Burglaries and Your Home Insurance: Advice and Prevention

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There are few things in life more traumatic than arriving home and discovering you’ve been burglarized. According to the FBI, more than 2.5 million reported burglaries occurred in the United States in 2012, or in roughly 1 in every 4.5 homes. As common as burglary is, most people do not know what to do if they become victims.

First Things First: Report the Theft

When your home is burglarized, the first thing you need to do is file a police report; unlike the movies, this will not involve a crime scene unit arriving at your home to dust for fingerprints. In fact, many of those who report burglaries will have to go to the police, rather than wait for the police to come to them. Notifying law enforcement is the first and most important step in filing a theft claim with your insurer; as far as your insurer is concerned, a crime has not occurred without a police report.

The next step is to contact your insurance company or agent and let them know two things: a break-in has occurred and property was stolen. The insurer may assign a claims adjuster to perform an inspection of your residence and assess your claim; otherwise, the inspection will be handled entirely by phone, mail, or the internet. Whatever way, the smoothness of your claim will depend upon the quality and quantity of the information you provide. Your insurer wants to be certain they are not being asked to pay more than necessary, and you will want to be sure you are being compensated fairly for your loss. For these reasons, the best time to prepare for a claim is long before you have to file one.

Take an Inventory Before Theft Occurs

As part of the claim process, you will be asked to provide a detailed list with values and (ideally) pictures of what was taken. Figuring out what was stolen, calculating total costs, and determining the present condition of these items can be just one more headache in the wake of a burglary. There is, of course, a simpler solution: keep an accurate home inventory stored in a safe place other than your home.

The Insurance Information Institute offers a free online app to help you build an inventory of your household contents, complete with descriptions, purchase dates, values, and photos. There is a smartphone version of the app for iphone and Android. An alternative for the Mac or PC is available as a free download from the Insurance Information Network of California (IINC).

What to Expect From Your Insurer

In the wake of a home burglary, time seems to slow to a crawl — especially when you are confronted with constant reminders of the crime, such as missing property and damaged doors or windows where the thieves gained entry. If you are equipped with your police report and home inventory, your claim process can take as little as a week or two for payment to arrive.

If you have the resources to replace lost property before you are reimbursed, you might want to consider doing so — for some people, it can speed up the emotional recovery. Many insurers will provide a prepaid debit card fairly quickly to cover the expense of fixing or repairing windows or doors in order to prevent a fresh break-in. If one is not offered, feel free to ask.

After a claim, the relationship with your insurer will change from being all take to give and take. The fact of the matter is your insurance carrier is in business to make money, and they accomplish this goal by keeping their risks low. Once you have a claim, they may look more carefully at your situation and make adjustments to your premium — or cancel you outright.

If this is your first and only claim, then chances are they won’t cancel your coverage or raise your rates. However, if it’s your second or third claim, or the insurer has experienced a number of claims from other policyholders in your neighborhood, then they might if they think it is a trend.

A third possibility is that they will change your deductible to a higher limit in order to protect themselves against future claims. As in any relationship, disagreements can occur; this is why it is very important to read and understand your policy before it becomes necessary to file a claim.

Understanding your policy limits is the surest way to mitigate hassles down the road. While there are no inherently good or bad policies or provisions, you should be aware of the term, “Theft Claim Quota.” This is exactly what it sounds like: a quota for the number of thefts in your neighborhood, town, or city. This provision is there to protect the insurer against the possibility of false claims by unscrupulous policyholders looking to take advantage of an uptick in crime.

An Ounce of Prevention

As any insurer will tell you, the most generous theft policy in the world won’t make your home more secure. The best way to protect your home and property from burglary is to reduce the chances of becoming a victim of a break-in in the first place.

The San Jose Police Department offers these tips to reduce the threat of break-in:

  • Make your home look occupied
  • Lock all outside windows and doors before going out or to bed
  • Keep your garage door closed and locked
  • Leave the lights on when you go out
  • Trim shrubbery back from in front of windows and doors
  • Add exterior lighting with motion sensors

Prevention is about more than securing your home; it also means reducing the temptation for thieves. Most burglars will drive around a neighborhood looking for an easy or lucrative target to strike. Removing the proverbial welcome mat for burglars is often a matter of common sense.

When you are going on vacation, make sure your lawn is mowed; if you are going to be away for more than a week, arrange to have someone mow or trim the grass while you are gone. Suspend newspaper and mail deliveries while you’re away, and add a timer to your interior lights.

Even short trips away from home leave your home vulnerable to break-ins, but steps can be taken to reduce that risk as well. Close open windows and garage doors before going shopping because an open door is an invitation to thieves.

The single biggest mistake people make when leaving their home for a quick trip to the store is leaving a note, literally, saying when you will be back. Police departments around the country advise against leaving a note on your door to let a repairman or delivery person know when you will be back. After all, burglars can read too!

Feel Secure Again

No amount of money can replace the lost sense of security that follows a home burglary. Even having the thief caught and all your property returned is often not enough to return a sense of normalcy to a home. If you find yourself the victim of a break-in, remember that restoring your family’s sense of stability and security is the number one priority. Your insurer’s job is to help you do this. If you find that you’re fighting tooth and nail over every detail of your claim, it may be time to switch providers.

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