Once you purchase a homeowners insurance policy, it’s likely to be immediately filed away in the back of your mind. After all, no one wants to dwell on the possibility of a storm, accident or other disaster leading to them filing a claim.

But many homeowners go decades without having to file a homeowners insurance claim. Between 2011 and 2015, 6.8 percent of insured homes had a claim, according to the Insurance Information Institute. When a claim is so statistically rare, homeowners can be unfamiliar with what to do to begin one and what resources are available to them.

Auto insurance has marketing campaigns across nearly every medium imaginable, helping consumers learn about shopping around for a policy, using apps to photograph damage and submitting receipts for reimbursement as part of the claim. While insurers in the home industry provide many similar products and services to their customers, most homeowners appear less aware of them and how to leverage them in the event of filing a claim.

“Homeowners insurance, relative to auto insurance, hasn’t been as available online. And there’s some good reasons for that: Homeowners insurance is a little more complicated, and every home is unique. There’s no VIN number for homes like there is for cars,” says Dan Witalec, customer acquisition leader at insurance company Progressive.

[Read: Do You Need Additional Home Insurance?]

Much of the homeowners insurance industry has been able to make strides toward more automation, transparency and increasing consumer understanding through technology, but the industry also appears to be working carefully to strike a balance between that automation and personal connection in working to make homeowners whole again.

Here’s how you can benefit from digital transformations in the homeowners insurance policy process.

Homeowners Insurance Is Getting There

Many insurance companies with home policies offer mobile apps for customers to use to easily begin filing a claim, communicate with an adjuster, take photos and provide documentation throughout the claim process.

Of course, making an old-fashioned phone call to your insurance company is always welcome and may be more comforting in a crisis. But in major events, Kathy Phillips, senior underwriter for insurer USAA, which offers an app, says getting the process started digitally might help you get moving faster.

“In the time of a catastrophe, sometimes going online, you can get through as opposed to being on hold, just because there’s such an influx of calls,” she says.

When it comes to inspecting property damage, Liberty Mutual is one of multiple companies using drones to assess roofs or exterior walls that may be hard to reach or in too dangerous condition for a person to get close.

Even before you’ve selected an insurer, you can benefit from comparison tools that help you to weigh price and coverage options. Progressive’s HomeQuote Explorer tool, which speeds up the process of getting an insurance quote, launched nationwide (excluding Alaska, Florida and Hawaii) last month.

The value of technological advancement in homeowners insurance isn’t entirely reliant on insurance companies, however. When it comes to documenting your belongings to prepare for unforeseen circumstances, Phillips recommends you “go through and video record it, and maybe store that in the cloud, because in the event of a total loss, it’s really difficult to remember everything you had.”

In place of a list, a video you can access from anywhere allows you to have a complete image of everything in each room, closet and cabinet and makes it easier for the daunting – but necessary – task of pricing and aging each item during the claim process.

[Read: How Amazon Echo and Other New Tech Could Transform the Renter Experience.]

Human Touch Still Proves Valuable

While automation may often be an improvement, the human element of an adjuster visiting a damaged home can be a big factor in a claim’s success.

“Technology is great and a useful tool for both the insurance company and the public adjuster, but … right now, it cannot replace the human aspect of it,” says Jill Moore of Claimside, an Austin, Texas-based company that connects consumers with public insurance adjusters.

A public adjuster is unaffiliated with a private insurance company and serves as an advocate for the policyholder throughout the claim process. While they, too, have embraced new technologies such as apps and drones to make their work easier, public adjusters also step in when technology may not be as effective.

Moore recalls a recent example where an insurance company inspected damage to a policyholder’s roof with a drone and based on the footage denied the claim, stating there was no damage. The public adjuster, working with the homeowner, requested an adjuster with the insurance company to inspect the property in person because there appeared to be more damage than the drone captured.

“The insurance company considered that a second inspection. We [at Claimside] don’t consider the drone an inspection at all,” Moore says. “You’ve got to have an adjuster come take a look at it for it to be considered an inspection.”

Consider the advice below to improve your experience with your homeowners insurance provider.

Shop around. Whether it’s a real estate agent, handyman, lender or insurer, you should always be shopping around to find not only the price that best agrees with you but also the policy that will best meet your needs, whether you’re using a comparison tool like Progressive’s or making individual inquiries with companies.

“You want to go with a trusted brand and somebody you know that’s going to be there when you need it,” Witalec says.

Work with a public adjuster. When your home has sustained damage, there’s no doubt you’re stressed. If you contact a public adjuster as quickly as you contact your insurance company, it could help to relieve some of the burden, such as accounting for lost belongings or finding additional damage.

“Their job is to protect the interests of the consumer and make sure they are getting paid for the coverage that they have purchased from the insurance company,” Moore says.

Know what you own. An insurance company can only restore your belongings when you actually know what you’ve lost. “That’s easy when you’re talking about a sofa and a television and a rug,” Moore says. “That’s not so easy when you start opening cabinets and closets and drawers and you’ve been there for 10 years.”

Keep a list, video or photos of all your belongings that can be accessed in the event of a disaster. Some insurers’ apps include a feature for you to store photos of all your belongings, so in the event of damage the company already has everything on file.

[Read: How Technology Plays a Part in Getting a Mortgage Today.]

Don’t delay. Whether it’s a fire, break-in, flood or a tree that fell on your roof, you should always contact your insurance company as soon as possible to get things started. “We recommend they call as soon as they can – as soon as they’re safe,” Phillips says.


7 Things First-Time Homebuyers Wish They'd Known


Slideshow

Buying your first home is an exciting – and often daunting – endeavor.

A real estate agent goes over paperwork with a miniature home model on the table.

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In addition to setting your budget, comparing neighborhoods and visiting properties, you'll likely also get a crash course in mortgages and home inspections, among other things. According to the National Association of Realtors' 2017 Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends report, first-time buyers made up 35 percent of all homebuyers, up from 32 percent last year. U.S. News talked to seven first-time buyers from across the country to find out what they wish they'd known before jumping into the real estate market.

Beware of wire transfer scams.

Beware of wire transfer scams.

A frustrated businesswoman works at her desk.

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Two hours before Shannyn Allan, founder of the blog Frugal Beautiful, was supposed to close on a home in San Antonio, she received a last-minute email with instructions on where to wire her down payment. Turns out, fraudsters had scraped her information from the title company and posed as the company when they emailed her instructions. She later discovered the fraud and spent weeks trying to get the banks to recover the funds so she could close. "I wish the title companies would have let me know what to watch out for with wire fraud, and advised me to do a cashier's check," she says.

Don't skimp on upgrades.

Don't skimp on upgrades.

Backsplash installation

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After freelance writer Leah Ingram and her husband built their first home in 1999 in New Hope, Pennsylvania, they immediately regretted choosing the smaller model with a lackluster kitchen and bathrooms. "A couple thousand dollars for those upgrades spread over a 30-year mortgage would not have been a hardship," she says. The couple also thought that buying on a cul-de-sac would ensure there were other kids nearby. There weren't, however, and they moved after seven years.

Save extra money for closing costs.

Save extra money for closing costs.

Small model house beside a large pink piggy bank.

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Christine Cummings and her husband are in the process of buying a home in Somerville, Massachusetts. Cummings, who is VP of marketing at All Set, a mobile app that aims to connect homeowners with lawn service and house cleaning professionals, says she wishes she'd known how much to budget for closing costs. "There are all these little fees here and there adding up to the actual closing date, making the closing costs just a little harder to pay," she says. In addition to a down payment and closing costs, new homeowners should also budget for potential surprises such as a broken air conditioner and other maintenance costs.

Check the sewer line.

Check the sewer line.

Home inspection checking exterior of home being sold. Inspector is using digital tablet to record results.

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After buying a home in New Jersey in 2003, Kenneth O'Connor, founder of a YouTube channel on saving for college, discovered his single-family home had major sewer problems. "If there are large old trees on the path of the sewer line, you need to make sure the roots are not constricting the pipe and cracking it," he says. It used to be harder to detect sewer problems, but "now [a home inspector] can send a tiny camera down the sewer line to determine if it's safe," he explains, emphasizing the importance of not overlooking this step.

Consider the school district.

Consider the school district.

Male teacher assisting elementary school children in classroom during lesson

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When Ali Wenzke, founder of The Art of Happy Moving, and her husband bought a townhouse in Chicago, they didn't consider the school district because they didn't have kids yet. "When we sold our home four years later, we had three kids and their educations to consider," she says. "We moved because we needed the space, but we were lucky that we accidentally bought in a great school district." Even if you don't plan on having kids, she recommends investigating the school district for future resale value.

Price out renovations in advance.

Price out renovations in advance.

New bathroom cabinets with granite countertopsBathroom renovation and granite installation

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After buying her first home in Atlanta, Kali Hawlk, founder of a marketing firm that specializes in working with financial advisors, wishes she'd factored in the cost of upgrading to double-pane windows. "I could never get the temperature downstairs above 65 degrees in winter because the entire back wall of the house was single-pane windows," she says. "I wish I had been aware of how expensive it would be to replace all of the house's single-paned windows with new ones," she explains. She thought upgrading the windows would be a simple fix, but it wound up costing around $10,000.

Look beyond surface details.

Look beyond surface details.

Beautiful Kitchen in Luxury Home with Island and Stainless Steel

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Fancy fixtures and accent walls are nice, but some flipped homes mask bigger problems. "When we purchased our first home, we found out very quickly that aesthetically pleasing did not mean physically sound," says Dan Mackin, host of the Ditching 9 to 5 podcast. "Your inspector can't find things underneath the walls. Just because a flipped home is pretty doesn't always mean it's [of] better quality," Mackin says. His first home (a flip in Colorado) had so many problems, he moved out two years later and earned his real estate license so he could help others avoid the same issues.

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Tags: real estate, housing, insurance, home insurance, weather


Devon Thorsby is the Real Estate editor at U.S. News & World Report, where she writes consumer-focused articles about the homebuying and selling process, home improvement, tenant rights and the state of the housing market.

She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.

Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at dthorsby@usnews.com.

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