Before a hurricane threatens our area, find out what storm damages your home insurance covers and whether you need to add more protection. If a hurricane destroyed your home, would your insurance cover the cost to rebuild?
Don’t wait until a storm is threatening offshore to find out.
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t have more than a vague idea about what your policy covers and what it doesn’t. The danger is that you may think you’re adequately protected when you are not. By some estimates, close to two-thirds of U.S. homes are underinsured.
How does it happen?
Sometimes people make home improvements without telling their insurance agents. Or, policy limits simply haven’t kept up with rapidly escalating building costs. Sometimes policies have special exclusions or restrictions that homeowners don’t realize are there.
Checking up on what your policy covers will be easier in the future thanks to a new state law that will require companies to print a coverage checklist on the front of every homeowner’s policy. Among other things, the list will have to show in large type the coverage limits and the dollar amount of the hurricane deductible: ($4,000 makes a bigger impression than 2 percent). More importantly, it will detail how much the policyholder would receive for living expenses and for how long if the home is destroyed.
Your overall insurance limit is the first thing to check since that could come into play with a destructive storm. Ideally, you want a limit high enough to cover the cost of rebuilding your house on the same site, not including the value of the land. If you have a mortgage on your home, your lender may require you to carry enough insurance to replace your home, but cannot require more than that even if your mortgage is for a higher amount.
If your limit looks too low, ask your insurance agent to evaluate your situation. The market value of your house might be twice the limit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the limit is wrong. With property values rising rapidly, it can be very difficult to separate the replacement cost of the building from the cost of the land.
If you disagree with the agent’s estimation of replacement value, you can get a second opinion by paying $19.95 for an online report from a valuation site such as www.accucoverage.com or www.insuretovalue.net. If you have an expensive home with many custom features, it may be worthwhile to pay for a professional appraisal.
You’ll also want to review your policy’s limitations and exclusions. Peripheral structures such as pool sheds, detached garages, pool screens, and fences may not be covered at all.
Your policy also may limit or exclude coverage for items such as boats, cars, aircraft, cash, guns, silverware, jewelry, furs, antiques, electronics, business equipment, and records. If you want adequate coverage for those items, you’ll probably need to buy extra coverage or a separate policy.
The biggest exclusion in homeowners’ policies is flood damage, which has been a huge issue for homeowners in Louisiana and Mississippi whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Even if wind drives the waves, homeowners’ policies won’t cover flood damage.
If you live in a flood hazard zone, your mortgage lender will require flood insurance. If you own your home free and clear, or you live outside the hazard zone, flood coverage is optional, but flooding is still a real risk. Many homes flooded during Katrina were not in hazard zones.
Something called “law and ordinance” coverage is optional for everyone, but without it, your policy won’t pay the extra cost of rebuilding to meet current building codes.
A safer way to save money is to increase your deductible, particularly for non-hurricane coverage. If you’re still at $500, raising it to $1,000 is a good idea. If you’ve got an expensive house, you might want to opt for $2,000 or higher. The hurricane deductible - most likely 2 percent of the insured value - can also can be increased if you could afford to pay more out of pocket for storm damage.
The best way to prepare for higher deductibles is to maintain an emergency reserve in a bank or credit union account or a money-market fund. Savings bonds less than a year old can also function as an emergency fund since they can be cashed at any time.