It happened out of the blue. One minute your favorite tree is swaying in a light summer breeze. The next, a gust of storm wind has knocked it onto the roof. (Wind and hail cause about 45 percent of the disasters in home insurance claims, so this actually isn’t such a rare event.1)

Fortunately, you played it smart. You got the family out of the house, tarped up what you could, and called tree removal.

Now what? Your first impulse might be to call your insurance agent and file a claim. In this case, that would probably be a good call. Sudden, catastrophic damage is precisely the kind of thing your home insurance policy is there for.

But what if it was something smaller like a broken pipe or a patch of mold in the mud room? Should you file then?

That’s actually a very good question.

In this homeowners insurance guide, we’re going to shine a spotlight on the claims-filing process with a step-by-step breakdown of:

  • When you should file a homeowners claim
  • When you should avoid filing an insurance claim
  • How to file a claim the right way

FYI: Your basic HO-3 home insurance policy doesn’t just cover your roof and home. It covers any structures built on your property. Fences, garages, sheds, and decks are all protected under the “other structures” paragraph of your dwelling coverage. Here’s a full discussion of what else your dwelling insurance covers.

When to File a Home Insurance Claim

Filing claims is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, assistance after a disaster is a basic homeowner’s right. It’s why we pay our premiums.

But filing claims isn’t like using an ATM where you hit the button and out pops the money. With insurance companies, every time the money pops out, two things happen.

One, your premium usually goes up, which no one wants.

Two, every claim you make ends up on the public Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) database.2 If you file too many claims, your insurer (and any future insurer you approach) could decide you’re too much of a risk to insure.

But that doesn’t mean all claims are bad news or that you should be afraid to file one. On the contrary, there are situations when you should consider filing a claim. In the next section, we’ll discuss the three big ones.

Homeowner’s Tip Your claims history isn’t the only thing insurers look at when quoting you a premium. In many states, your credit score plays a role, too. So if you haven’t reviewed your credit report in a while, you might want to do that today. (Or have one of these top identity theft monitoring services do it for you around-the-clock.)

When to File a Home Insurance Claim

Filing claims is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, assistance after a disaster is a basic homeowner’s right. It’s why we pay our premiums.

But filing claims isn’t like using an ATM where you hit the button and out pops the money. With insurance companies, every time the money pops out, two things happen.

One, your premium usually goes up, which no one wants.

Two, every claim you make ends up on the public Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) database.2 If you file too many claims, your insurer (and any future insurer you approach) could decide you’re too much of a risk to insure.

But that doesn’t mean all claims are bad news or that you should be afraid to file one. On the contrary, there are situations when you should consider filing a claim. In the next section, we’ll discuss the three big ones.

Homeowner’s Tip Your claims history isn’t the only thing insurers look at when quoting you a premium. In many states, your credit score plays a role, too. So if you haven’t reviewed your credit report in a while, you might want to do that today. (Or have one of these top identity theft monitoring services do it for you around-the-clock.)

The Damage Isn’t Your Fault

Insurers place all property damage into two general categories. There’s damage that happened out of the blue and damage that was the result of negligence or wear and tear. 

Sometimes it’s obvious. Like a storm knocking a tree onto your house, which is not your fault.

But sometimes the line gets blurry. What if that tree was rotten and you knew about it? Would you be covered then? Probably not. Because it wasn’t just the storm that caused that accident. If you’d taken care of the tree when you had the chance, you might have prevented it.  

That’s why the first question on our checklist is: Was it an accident? If the answer’s yes, file away. If not, your claim will probably be denied, which can come back to haunt you (more on this in a bit).

The Damage Is More Than Your Deductible

In pure money terms, deductibles are the amounts we pay to have our homeowners coverage kick in after an accident. If I’ve set a $1,500 deductible on my home, for example, I pay the deductible out-of-pocket and my insurance company pays any damage over that amount, provided the accident is covered. Anything under that amount, I pay. 

So, at the very least, if you’re debating whether to file a claim or not, the damage has to be more than your deductible. How much more? Read on.

Did You Know: When you file a claim, you automatically lose any claims-free discounts you’re currently receiving. Didn’t think discounts and insurance belonged in the same sentence? Check out these home insurance deals and discounts to make sure you’re not missing out on any more savings.

There’s a Lot of Damage

As much as we’d like our home insurance policy to work like a debit card at the ATM machine, that’s just not the case. Insurance providers don’t like paying out (can’t really blame them for that) and claims go on our record, raising our insurance rates. So for the insurance payout to be worth it, the damage should be extensive.

Pinning down a dollar amount is tough, but we wouldn’t be talking about fixing a leaky ceiling or taking care of a little mildew under the sink. We’d have to be talking about something big like a snow-covered roof that collapsed after a blizzard or a kitchen with catastrophic smoke damage.

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule.

You Have Special Coverage

Theft accounted for under 1 percent of claims filed in 2020, the last year on record.3 But that doesn’t mean that burglary doesn’t cause a lot of damage, especially when valuables are involved. Because of the high amounts at stake, valuables coverage often costs extra.

Did thieves walk off with your $20,000 vintage comic book collection? That’s a serious loss. How about your $15,000 Hasselblad camera? You’re probably going to want to consider some help from your insurer.

With two caveats.

For the claim to work, you should have documented your stuff before the theft. Your claims history should also ideally be clean for three years. As we saw above, too many claims too often is a red flag for insurers.

These rules of thumb apply to all personal property loss, by the way.

FYI: Definitions of “valuables” have changed over time. While insurers used to be thinking primarily of “jewelry, heirlooms, and furs,” these days they’re also thinking “laptops, iPhones, and HD TVs.” Some providers, like Lemonade Insurance, actually let you take out special coverage just for your electronics.

When Not to File a Claim

If filing insurance claims isn’t like going to the ATM, it isn’t like a game of Putt-Putt golf either, where you can swing at the same hole 85 times and not get penalized (at least that’s the way it works in our family).

Every time you file an insurance claim, there’s a chance you’ll be denied. Those denials go on your record, too.

When else shouldn’t you file a claim?

We’ve already covered the big ones. When there’s too little damage or the damage was your fault, you’ll definitely want to think twice about filing that claim.

But there are also cases where your basic home insurance policy simply doesn’t cover you.

Your Policy Doesn’t Cover the Damage

Even the very best home insurance providers on the market have exclusions, or hazards, they don’t cover. These vary from insurer to insurer. But one accident that virtually all insurance companies agree on excluding from their plans is water back-up. (That’s when a sewer line on your property gets jammed and a lot of yucky water leaks back into your home.)

Needless to say, this can be an absolute nightmare if it happens to you. Even so, water back-up isn’t covered — unless you had the foresight to purchase extra water back-up insurance.

If you don’t have it, though, you shouldn’t even bother reaching for the “file claim” button on your insurance app, because you’ll be denied.

Bottom line? Check those exclusions before you file. If you’re not sure about yours, ring up your agent.

Homeowner's Tip Water damage isn’t the only hazard your home insurance doesn’t cover. You’re on your own for certain kinds of roof damage, too. Learn when you’re covered and when you aren’t in our homeowners guide to roof coverage, along with some tips for diagnosing a roof disaster in the making early.

How to File a Home Insurance Claim

If you think filing a home insurance claim is a pain today, just think back to a few decades ago when you had to photograph the damage with a camera and wait for Jerome from State Farm to drive over (with his camera), tally up the damage, and head back to the office to write up a report, which would come in the mail a week later.

These days, we can file our claims from inside our home insurance apps in minutes. Liberty Mutual has remote reviews, for example, where a claims adjuster can check your damage out by video chat. (Read our Liberty Mutual review for the full story on that.) Lemonade offers instant online payouts where possible.

So, yes, filing has gotten a lot easier. But you still need a plan. Here’s ours.

  1. Mitigate and Document: You might be tempted to file a claim before the water’s stopped dripping. Don’t. First, do what you can to control the damage. (You may have to call emergency services or the police, if necessary.) Once the danger’s passed, that’s when you can whip out your phone and start snapping pics.
  2. Decide If You’re Filing: You know the general rules about when to file and when not to file now. Apply them to your situation. If the damage is minimal or not covered, pass on the claim. If it’s catastrophic and covered, it may be time to file. If you’re not sure, definitely talk to your agent.
  3. File Your Claim: Filing could be as simple as leading an AI assistant through your situation via your insurance app (and getting a payout in minutes). But for complicated claims, you may be looking at a longer process with plenty of paperwork and visits from a crew of insurance adjusters. In either case, file your claim ASAP. If you’ve got serious damage, letting it sit could make things worse. At the very least, you’re postponing your payout.

FYI: If the paperwork on a big claim is driving you up the wall, you might consider calling in a public claims adjuster to help you manage the case. They’ll make sure you hand all the critical documents in on time. In return, they usually take a 10-20 percent cut.

Final Thoughts

We started this discussion by putting ourselves in the shoes of a homeowner who suffered major storm damage. Most of us probably had a gut feeling that our insurance policies would cover us in that case. Now we know exactly why.

One, the repairs we’d need to make would cost way more than our deductible (which would usually start at $1,000). Two, the storm was an unforeseeable accident that caused catastrophic damage. And, three, standard homeowners policies never exclude storm damage, unlike, say, damage from overflowing sewer lines. (For other cases where your home insurance policy ignores water, check out our complete guide to water damage coverage.)

Filing a claim, in this case, was worth it, even if our premiums would likely have gone up.

But there are plenty of cases when filing a claim just isn’t worth it. With property we don’t maintain, situations we neglect, and minor damage (that might still put a dent in our wallets) — our home insurance isn’t going to have our backs there.

A bitter pill certainly. But I’d say it’s better to know the rules beforehand — and accept them — than to run around filing claims that won’t amount to anything and may actually hurt us in the long run.

Did You Know: There are over 82 million homeowners in the U.S.4 About 5 million of them file home insurance claims every year.

FAQs

Should I file an insurance claim if the damage is more than my deductible?

Not always. As a general rule of thumb, the damage should be extensive to merit a claim.

Can I file a home insurance claim online?

Yes, many home insurance companies will let you file a claim online via their website or app.

Will my home insurance rate go up after I file a claim?

Typically, home insurance providers do raise the premiums of customers who file claims.

If my claim is denied, will it count against me?

Possibly. In certain states, even denied claims can influence your insurance rate.

How long does it take for insurance companies to pay out claims?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule. It could take days, weeks, or even a year. Most insurance providers don’t make a one-time payout either. They issue multiple checks, one for your property damage, another for your possessions, and a third for additional living expenses, if you have any.