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Be Prepared Before Filing a Homeowners Insurance Claim

Make sure your homeowners policy pays when you need it.

If something disastrous happens to your home, such as a fire or home invasion, and you have to submit a claim, you'll want to be prepared. Follow these tips to help ensure you'll get reimbursed for any property damage or loss:

Use Our Tool: Is Your Home Fully Protected?

Take inventory. It's a good idea to record what you've got in your house so you won't have to rely on memory in case of theft, fire or some other catastrophe. Better yet, walk through the house with a camera or a video camera, carefully scanning each room, plus the garage and outside of the house and yard. Take out the silver and other valuables and photograph them separately. Keep the photos, video and inventory in a safe place outside of your house. The Insurance Information Institute's www.knowyourstuff.org is a great way to get started with your inventory.

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Making a claim. Notify your agent or broker of damages as soon as possible. If your losses are covered, he or she will probably arrange to have an adjuster inspect the damages and estimate the repair cost. You will not be charged a fee if you use your insurance company's adjuster.

If damage from a fire, windstorm or other natural disaster is extensive, you may want to have a public adjuster represent you in filing your claim. Public insurance adjusters are listed in the telephone book. They usually charge a fee of up to 15% of the total value of your settlement.

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If you're considering using a public adjuster, ask your agent, a lawyer or friends or associates for recommendations and check his or her qualifications with your state insurance department. Don't use individuals who go door-to-door after a major disaster unless you can check qualifications.

Don't make any permanent repairs before the insurance adjuster arrives. The company can legally refuse to reimburse you for repairs made prior to inspection.

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You don't necessarily have to defer to the insurance company if your claim is refused; policies often allow for varying interpretations. One insurance company adjuster might consider your request for expenses to have someone thaw out frozen pipes an uninsured maintenance cost; another would consider it an insurable peril. Ask for a second opinion, and be persistent.

Don't sign a final settlement agreement if you're dissatisfied with the terms. Accept partial payment to make necessary repairs, as long as the insurer formally acknowledges that it is only a partial payment. If you can't negotiate a settlement, file a written complaint with the company. If that yields no results, you could either enter into arbitration with the company or contact your state's insurance department, which often acts as a referee in such disputes.

You can locate your state's insurance regulator by going to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) Web site, where you will find a map of the country with links to each state's insurance department. Only after you've exhausted those avenues should you consider filing a suit against the company.

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