A: Our recent story on homeowners insurance generated a fair amount of mail, including yours. We’ve heard from insurance agents and homeowners and can tell that there’s a significant amount of confusion in the market about what homeowners insurance is designed to do.
Homeowners and insurance agents always want to assign blame for things that happen, so we're not surprised that you feel if it is your son's neighbor's tree, then any damage caused by the tree should fall to the owner. But unless your neighbor was doing something to his tree to cause it to come down, we doubt you can blame the neighbor. Frequently, rain, wind, snow, ice and other weather events cause trees to fall. Sometimes their age or insect damage is a primary or secondary cause.
Insurance companies deal with certain specific issues and limit their potential exposure in their policy. We suspect if the tree was located on your son’s property and had fallen on your son’s home, his insurance company would have covered the loss. Likewise, if the tree had fallen on the neighbor’s home, the neighbor’s insurance would have covered his loss.
The question you raise is whether the liability insurance coverage of your son’s neighbor should cover the tree. Since we suspect the tree came down because of natural causes and there was no fault on the neighbor’s part, his insurance company would decline coverage.
But your son’s insurance policy should cover him for the damage caused by the tree. Remember, his homeowners insurance policy is there to cover him from financial damages caused by natural events such as rainstorms, windstorms, hailstorms and lightning, but it typically won’t cover him from floods and other events unless he specifically has coverage for those items.
Your son would have to review his policy, but we suspect the right outcome was having his insurance pay the claim. Unfortunately, your son is probably out the deductible, so the fallen tree probably cost him some cash.
On a separate note, we received several emails relating to our advice to shop around for home insurance policies. Some of our correspondents wanted us to remind you not to shop for a homeowners insurance policy solely on price.
The way insurance companies pay claims should be a factor when deciding on which company to insure your home. If the company has a bad reputation for paying its claims or fights homeowners on every claim issue, any money you save on the annual premium would seem like a waste of money in the long run. Fighting insurance companies can be time-consuming and expensive.
Also, as you shop around, some of our correspondents noted that it’s helpful to understand why local homeowners insurance policy premiums increase. If the home is in an area where insurance companies have sustained huge losses, you can expect premiums to rise for everyone. On the other hand, if the homeowner has filed several claims against his homeowners insurance policy, that policy cost might go up because of the frequency of claims rather than a local weather event.
And, finally, our correspondents agree that finding a good homeowners insurance company requires more knowledge than just finding a low price online. Increases in the cost of that policy could be because of those claims.
Our thanks to everyone who wrote. We'll continue to publish additional comments in upcoming columns.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.