When a tree fell on my house during a derecho wind storm last summer, it poked a half-dozen holes about the size of a car steering wheel in the roof. But my husband, Al, and I weren’t in a hurry to call our insurance company.
Call us paranoid, but until we knew how much it was going to cost to repair the roof, we didn’t want to risk letting our insurer know we were even thinking about filing a claim.
Al manages our family’s rental properties and has filed a fair share of insurance claims — from siding damage after someone drove into a house we own in York, Pa., to having our own hardwood floors ruined when the neighbor’s water heater failed, flooding next to our shared townhouse wall.
Our theory is that every time you file a claim, the insurance company punishes you by raising your premium at the very next renewal. File too many claims and they’ll put you in a special, super-expensive rate class.
So I wasn’t totally surprised when InsuranceQuotes.com recently came out with a study saying that in some states, filing just one claim with your homeowners insurer can cause your rates to rise as much as 20%.
Some states where you’ll see double-digit premium increases after filing only one claim, according to the study:
But if you live in other states, your premiums will barely budge after you file a claim:
*In Texas, insurers aren’t allowed to boost premiums after your first claim.
What Gives? Why So Different From State to State?
The differences come down to the rules states set for insurance companies and the difference in weather from state to state, says InsuranceQuotes.com Senior Analyst Laura Adams.
And what sounds bad — being in a state where rates get bumped up pretty heavily after the first claim — can actually be a good thing.
“In some states where we’re seeing big rate increases, consumers are getting low rates to begin with,” she explains. If you live in one of those states and never file a claim, you continue to get the advantage of the low initial rate. If you file a claim, however, you pay a heck of a lot more after that claim.
And what sounds good — being in a state where your insurer either doesn’t bump your premium for filing a claim or bumps it only a bit — can be bad because you may be paying a pretty high premium to begin with, especially if you’re in a state prone to weather-related insurance claims like hurricane-prone Florida.
Careful What You Say When You Call Your Insurer
Imagine how mad you’d be if your premium went up because you called to talk about a claim you were thinking about filing but didn’t file. Suppose, for example, I called my insurance company to talk about that tree limb that fell on my house and said I might be filing a claim, but only if the damage is more than my deductible.
If the insurance company’s customer service representative hears me use the word “claim,” she might open a claim and put that tree damage information in my permanent insurance track record. That could happen even if I opted not to file the claim. Then, I wouldn’t get the claim payment and I might still have my premium rise the next year.
But wait, it gets worse. Claims filed by the people who lived in your house before you did can also cause your premiums to rise. That’s because your CLUE report includes claims filed by anyone who lived at your address for the past five to seven years. So maybe you only filed one claim, but if the prior owner filed two homeowners insurance claims, your insurance premium is underwritten as though you filed all three claims.
You know what else can make your homeowners insurance premiums rise? Having neighbors who file claims. Insurance companies create rates by ZIP code, points out Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a consumer advocacy group.
“It’s not just the claims you file, it’s the claims your neighbors file, and sometimes it’s just the insurance company just plain trying to make more profit,” she says.
What’s a Homeowner to Do?
1. Don’t play your insurance claim card unless you have a catastrophic loss.
2. Don’t file a claim for less than your deductible. If it’s a close call, say a $750 claim on a policy that has a $500 deductible, think before you file. Is the $250 you’d get ($750 claim less $500 deductible) worth the chance that your premium will rise?
3. Check your permanent insurance record, called a CLUE report. It’s a list of every claim you’ve filed in every property you’ve insured and all the claims filed for your property in the past five to seven years.
4. Ask that mistakes in your CLUE insurance report be fixed. If you called to ask a question and it got recorded as a claim, for instance, get that corrected.
5. Think really hard before you file a second, or worse, a third claim. If you’ve had past claims or prior owners filed claims, every claim could be the one that’s one claim too many and causes the company to tell you they’re not renewing your policy or raising your rates substantially.
I would tell you exactly how many claims is too many, but there’s no universal, industry-wide official number of claims that is too many, according to Michael Barry, vice president of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute.
He points out that insurers have to take natural disasters and other community-wide events into account. For example, there are likely homeowners in the Northeast who’ve filed three claims because they were hit by Hurricane Irene, the derecho that dropped the tree on my house, and Superstorm Sandy.
Personally, I suspect the magic number is three. Bach — despite 29 years of advocating for consumers and analyzing insurance issues – has never been able to uncover the magic number either. “It feels like three claims in five years will get you canceled,” she agreed. “But I don’t know what it is.” United Policyholders dug into the issue when it attempted to restrict insurance companies in California from levying rate increases following minor claims, but the rules remained a mystery to the consumer advocacy group.
You could ask your agent or call your insurance company, but it’s hard to find someone who knows and will tell you what the company’s rules are when you file a claim, Bach says. And by the way, she adds, your company may pay your agent an annual incentive based on how many claims his customers file — so the fewer claims you file, the more money he makes.
The bottom-line: Every time you file a claim, it’s a financial crapshoot. So don’t file unless there’s major money at stake. And if you decide to call your insurance company to discuss the issue, you literally need to repeatedly say that you’re not, not, not filing a claim.