the title. You usually pay for title insurance as a one-time fee when you buy a home.
A home warranty covers the mechanical breakdown of individual parts of a home, such as the electrical and plumbing systems. A warranty doesn’t cover the home’s structure, may or may not cover appliances, ends at a specific point in time (for example, one year) and has exclusions and limitations that you should review. Home warranties might not be regulated as insurance in your state.
How Insurers Determine Your Premium
Many factors affect the premium you pay, including which insurance company you choose. Different insurance companies charge different premiums for similar coverage. Decisions you make about how much insurance coverage to buy also affect your premium. Some of the other things that are likely to affect your premium are:
The characteristics of your home
- The cost to rebuild your home. This is not the same as the purchase price (which includes the cost of the land). Your insurance agent might help you estimate replacement cost using information about your home and its contents.
- Whether your home is made of brick or wood. The premium usually is lower for homes that are primarily brick or masonry than for wood frame homes.
- The distance from your home to a water source or fire department and the quality of your community’s fire protection services.
- The age and condition of your home. The premium often is higher for older homes and homes in poor condition than for newer homes and homes in good condition.
- The claims history of your home and of homes in your area.
Your choices and characteristics
- The coverages you choose, including optional endorsements.
- The deductible you choose.
- Insuring your home and autos with the same insurance company.
- The length of time you’ve been with your current insurance company.
- Your credit history. To access your credit report, the insurance agent might ask you for your Social Security number. In many states, insurers use your credit history as a factor to decide whether to sell you insurance and what price to charge you.
- Your history of filing claims for water damage, fire, theft or liability on homes you’ve owned.
- Having protection devices in your home, such as smoke detectors, a burglar alarm, a sprinkler system, deadbolts on doors or security devices for windows. Many insurers offer a discount if you have any of these.
- Having a wood furnace or wood stove.
- Having a swimming pool, trampoline or playscape that could cause injuries.
- The types of pets you have. Some insurers won’t insure you if you own certain breeds of dogs.
- Operating a business from your home.
Different insurance companies charge different rates for the same coverage. Also, not all insurance companies provide the same level of claims service. Therefore, it makes sense to shop around for the best insurance company for your needs.Insurance companies use one of three methods to sell their products.
- Independent agents represent several companies and can give you several quotes.
- Exclusive agents only sell the products of one insurance company.
- Direct market sales are over the Internet or by mail or telephone.
You can find insurance companies and agents through the phone book, on the Internet and television and by asking friends and neighbors.
Customer service is important to most consumers, particularly when they have a claim. You can get a sense of how well an insurer serves its customers from a complaint index. A complaint index measures how many complaints the Department of Insurance receives relative to the size of the company.
It’s illegal for unlicensed insurers or agents to sell insurance. Business cards aren’t proof that an agent is licensed. If you do business with an unlicensed agent or company, it might not pay your claims or refund your premiums if you cancel your policy. If an unlicensed agent or company contacts you, check with the Department of Insurance immediately, so it can investigate. Your actions may protect someone else from being victimized.
You also want to buy insurance from a company that’s financially sound. You can check the financial health of an insurance company by using ratings from independent ratings agencies such as Standard and Poor’s, A.M. Best and Moody’s.
Getting Premium Quotes
Getting premium quotes is a good way to compare different companies’ prices. But, first you should decide what coverages and policy limits you need. It’s important that you know how much it would cost to rebuild your home. An insurance agent or a contractor might be able to help you estimate the cost to rebuild your home.
When you get quotes, it’s crucial that you ask for the same coverages and limits and give the same information to each agent or company. To give you an accurate quote, the insurance agent or company will usually ask for a description of your house (such as where it’s located, its square footage, when it was built and the type of construction). He or she also might ask about items that increase your insurance needs, such as owning pets and expensive possessions. An agent might visit your home to take a photo or ask you for other information (such as the distance from the nearest fire department and the general condition of your home). Be sure to get rate quotes and key information in writing.
Make sure you ask the insurance agent if you qualify for any discounts. Some insurers offer a discount if you also buy your auto insurance from them or if you disaster-proof your home (for example, add storm shutters), update the home’s electrical or plumbing systems, get a new roof or add home security devices (for example, a burglar alarm).
Also, be sure to find out how much your premium will change if you choose different deductibles.
While you’re getting quotes, you should also ask the agent some of these questions:
- Are the agent and the insurance company licensed by my state insurance department? For how long? (The Illinois Department of Insurance can confirm the answers to these questions.)
- How can I find out the claims history of the home before I buy it? The claims history of the home might affect your premium.
- If I submit a claim, how will it affect my premium when I renew the policy?
- How will my credit history affect my premium?
- What does the policy cover? What doesn’t it cover? What are the limits to the coverages?
- How much coverage do I need for my personal property?
- How much liability coverage should I buy?
- Should I buy flood insurance or earthquake coverage? Your homeowners insurance policy doesn’t cover either.
- What types of water damage are not covered? Is mold damage covered?
If you’re thinking of buying a home, you can ask an agent to estimate the cost of insurance.
A homeowners insurance policy is a legal contract. It’s written so that your rights and responsibilities, and those of the insurance company, are clearly stated. You should read your policy and be sure you understand it. If you have questions about your insurance policy, contact your insurance agent or company.
When you buy homeowners insurance, you will receive a policy—not a photocopy. If you don’t receive a policy within 30 days, contact the insurance company, not the agent.
Keep your policy in a safe place and know the name of your insurer. If you still have questions, contact the Illinois Department of Insurance..
Other helpful tips:
- Pay the premium on time. Most insurers don’t offer a grace period for paying the premium; the due date is the due date.
- Keep a file of all paperwork you completed online or received in the mail and signed—as well as any other documents related to your insurance, including the policy, correspondence, copies of advertisements, premium payment receipts, notes of conversations and any claims submitted.
- Make a household inventory.
- Go through each room; write down and take pictures or videos of everything in the room.
- Inventory everything, including valuable items such as antiques, electronics, jewelry, collectibles and guns.
- Store your home inventory in a secure place at another location, such as your workplace, a safe deposit box, a relative’s house or online.
- Annually review and update your home inventory, including your pictures/videos. Also update your inventory when you buy new items.
- Keep receipts with your home inventory for all repairs and new items you buy, for proof if you file a claim.
- Maintain your home.
- A homeowners policy isn’t a maintenance contract; it insures against damage from perils such as fire, wind and hail. It doesn’t pay to repair items that simply wear out, like rotted porch railings. You’re responsible for the upkeep of your home, such as repairing your roof when it begins to leak or cleaning your chimney flue so it doesn’t catch fire.
Filing a Claim
Read your policy—it’s your guide to the types of losses that may or may not be covered. How often you file a claim and the types of claims you file often affect your premium and whether your insurer will renew your policy. If the cost to repair the damage is not much more than your deductible, you might want to pay for the repairs without filing a claim.
Most insurance companies report your homeowners claims to private nationwide claims databases (such as the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, better known as CLUE). Insurance companies use these databases to see the claims you've submitted in the past.
To file a claim, contact your insurance agent or company as soon as possible, however, make sure the damage is more than your deductible since any claim whether paid or not is reported to CLUE . Ask about forms or documents you’ll need to support your claim. You’re also required to protect your home from further damage. For example, you might need to board it up or clean up water from a backed-up drain.
The insurance company will assign a claims adjuster to assess the damages and determine the payment. These adjusters may be employees of the company or independent contractors. You should cooperate with the adjuster’s investigation of your claim. The adjuster will probably want to meet with you at your house to inspect the damage. Jot down notes and keep track of the dates of any conversations you have with your insurance agent or adjuster.
If there are disagreements between you, the insurer and the claims adjuster, first try to resolve them with your insurer. Don’t feel rushed or pushed to agree with something you aren’t comfortable with. It might help to have your contractor meet with you and the insurance adjuster.
If you and the insurer still disagree about the value of the claim, check your policy for an appraisal clause. Another option is to hire an attorney or a public adjuster.
Public adjusters are not attorneys or government employees. They are freelance adjusters that charge you a fee. They are usually hired by the consumer to help settle a complex or difficult loss negotiation with an insurance company.
Be certain you understand what services the public adjuster will provide, and the fees he/she will charge (usually 10% of your claim.). Illinois law requires public adjusters to be licensed with the Department of Insurance. Contact our Department to verify a public adjuster’s license.
If you have trouble with or questions about your claim, you also may contact the Illinois Department of Insurance for help. The consumer services personnel can help you work with your insurer to resolve disagreements.
Losing Your Insurance
There’s a big difference between an insurance company cancelling your policy and not renewing it.
Cancellation means either you or your insurance company stop the coverage before the policy’s normal expiration date (which is usually 12 months after the policy starts). You can always cancel your policy for any reason. When you’re a new policyholder, your insurance company can cancel your policy for almost any reason within the first 60 days.. After that, it can only cancel you if you don’t pay your premium, if you’ve lied on your application or if your risk has changed substantially.
If your insurance company cancels your policy, it must give you 30 days notice and any refund shall be on a pro rata basis. If you cancel your policy, the company shall refund any premium on a short rate basis.
Non-renewal means the company refuses to renew your policy after it expires. Insurance companies generally have the right to not renew your policy. If your company chooses not to renew your policy, it must give you 30 days notice. All notices shall provide a specific explanation of the reason(s) for nonrenewal. You also may choose not to renew your policy.
Non-renewals on homeowner’s policies that have been in effect greater than 5 years, must be given 60 days notice.
What to Do if You Can’t Find Insurance
If you cannot find homeowners insurance, talk to your insurance agent about the Illinois FAIR Plan. The FAIR Plan is an association that operates like an insurance company. All property and casualty companies that sell basic property insurance in Illinois fund the plan.
To qualify for coverage with the FAIR Plan, you must have three unsuccessful attempts to buy property coverage from insurance companies and your property must meet basic fire, loss prevention, and safety standards.
The FAIR Plan offers most of the home, personal property, and personal liability coverages that you can get with a private insurance company. However, the FAIR Plan should be your last resort. You may be able to get a better deal with a traditional insurance company.
For More Information
- Visit our Web site: http://insurance.illinois.gov
- Call our Consumer Services Section at (312) 814-2427 or our Consumer Assistance Hotline Toll Free at (866) 445-5364.
- Complaint Ratios
- Finding A Reputable Insurance Company - Using Financial Rating Agencies
- Illinois FAIR Plan Association
- Illinois Insurance Guaranty Associations
- Understanding How Insurers Use Credit Information
- Need to File a Complaint Against An Insurance Company?
- When Disaster Strikes - What to Do After an Insured Homeowners Loss
- Disasters - Who Can You Contact?
- Disaster Brochure
- Visit the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) Web sites for consumers: www.InsureUonline.org or www.naic.org .
- Visit the National Flood Insurance Program Web site: http://floodsmart.com/.
- Access your free annual credit report: Visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.