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Guide to filing a home insurance claim

By Nathan Guss|14 min|February 2023

Has your home suffered damages? Dealing with the disaster and filing a home insurance claim can make your head spin. This guide breaks down what you need to know so you can go through the process with peace of mind.

When your home has been damaged in a disaster, filing a home insurance claim can seem daunting. This overview will help you get through the ordeal as smoothly as possible. It takes you from the beginning to the end so you know what will happen and what you need to do each step of the way.

1. Deal with immediate dangers and problems

Make sure you’re safe

Disasters or accidents that cause serious damage to your home can be dangerous to you or your family. You should be especially careful of uncontrolled fires and water near electrical sources. Avoid being anywhere near hanging trees or limbs: they may not be as stable as they appear and can harm you if they suddenly fall.

Whatever has happened, first assess the situation to ensure that no one is at risk. Don’t re-enter your home until you’re sure it’s safe. In certain situations, you will need to wait for the police or firefighters to tell you that the coast is clear. Material possessions can be replaced—the same is not true of your life.

Prevent further damages

Stop further damages from occurring when you can do so without putting yourself or anyone else in danger. For example, if a pipe has burst, turn off the water immediately. When possible, make stopgap repairs to prevent further damages (cover up windows, fix doors, etc.). If you fail to take care of a fixable problem causing damages, it can affect the settlement your insurer will pay.

2. Get in touch with your insurer

Once the situation is under control, contact your insurer as soon as possible. Most insurance companies have a 24/7 helpline. Some also allow you to start filing a claim on their website or through an app.

Before getting in touch with them, it’s best to do some preparation. If you’re going to use a helpline, be prepared to settle in for a long call: your insurer will have many questions. That said, you won’t be expected to have all the information right away. The main thing is to be in contact with them promptly and get the ball rolling. Here are a few details to jot down beforehand:

  • The date and time of the disaster
  • The events that led to the issue
  • The effects on and damages to your home
  • Your immediate needs

Talk with a claims adjuster

Soon after you begin filing a claim, your insurer will put you in touch with a claims adjuster. These professionals work for insurance companies, which pay for their services. Claims adjusters investigate disasters, guide you through the claims process and negotiate the settlement, among other tasks. They’re your resource person for filing a claim.

If you’ve experienced a major or complex property loss, you may want to hire a public claims adjuster. They have the same level of expertise as a claims adjuster and play a complementary role. They help you with paperwork and negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf. You pay their fees, which are usually a percentage of the settlement.

To learn more:

Should I hire a public claims adjuster?

Keep records

You should keep a written record of all your communications with your claims adjuster and insurer. Note what was agreed upon during each discussion. You should also hang on to all receipts and police reports.

3. Take an inventory of damaged property

Taking an inventory of lost, damaged or stolen items is the next step in filing a claim. Your carrier will use this list to calculate your settlement.

Don’t immediately throw away damaged items

It can be tempting to get going on the cleanup and start throwing away damaged possessions. Before you do, take pictures and document any labels or serial numbers. If it can be done safely, keep samples of damaged materials. This can help your claims adjuster estimate the cost of damages and reconstruction.

The more details, the better

Are you wondering how to best take an inventory of your possessions?

Using one of the various online templates and apps available for this purpose can be helpful when taking stock of what was damaged. Sign and date all inventories and other statements related to your losses to attest to their truthfulness.

Here are the kinds of details your insurer can use to determine an accurate settlement:

  • Photos or videos
  • Brand, serial number or model number
  • Purchase price
  • Receipts or copies of receipts
  • Warranties
  • Purchase dates

Provide as many details as possible. But don’t worry if you can’t provide all the above. Any inventory will make your claims adjuster’s task much easier and improve your chances of receiving a fair settlement.

And, of course, avoid exaggerating or falsifying any part of the inventory. Doing so is fraud and can invalidate your coverage.

4. Have your home cleaned

Before reconstruction can begin, you will need to have your home cleaned. You should take care of this promptly: neglecting this step or taking too long can result in further damages that your insurance company will be reluctant to cover. For instance, water damage can eventually cause serious mould issues if undealt with.

It’s best to hire a team of disaster cleanup professionals. They have the specialized knowledge needed to do the job correctly and safely. Insurers normally cover this service, but you should discuss the matter with your claims adjuster before hiring a cleaning company.

5. Handle repairs and reconstruction

Emergency repairs

Your home may need immediate repairs to prevent further damages. Your claims adjusters will be able to recommend companies who specialize in this kind of work. If you decide to handle this step on your own, don’t make any permanent repairs without discussing them with your insurer.

Reconstruction and repairs

Your insurance company may have agreements with local contractors for repairs and reconstruction. You can also choose your own contractor. It’s up to you.

Sometimes insurers pay affiliated contractors directly and reimburse you for other contractors’ fees. If you go with your own contractor, don’t give the OK for work to begin until you have come to an agreement on compensation amounts with your insurer.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind while work is taking place:

  • Keep abreast of the work being done. Check whether it will be covered with your claims adjuster.
  • Stay informed about the costs of each stage of the work to be sure that it doesn’t exceed your policy’s limits.
  • When materials are replaced or removed, keep a sample to document your claim (when this can be done safely).
  • Visit the site to ensure that the work meets your expectations. Don’t hesitate to ask for changes. Be sure you’re satisfied with the results before authorizing payment.

Doing the work yourself

If you have the skills, time and desire, you can do the work yourself and be reimbursed for the costs. You’ll need to inform your insurer and submit estimates for approval before getting started.

6. Find temporary housing.

If the disaster made your home unliveable, you’ll need to find a place to stay while it undergoes repairs.

Finding a temporary accommodation can be tough, especially while you’re dealing with so many other stresses and to-do lists after a home disaster. Your claims adjuster will be there to help you. Your insurer may have arrangements with temporary housing providers that can simplify the search. However, you are free to find your own temporary home.

Additional living expenses coverage

Coverage of additional living expenses (aka ALE) is a standard part of home insurance policies. The ALE clause in your policy pays for extra expenses incurred when you lose the use of your home. It usually covers the following expenses, among others:

  • Temporary lodging (rent, hotel fees, etc.)
  • Boarding pets
  • Additional transportation
  • Storage

Be sure to keep a record of all your additional living expenses and save your receipts.

To learn more:

How to find temporary housing after making an insurance claim

Choosing the right temporary home after an insurance claim

Tools for your search

There are several tools that make the search much easier if you want to find housing on your own. For example, SiniSTAR’s temporary housing platform for displaced policyholders can help you find accommodation near your home.

This service enables you to choose comfortable, fully furnished and equipped housing. Members of the company’s host community have experience providing homes to people in your situation and will know how to meet your needs.

Going with SiniSTAR has 3 other notable advantages:

  1. The company can work directly with your insurer for payments throughout your stay. This can ease the financial burden imposed by other home-sharing platforms, who require large upfront payments. This can be a hardship when you have so many other out-of-pocket expenses due to home damages.
  2. Hosts offer flexible stay dates. With other home-sharing options, you’ll be out of luck if someone else has booked a stay after you. Anyone who has ever been involved in a construction project knows that deadlines aren’t exactly set in stone. You’ll appreciate not needing to find a new short-term home and move if there are any delays.
  3. Hosts are subject to an approval process. You won’t need to worry about scams or the quality of the accommodation.

Inspect your temporary housing

Before signing a housing contract for accommodations that you find on these sites, it’s a good idea to inspect the property. Here are some things to look for:

  • Check faucets and water pressure.
  • Make sure the heating and air-conditioning systems work.
  • Check ceilings and floors for mould.
  • Look out for signs of mice—droppings or gnawed items.
  • Ensure food storage areas are free of cockroaches or ants.
  • Inspect the bedroom for bedbugs: check mattress seams, box springs, drawer joints, loose wallpaper and the junction between the ceiling and wall for tiny red dots. Mattresses with red blotches are also a warning sign.

Be on the lookout for scams

Vacation-oriented home-sharing sites sometimes attract fraudsters. If the listings are too good to be true, beware. Here are some red flags:

  • No address is given.
  • The owner doesn’t live in the city or is abroad.
  • The host asks you for a downpayment before you have visited the home or signed a contract.

7. Negotiate a settlement

Once you’ve taken care of everything, you’ll wait for your settlement. Provinces have different requirements for how fast insurance companies must pay you. Your claims adjuster will make an offer based on an analysis of the damages and the terms of your policy. Your deductible—the amount you need to pay out of pocket—will be subtracted from costs of the damages.

Most home insurance policies will compensate you based on lost items’ replacement value. This is the cost of buying a new version of a given piece of property. Some home insurance policies cover the actual cash value, which is the cost of the item minus depreciation.

High-value items are often subject to limits and won’t be entirely covered unless you purchased additional coverage, often called a floater.

Keep in mind that you have the right to negotiate. Being polite and assertive improves your chances of a satisfactory result. If you hire a public claims adjuster, he or she can take care of this step.

To learn more:

What you need to know about home insurance

What homeowner’s insurance covers

Closing advice

Filing a claim after major losses can seem overwhelming. As with all large-scale endeavours, it’s best not to think too much about the final, far-off goal of moving back into your home and receiving a settlement. Breaking up the work into bite-sized pieces can help.

Using this guide and your claims adjuster’s and public claims adjuster’s advice (if you hire one), make check lists of what needs to be done. Taking things one step at a time makes any large task much easier.

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