8 insurance tips for homeowners and renters during hurricane season

When waters are churning in the ocean, will you – and your home insurance – be ready?

On average, more than 17 hurricanes strike the mainland United States each decade, according to the National Hurricane Center. These strong storms have the potential to affect millions of people: More than half of Americans live within 50 miles of the U.S. coastline, according to the National Ocean Service.

Homeowner's and renter's insurance policies take into account the hurricane history in your area. “For homeowner's insurance, the weather risk is probably the main factor in rate differences,” says Jerry Hagins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance.

Understanding your insurance rates and coverage for hurricanes will keep you, your family and your home prepared for the storms.

hurricane_insuranceHere are eight things you should keep in mind when it comes to hurricanes and insurance.

1. Get flood insurance.

Flood damage is not covered under standard home insurance policies, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Flood insurance is available through the National Flood Insurance Program and can be purchased through an insurance company or agent. The policy will provide coverage for up to $250,000 for property and $100,000 for contents. Both homeowners and renters can purchase flood insurance.

Flood insurance is an essential purchase – even if you initially don’t think you’ll need it, says Karyn Anjali, a real estate agent in Florida's Tampa Bay area. Homes outside a low-lying flood zone still could be affected by heavy rains, as a fast downpour could lead to water damage in your residence.

2. Understand wind coverage.

In some states, home insurance policies in hurricane-prone areas may not provide coverage for wind damage.

If your home is in one of the 14 coastal counties in Texas, for instance, your policy might not include windstorm coverage, and you’ll need to purchase wind insurance separately.

Florida has labeled certain coastal areas as "high-risk" and residents in these regions may not be able to get coverage for wind damage through a home insurance policy. For those unable to get wind coverage elsewhere, Florida offers coverage through Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

3. Buy insurance ahead of time.

Hurricane season in the Eastern Pacific begins every May 15 and ends every Nov. 30, according to the National Hurricane Center. In the Atlantic, hurricane season starts roughly two weeks later – June 1 – and ends Nov. 30.

When you purchase policies such as flood insurance, a 30-day waiting period typically kicks in before the policy takes effect. To make sure your home is protected, buy a policy before hurricane warnings appear.

4. Expect to pay more – in some areas.

If a particular region has had a long list of claims for hurricanes over the years, insurance companies may set higher premiums to account for the risks involved. In Texas, for instance, residents living in coastal Galveston County paid $2,635, on average, for owner-occupied homeowner's insurance in 2009. In dry El Paso County, however, they paid a mere $582 as an average premium for owner-occupied homeowner's insurance that same year.

On average, a flood insurance policy costs about $600 a year. Residential premiums, however, can be as low as $49 a year for contents-only coverage. For homes in high-risk areas, the annual premium can be as high as $2,930 for both building and contents coverage. Check out this information about flood maps to learn about the risk in your area.

5. Get coverage for your belongings.

For renters, hurricane-damaged goods can put a huge dent in your budget.

“Replacing a two-bedroom apartment with furniture, appliances and electronics can cost up to $10,000,” Anjali says. Renter's insurance often covers these items, and the premium payments are likely to cost less than it would to replace the items after a hurricane.

Read through your policy to see what’s covered; if yours doesn’t include belongings, consider getting coverage for them.

6. Look into discounts.

In Florida, for hurricane coverage, insurers offer discounts for specific roof systems, says Nina Ashley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Financial Services. These discounts are based on features such as the type of material used in the roof, the shape of the roof, and how well it is attached to the home and resistant to leaks.

To qualify for insurance reductions, homeowners in Florida need to have the Office of Insurance Regulation inspect the home. Residents can view the Uniform Mitigation Verification Inspection Form to see details on the requirements.

Other home features that may lead to discounts include shutters, impact-resistant windows and doors, and hurricane-resistant panels and materials designed to protect garage doors and skylights.

Discounts vary from state to state; if you’re unsure of what’s available in your state, ask your insurance company or check your state insurance department's website.

7. Prepare your home.

Make sure your gutters and outside drains are clean before any storm hits, as water collected at the edge of the house could leak into the foundation and basement, says Robert Weitz, a certified microbial investigator at RTK Environmental Group, an environmental testing service in the Northeast.

Also, be prepared to keep your sump pump running, even without electricity. If you have a generator, make sure it's connected to the sump pump and fueled or charged.

8. Make a plan.

In your insurance policy, find out how much coverage you have for additional living expenses, the Insurance Information Institute says. This coverage helps take care of extra costs, such as hotels and restaurants, if you need to leave your home after a hurricane.

Once you know what’s covered, create a plan that lists where to go and who to contact in an emergency. Make a supplies kit, including food, water and other goods that will last at least 72 hours. Also, decide what to do with pets if you need a place for them to stay.

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