Owning a home has long been a cornerstone of the American dream. Even frequently relocating military members can appreciate the satisfaction of building equity while painting the walls any color they choose. But buying a home – whether it’s your first or your fifteenth – also means you’ll need to purchase homeowners insurance, so it’s wise to consider your insurance options as you search for the perfect place to call your own.
Homeowners insurance premiums are determined by a number of factors, many of which are under your control. Making a few smart decisions will give you the coverage you need and could save you hundreds of dollars each year. Consider the following tips, which can go a long way toward protecting your home and your peace of mind.
Get the facts. When you find a house, gather as much information as you can to determine its potential insurance costs. The age of electrical, plumbing and other systems within the home, as well as construction materials used to build the house, can affect your premiums. For example, masonry homes or less flammable roofing material can provide an insurance price break, especially in dry areas of the country that are most susceptible to fire damage. On the other hand, masonry homes could be much more expensive to insure against earthquake damage. Homeowners and potential buyers can review current building codes and materials recommendations at www.disastersafety.org/, the Web site for the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
Be aware of geography. Regardless of the homebuilding materials used, where you live can have a significant effect on your insurance premiums and coverage availability. Homeowners likely will pay more for insurance in areas prone to severe weather and natural disasters, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires. According to the Insurance Information Institute, the states paying the most for homeowners insurance in recent years have been Texas, Louisiana and Florida, all coastal states with above-average claims for water and wind damage.
Your rates also may be affected by the neighborhood you choose. For example, homes in close proximity to a fire department may cost less to insure. And while seclusion can have its advantages, it won’t lower your insurance rates if emergency vehicles may have difficulty reaching your home.
Know how much is enough. Studies from construction-cost estimator Marshall & Swift/Boeckh suggest that more than 60 percent of homeowners in the United States are underinsured, primarily because they don’t insure their homes to “replacement value.” Replacement value is what it would cost today to rebuild a home from the foundation up. Replacement value can differ substantially from market value, which represents what a willing buyer would pay for a home.
Since the cost of building materials has risen in recent years, it may cost more than market value to rebuild an older home. And if you’ve remodeled or renovated your house, your insurance coverage should be updated to reflect the home’s likely increase in replacement cost. Of course, increasing your insurance coverage will raise your monthly premiums, but it could save thousands of dollars in the long run if a major claim is necessary.
Float your way to complete coverage. While a standard homeowners policy will cover the structure of your home and some of your personal belongings, it may not provide full coverage for high-value possessions, such as coin collections and jewelry.
If you have specific items for which the value exceeds your policy limits, you may elect to add a “personal articles floater” to your coverage. Though rates will vary by state and for the actual item insured, you may be able to purchase a personal articles floater for as little as $30 a year to insure your most valuable possessions for their current purchase price or recent appraised value. Often used to fully insure engagement rings or electronics, “floaters” have no deductible and usually cover a broader range of claims, such as theft or loss away from the home.
Protect your financial assets. Repairing or replacing your property is only part of the homeowners insurance equation. Your policy can go much farther to protect your financial well-being through liability coverage.
As an example, if a visitor to your home falls down the stairs and is seriously injured, the visitor’s insurance company could hold you responsible for thousands of dollars in medical bills. In this type of situation, your homeowners policy would likely cover the costs up to a specified limit, and in certain cases it may even cover legal fees that arise.
But while standard policies typically offer $100,000 in liability protection, most insurance experts recommend $300,000 of coverage or more. Increased liability coverage is especially important for homeowners with potential safety hazards, such as a swimming pool.
Consider your comfort level. As you establish your homeowners insurance coverage, you’re able to choose your deductible level, which is the amount you will pay out of your pocket when you have a claim. Opting for a higher deductible, such as $1,000 instead of $500, can lower your monthly premiums significantly. Conversely, you may be more comfortable paying a higher premium each month for greater peace of mind should disaster strike. The choice is yours to make. Your insurance company can provide a variety of premium/deductible scenarios that will best suit your needs.
Save money through safety. You may be able to save on insurance premiums by looking into safety and prevention features that often merit a discount. Consider purchasing monitored security alarms, and take precautions such as installing deadbolt locks, both of which can ward away thieves and prevent a costly (not to mention frightening) break-in. Easily accessible fire extinguishers are another good addition to the home, reducing the risk of severe flame and smoke damage.
Embrace preventive maintenance. Remember that a homeowners insurance policy is designed to repair or replace your property in the event of an unexpected major loss, and individuals who repeatedly file claims for minor problems may face higher premiums and could jeopardize their insurability. Conducting preventive maintenance on your home and repairing small problems quickly can help avert more substantial losses down the road. A number of providers offer home warranty coverages more suitable for maintenance needs involving appliances, plumbing or the like.
Keep your records current.If the unthinkable should occur and you have to file a major insurance claim, having up-to-date records of your home’s contents and structural condition can be invaluable during the claims process. First, if you’ve made any significant renovations to the home itself after moving in, be sure to inform your insurance company, since it may affect the replacement cost of the home.
Next, take an inventory of your belongings, including how much you paid for each item and its current value. Make a record of your possessions, with pictures or a video camera, and store the records outside of your home so they are less likely to be destroyed in a disaster. The record can help you determine your coverage needs, and it also can serve as your proof of ownership if a loss occurs, helping the insurance company to estimate your payment.
Pick a good partner. Doing business with an insurance company you trust is important. Before purchasing insurance, review the company’s complaints record and rankings on customer satisfaction and financial security. Your state’s department of insurance Web site, and industry analyst companies such as J.D. Power or A.M. Best Company, are unbiased sources of information.
By Mitch Swanda