Covered by homeowners insurance? Don't be so sure (pg. 2)

  @Money July 15, 2013: 2:09 PM ET

WATER: Coverage is thinner than you think.

A shower pipe bursts behind the bathroom wall -- you're covered, right? Maybe not.

In the past decade insurers have scaled back significantly on covering that cracked pipe, leaky toilet, and clogged drain.

Water coverage began getting less generous after a jury in a 2001 Texas lawsuit involving toxic mold awarded a family more than $30 million (later slashed). Toxic mold grows in the damp, and nowadays payments for mold claims are all over the map: 60% of the insurers that Schwarcz studied in a recent analysis of 60 policies in six states capped mold coverage at $2,500 to $50,000; another third paid nothing.

The cutbacks now extend to broader water damage. In Texas, for example, the insurance department found that nine of 10 policies in 2010 were less generous than the state-approved "prescribed" policy (a benchmark created by regulators), nearly double the number in 2002. Your policy probably used to exclude claims from water leaks that occurred over a period of weeks, months, or years. Now it probably specifies that the leak can't have lasted longer than 14 days -- even if the source was hidden, say, behind a wall or under a foundation.

Those limitations snagged Fredi Cohen, who is suing a Florida insurer over its refusal to pay for a burst shower pipe in her late mother's condo that caused an estimated $35,000 in damage in June 2011. Three weeks later an engineering firm hired by the insurer found that the plumbing had been leaking for more than 14 days. By that time, Cohen says, the damage was so old it was impossible for her to dispute the firm's findings. "I was astonished," Cohen says.

Solution

Up your protection. Get a rider that covers sewer and drain backups -- generally excluded from policies -- especially if you have a sump pump. Expect to pay 10% to 20% of your premium for such a package. On a Seattle home insured with Safeco for $400,000, $20,000 in such coverage costs $146 a year, according to NRG Insurance.

Be vigilant about prevention. Place wireless water alarms ($25 for three) under your sinks and behind the water heater and washer -- they'll go off at the smallest leak. Eye your water bill for unusual activity, which could alert you to a larger problem (say, a leaky hose in the yard).

REPAIR: Real-world costs may exceed your check.

Insurers used to provide a guarantee that they'd pay to fix your home no matter what. But after so many widespread catastrophes, they've pared back.

One reason is the "demand surge." After a big storm, contractors and building supplies are in unusually short supply. The temporary shortage drives up prices. Today you'll rarely find guarantees, and certainly not in disaster-prone states (instead, your policy will simply say it covers "replacement costs").

Related: 4 tips from a serial home remodeler

If you want better protection, you need to buy optional extra insurance, or "extended" replacement, which kicks in to deal with unforeseen costs. Also, insurers have added lots of caps and limitations. For example, many eliminated coverage for screened-in pool enclosures and patios after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 tripled the price for those items. Allstate's new House & Home policy says the older the roof, the less Allstate pays toward replacing it.

Even if your replacement benefit will pay for your losses, you may be subject to picky rules for filing claims. Your insurer first will hand you a check for what it calculates is the actual cash value of what you've lost, accounting for depreciation. Then, once you actually replace the items or rebuild, insurers pay the extra cost. Specific requirements vary among carriers. Some say only that homeowners must notify their insurers of their intent to replace within six months. Others mandate that the work must be completed in six months. Policies also differ by state; some require insurers to offer more time, such as Maryland (two years) and California (one year).

Paula and Michael Sher were tripped up by this kind of fine print after a fire severely damaged their Long Island home in July 2008. Between getting permits and winter storm delays, they say rebuilding took more than two years, but their Allstate policy said they had to have been finished within six months to claim $97,000 in extra replacement-cost benefits. The Shers sued, saying the requirement is unreasonable. An Allstate executive says the company has found that 180 days is "more than enough time" in the majority of cases. After discussions with regulators on multiple complaints, however, Allstate changed its New York policies, so it now allows two years for rebuilding (the Shers' case is pending).

Solution

Get extended replacement coverage. A typical rider costs about 10% of your premium and will tack an extra 25% onto your replacement benefit, enough to cover most situations. Also buy replacement-cost coverage for your personal property (about 10% of the personal-property premium); basic policies typically reimburse based on the depreciated value.

Understand what you're getting. Few homeowners take the time to read their policy and, even if they do, may not realize how one phrase -- sometimes one word -- can mean thousands of dollars come claim time.

Related: Home prices - your local market forecast

Gregory and Moira Taylor, for example, thought they were covered when a heavy 2010 storm caused the carport at their Maryland home to collapse. Their State Farm policy included the "sudden, entire collapse of a building"; plus, their agent told them it was covered, according to state insurance department documents. State Farm, however, denied the $1,706 claim, saying a carport does not meet the criteria for a building (which must have a roof and at least three walls). The Maryland insurance department agreed with State Farm, but the assistant attorney general is appealing the decision to the state supreme court.

Get it in writing. Make sure to document your steps in rebuilding, such as interviewing contractors and applying for permits.

Ask for an extension. Think you won't meet the time limit? Call your insurer and request a reprieve. If you're denied, file a complaint with your state insurance department and ask it to intervene on your behalf.

Make a thorough home inventory. Document every inch of your home and you lower the chances you'll have to fight over coverage for your personal property. Use the free app from knowyourstuff.org, or hire a home inventory professional (find one through nahip.com) for $300 to $600.

MORE: Wind damage

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