The five things you must know before buying a home insurance policy
A home insurance policy is a contract taken out to protect your house and its contents from damage and events like fire, burglary and natural disasters. It combines building insurance and contents insurance in one cost-effective package, and often includes liability cover to pay legal and medical costs if visitors are injured at your home.
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What does home and contents insurance cover?
The following options are available with most home and contents insurance policies. Some will always be included while others are optional or might not even be available. Ideally you should get a household insurance policy which covers everything that could issue that could realistically happen. The more likely it is to happen, the more it will raise your premiums. Choose what you need to be protected from.
|Option||What it means||What it typically does not cover|
|Flood||Any area that is normally dry land being covered by water, such as burst river banks||House flooding from leaky roofs, tsunamis, storm surges, high tides and other ocean movements|
|Fire||Damage caused by burning, including from lightning strikes that start fires||Cigarette burns, arcing or isolated scorch marks. It only covers fires that have spread. Typically does not cover arson|
|Storm||Extreme weather conditions including high wind, heavy rain, lightning and more. It usually only covers direct damage from these||Fires caused by lightning, landslides caused by heavy rain, flooding caused by strong waves and similar exemptions|
|Earthquake||Damage caused by seismic activity, usually including tsunamis and direct structure damage||Damage that occurs too long after the earthquake, such as a home that was damaged but only collapsed several days later|
|Actions of the Sea||Waves, high tides and ocean movements not caused by extreme weather||Tsunamis, storm surges, coastal erosion|
|Lightning||Damage caused as a direct result of lightning strikes||Electrical damage from power surges or failures, including loss of income|
|Impact||Direct impact damage such as from falling trees and power lines, satellite dishes, space debris or objects thrown from a trailer or car||Deliberate impacts made by people, cars crashing into your property and anything not mentioned in the policy|
|Vandalism and Malicious Damage||Deliberate property damage caused by defacing or otherwise damaging property||Any actions by a person who lives at that address or is included in the insurance policy|
|Theft and Attempted Theft||Stolen property and damage done for the purpose of the theft such as broken windows||Loss of income, incidental property damage, theft by someone who was there with your consent|
|Escape of Liquid||Damage caused by and the repair of leaks from burst pipes, swimming pools, aquariums and almost anything else||Wear and tear damage caused by liquid, water damage caused by gradual leaks, mold and similar|
|Alternative Accommodation||A temporary place to stay if you can’t live in your home after it’s been damaged||Anything beyond a certain cost. This is usually something like 10% of the total sum insured|
|Homeowners Liability||Medical costs from injuries suffered by people on your property, such as a guest falling down the stairs or a gardener being bitten by your dog, and related legal costs||Injuries sustained outside the property, although some policies will include this too. Costs beyond a certain maximum amount|
|Loss of Income||Loss of income from damage to your home or possessions, such as theft of home office supplies or trade tools||Loss of income from injury, illness or other causes|
Exclusions you will find in most home insurance policies
These are typically not covered by insurance companies because the costs are too unpredictable or the risk level is too high. However, if you do want coverage from some of these it may be possible to find a policy that covers them.
- Wear and tear, and gradual deterioration such as mold, rust, gradual erosion and more.
- Actions of the sea in high risk coastal areas.
- Nuclear, biological and chemical spills or pollution.
- Any injuries or damage incurred by the policyholder while doing anything illegal, including possession of unlicensed firearms, dangerous dogs, illicit drugs and anything else.
- Any costs related to stress, anxiety, discomfort or inconvenience.
- Power surges unless they were caused by an insured event.
- Any deliberate damage caused by you.
- Damage caused by shoddy renovations or home construction, unless the builder was previously approved by the insurance company.
- Sentimental value of items.
- Damage to gardens or landscaping.
Conditions that may result in exclusions
If you are found to be responsible or at fault, insurance companies may not be pay claims even if the event itself is covered. These may be things like:
- Theft of unsecured items, such as from unlocked homes.
- Damage to a home which looks unoccupied.
- Illegally or improperly storing dangerous materials such as explosives on your property.
- Damage caused by failure to properly maintain buildings or possessions.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 1.8 million Australian households, or 23%, have no home and contents insurance.
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What should I look for in an insurance policy?
When reading over an insurance policy, look for how claims are paid. There are two main ways of paying claims on buildings.
- Total replacement covers all the costs of restoring your home to the way it was before an event so you don’t need to worry about any difference between the cost of this and the amount you were insured for. This is particularly useful because the price of building and material costs, temporary accommodation and basic necessities can go up in times of disaster. Total replacement is not always available.
- Sum insured is more common, and refers to a specified dollar amount chosen by you. The sum insured should ideally be how much it would cost to rebuild your home exactly how it was, and replace all your possessions.
Building codesIf building codes have been updated since your house was built, it may cost more to reconstruct it today.
- New for old: Replaces your belongings with equivalent new ones or pays the value of new ones.
- Replacement: Is a policy that will pay the actual value of lost items, subject to depreciation.
- Limits: The limits are the maximum amounts that will be paid for certain things. The total limit is typically the sum insured, but more specific limits will apply to other things. For example, an insurance policy might have a $1,000 per item limit for jewellery, which means they will only pay up to that amount for each separate item of jewellery. They might also have something like a $20 million limit for legal liability, or a $20,000 limit for impact damage.
- Flexibility: This is the freedom to adjust your policy to suit changing circumstances. Some products will only let you adjust your cover at renewal time, but if your circumstances frequently change this might not work for you. One of the most common flexibility features is variable excesses. The excess is a fee you have to pay when making a claim. Variable excesses are the option of choosing higher excess for lower premiums, or lower excess for higher premiums.
- Flexible limits are the ability to choose a level of cover that’s right for your needs, even it’s outside the typical range. For example, the default limit might be $1,000 per item of jewellery, but each of your jewellery items costs $2,000. In this case flexible coverage can let you raise the jewellery per item limit from $1,000 to $2,000. This will also raise your premiums.
- Exclusions: These are things not covered by the insurance policy, or conditions under which you cannot make claims. For example, a home insurance policy might not cover damage to a furnished home if it was left empty for more than 30 days but will cover it in an unfurnished home. All household insurance product disclosure statements (PDS) will have an exclusions section to make them clear. Don’t shop by price alone. The best home insurance policy is one that covers you well and has lower premiums. It’s worth paying more for one that covers you thoroughly.
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How do I find the best household insurance policy for my needs?
Everyone has different home and contents insurance needs. To find the one that’s right for you:
Calculate the sum insured The total value of your home and contents is called the sum insured.
Most insurers have calculators on their website to help you estimate this. Insurance companies will not pay out more than the actual value if your sum-insured was too high, but will pay out less than they were worth if your sum insured was too low. Alternatively, you might get total replacement which covers the value of what was lost, regardless of any sum insured. Use sum insured calculators provided by insurance companies and compare the figure they give with the sum you arrived at. If there’s a big difference you should review your home and contents in more detail.
Avoid being underinsured The simplest way to avoid underinsurance is with a total replacement policy or an extended cover option where available. Extended cover will pay out a certain additional amount on top of the sum insured to cover unexpected costs, usually an additional 20-30%. To avoid underinsurance you should follow certain steps.
- Consider additional expenses involved when something happens. This includes paying for removal of debris, architect or construction fees, administration costs, building material expenses, cleaning up after events, and other associated costs.
- Think about how prices will change following events. For example, widespread disasters will typically cause prices of accommodation, construction materials, and essentials to go up.
- Check to see whether or not your insurance policy covers these extra costs as part of the sum insured, where you will need to include them, or as additional expenses on top of the sum insured.
- Carefully look at what additional costs are included as this varies widely between different home insurance policies. When things that are not included you will need to foot the bill yourself.
Decide what you want covered Choose which risks you need protection from. Remember that you will only be covered for things specifically listed in the insurance PDS. Consider everything of value and all potential risks including natural disasters, accidents, crime and medical or legal liability.
Compare Policies You must know your desired sum insured and what you want covered before choosing a policy. Consult a number of different insurance companies to compare home insurance options. If there are any details you’re not completely sure of, you should ask the insurance company about them. Look at a variety of reviews to try to get a sense of how easy it is to make claims, and ask people you know who have had experience with insurance companies that you’re considering. Insurance companies provide different types of coverage and levels of service in different areas.
A review of a company’s Queensland branch might not be applicable for Sydney. Try to find reviews from your area.
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How can I get lower household insurance premiums?
There are many ways to lower your costs.
- Consider increasing your excess: Some insurance companies give you a measure of control over excesses, also known as deductibles, which are fees that you must pay for making a claim. This fee is subtracted from the payout. Sometimes you can choose to increase your excess and pay less in premiums.
- Don’t make claims you don’t need: It’s not unusual for insurance premiums to increase whenever you make a claim. Consider not claiming on damaged, destroyed or stolen low value items and keeping your premiums lower as this can save you money in the long run. The higher the value of the claim, the more your premiums will go up.
- Have good home security: If you’re at lower risk of crime or vandalism, insurance companies will often recognise this and give you reduced premiums.
- If possible, subscribe annually rather than monthly. This basically gives you a ‘bulk discount’ on insurance but means you’re locked into the contract for a 12 month period and will need to pay larger lump sums, but less in total.
- Keep a running inventory of all the major possessions you own and how much they’re worth. This lets you get the cover you need without paying too much whenever you renew your insurance.
- Maintain your property well. This reduces the chances of you needing to make a claim and keeps your premiums low.
- Smoke alarms, storm shutters, reinforced building materials and more can reduce your premiums, particularly if you live in an area that’s susceptible to particular types of weather damage.
Always read your home insurance renewal policy closely. Your insurer may be raising premiums regularly. It might be time to switch providers and find a better deal.
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What should I avoid doing?
Most home insurance traps can be avoided by knowing exactly what you’re paying for. You should avoid:
- Incomplete coverage: Having a sum insured that’s too low, or an insurance policy that doesn’t protect against all the things your home is at risk from.
- Leaving your policy as it is: Remember to update your home and contents insurance policy if there are any changes. For example, if you've extended your house or acquired valuable items.
- Paying for things you don’t need: Earthquakes are impossible in some places, and the odds of experiencing flooding on a mountaintop are slim to none, but that doesn’t mean insurance companies won’t try to include those.
- Low limits: Most policies will have limits for certain things. These might be size limits, such as up to 500m of fencing, or dollar value limits such as up to $5000 worth of jewellery. Make sure these limits aren’t too low.
- Not having records: Keep thorough records of everything you want covered. Clear photographs of possessions in their usual location are recommended. Receipts and other proof of purchase can act as records of their value. A frequently updated electronic spreadsheet that lists all your items by room is an easy way to keep track of possessions. Ideally it should be stored in such a way as to be accessible even if your home is destroyed.
Tell it like it isYou must be honest with your insurer. Making a false claim by adding fictitious items to a list of lost or damaged goods is illegal.
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The good and the bad of home and contents insurance
- It is important, and means you won’t need to start from scratch if you lose everything.
- It is usually flexible and allows you to add or reduce your cover as circumstances change.
- It covers both your home and possessions and is usually more cost effective than insuring them separately.
- Not all natural disasters are covered by the insurance companies (such as hurricane, flood and earthquake) or they are covered partially.
- Most brands will require you to pay an excess in the event of a claim.
- You need to accurately calculate the sum insured, or you could get partial compensation, or pay more to get less.
How much does home insurance cost?
The amount you spend on home insurance varies enormously depending on the sum insured, location and level of coverage and any discounts you may be getting. If you think you’re paying too much, get quotes from a different provider. The table below is based on the average prices from several insurance companies for $500,000 sum insured, and roughly shows how widely they can vary between locations.
|Example Yearly Cost||$1,600||$1,450||$950||$1,200||$1,100||$1,05|
Uninsured Mansions in Sydney StormsBeachside homeowners in Sydney’s Collaroy area thought they were well protected by home insurance when storms wracked the city in June 2016. The combination of a king tide, heavy winds and coastal erosion collapsed people’s backyards, decks and ocean-facing rooms into the surf.
After the storm, when the time came to claim on their home insurance policies, residents were stunned to discover that they weren’t covered against this eventuality. It didn’t qualify as flooding or storm damage, but rather as an action of the sea. This was largely because of the king tide, a regular yet infrequent ultra-high tide which was deemed to be the main culprit, rather than the storm surge or waterlogged ground. Even more surprising, it quickly became apparent that most insurers only offer coverage against actions of the sea in inland areas, but not on the coast.
Coastal homeowners who had specifically sought coverage against actions of the sea may have been refused because the insurance companies had deemed the risk levels to be simply unacceptable. The 2016 Sydney storms highlight the need for revised insurance regulations to make sure all homeowners can find the level of protection they need. It also highlights the importance of reading the fine print, pressing the insurance company for clear details and proactively knowing the risks that your home is facing. If an insurance company doesn’t want to offer you a certain type of cover, it might mean you need it the most.
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The most common home insurance claims and how to avoid them
Water damage, fire damage, storm damage and household accidents are four of the biggest and most costly hazards you might face. Depending on how they occurred, you might not be protected even with comprehensive cover. Fortunately there are a lot of ways to minimise these risks.
- Regularly check under sinks, at washing machine connections and anywhere else you have pipes. Avoid flushing foreign objects down toilets and make sure you address any signs of a leak as soon as possible, because even a small leak can cause an exponentially growing amount of damage over time.
- Keep an eye out for mildew and mold and try to scrub it away as soon as possible. It’s a common effect of Australia’s warm climate but can also be a sign of internal water damage as in the case of rising damp. If mold keeps appearing in a well ventilated room, it could be a leak that you don’t know about. Ignoring these issues can count as a failure to adequately maintain the home, which can be used to reject insurance claims.
- When handling mold and water damage, go all out. Sponge or mop away as much as possible and open windows to speed drying. Remove rugs and let them dry. Doing everything you can to handle these issues reduces claims and keeps insurance costs down.
- Don’t overload power points and switch off appliances when not in use.
- Have at least one fire extinguisher in the home and know how to use it.
- Install enough smoke alarms in your home and test them regularly. Some insurance companies will offer reduced premiums if you maintain functional smoke alarms. However, if there is a fire and the alarms are non-functional you will likely not be able to claim insurance.
- If you have an old gas or oil heater, consider upgrading. The safety benefits are typically recognised by insurance companies in the form of reduced costs.
- Do not cover heaters. Neglecting the warning signs on appliances can leave you unable to claim insurance, or only able to claim greatly reduced amounts if you are found to be at fault.
- Protect your windows. Broken windows are extremely common, while glass shards lost in carpets indoors can cause serious injuries later on. If you live in an area that’s prone to storms it can be worth investing in shutters to protect the windows.
- Australia has seen a lot of hail storms in recent years. They can cover an enormous area and do staggering amounts of property damage. Most homes easily cope with milder hail storms, but particularly severe ones can shatter roof tiles, break windows and more. If you have reinforced roofing or storm shutters you may be able to get some form of insurance discount.
- Make sure outdoor stairs are well lit. You may be held responsible if visitors injure themselves where there’s no lighting available.
- Do you have a dog? Having your dog complete a certified behaviour training course can reduce your liability in the event that it bites someone. If your dog bites someone without passing a training course you’re more likely to be held liable, even if it was provoked.
- Trampolines, swimming pools and backyard playgrounds cause countless scrapes and bruises, but also more serious injuries. Swimming pool fences and signage, which are legal requirements, trampoline padding, and adult supervision (also a legal requirement) on the playground can make it clear that you’ve taken all the right steps.
Answers to all your home insurance questions
Choosing a policy
Q. How do I calculate how much cover to take out?
- The most accurate way is with an independent valuation, but online calculators are also useful. The value of the building is how much it would cost to rebuild today, exactly as it was. Do not include the value of the land.
- Keep an updated written inventory of major possessions. To start with, you should do a room-by-room inventory, or a video walkthrough of each part of the house. Remember to include attics, garages and sheds. Electronically storing this information and backups in a safe place reduces the odds of it being lost if your home is.
Q. How much do my premiums increase when I make a claim?
- When you make a claim, your premiums will tend to increase. The amount they go up depends on the value of the claim. The more you’re claiming, the more they increase.
Q. Are carpets and blinds part of the building or the contents?
- If it’s a permanent fixture it’s part of the building. If it’s removable it’s part of the contents. Carpets and blinds can be ambiguous, but this should be clarified in the insurance PDS. When in doubt, ask the insurance company.
Q. Are items covered in the contents policy covered away from home?
- Not by default. You will need to have portable contents insurance for accidental loss or damage outside your home.
About home insurance
Q. Is mandatory flood cover included?
- Mandatory flood cover refers to the practice of including flood insurance in all policies, even those that are at practically no risk of flooding. The extra cost of mandatory flood cover should depend on your personal risk of suffering from floods, but some customers have found this inclusion to be raising their premiums excessively, even if they live in places that are at practically no risk of floods. Ask your insurance provider for a breakdown of premium costs to find out how much you’re paying for flood cover.[/fin_accordion
- If places that are usually dry land are underwater, then it’s flooding. Flooding does not include homes being soaked by burst pipes. This can vary though, so check the insurance PDS and if in doubt, ask the insurance company.
Q. Do I have to record all my belongings individually or can I group them together?
- You can bundle items together, or price them separately. Most home insurance policies will ask you to record collections of things like DVDs or stamps. Ask your insurance company for more precise details if you’re unsure.
Q. Can I adjust my policy in the future?
- Yes. Some insurance companies will only let you adjust your policy at renewal time, while others will let you do it at almost any time. Sometimes different policies from the same insurer will have different conditions under which you can adjust the policy. If you’re unsure, check the PDS or ask the insurance company.
Q. I have high value items. Are they covered by my contents insurance?
- If it’s a standard home insurance policy, they are most likely only partially covered. You need to look at the limits listed in the PDS to find out how much of their value is covered, or how many of them are covered. You may wish to purchase additional coverage if you don’t have enough.
Q. Is accidental damage caused by me covered?
- Not automatically, but it can usually be added as an extra option. This is not just for you, but also for anyone who lives at your address or is included in your insurance policy.
Q. I am building a brand new house. When can I insure it?
- When the Certificate of Handover is provided by your builder.
Q. What’s involved in a home insurance policy renewal?
- At renewal time, which is usually monthly, twice yearly or annually, you’ll get a notice from your insurance company which details the amount payable and the next steps. This is a good time to adjust your cover and make adjustments for new possessions or additions to the home.
Q. Will I have to pay two excesses for a building and contents claim?
- Generally not, as long as you are claiming on both for the same insured event.
Q. What if the home itself is defective?
- It usually depends on whether or not you knew about it. If you knew there was an issue but took no action then you are probably responsible for the costs. If you didn’t know there was an issue, such as if you bought a home from someone that didn’t disclose broken roof tiles to you, then you are probably not responsible for the costs.
Dealing with insurance companies
Q. What should I do if my premiums suddenly increase?
- A frequent complaint regarding insurance companies is that they will suddenly raise premiums. If your premium has suddenly increased without explanation you should contact the insurance company and see whether or not it’s a mistake. They must explain increases if asked. From there you are can either try to renegotiate a lower premium or take your business elsewhere.
Q. How do I make a claim?
- Contact your insurance company as soon as you can to let them know you’re making a claim. You will usually be required to fill out a claim form, and in the event of large loss they will generally send someone around to assess the situation. Be honest, and keep all the appropriate documents and evidence to support your claim, such as photographs, video walkthroughs of the home, receipts, etc. Cooperate with your insurer and assessors however you can to make the claim go as smoothly as possible.
Q. What if I leave my home for a period?
- If you leave your home unattended for short periods there’s no problem, but if you leave your home empty for more than 60 days, you should notify your insurer. Check your PDS for the exact details.
Q. How do I show proof of ownership and proof of loss when making a claim?
- For proof of ownership, you’ll need receipts, credit card records or something else which shows that you made the purchase and the value of the item. For proof of loss you can use things like police records, photographs or other evidence. The insurance company will often send someone around to verify the details.
Q. What happens if the insurance company won’t pay?
- There are a lot of conditions under which an insurance company may refuse to pay out. They will tell you why, but if you disagree then you should first contact the company and try again. If you still feel that you are owed then you can seek the opinions of a professional third party or take legal action.
Q. How do I cancel my insurance policy?
- All policies will let you cancel rather than renew when the time comes. Only some, however, will let you cancel at any time. To do so, notify your insurance company.
Q. Can I start cleaning up before the insurance assessor arrives to inspect the damage?
- Yes, although if you do so before the assessor arrives you should take photographs or video the damage first. Don’t throw away damaged items until the assessor has seen them, unless it’s a health hazard.