When it comes to insuring a home, most people probably think about catastrophes like windstorms, fires or floods. But there’s another risk that should be given just as much attention: vandalism. And we’re not talking about Halloween-inspired toilet papering of trees.
According to a recent estimate, graffiti vandalism costs U.S. taxpayers more $25 billion in damage each year to public and private property. And that figure doesn’t take into account other forms of vandalism like structural damage.
“The good news is that almost every general homeowner’s policy in this country covers vandalism and theft,” says Mike Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. “Where it gets tricky is when you start to consider some of the caveats that can apply depending on your situation.”
In the most basic of scenarios, Barry says, an insurance company will reimburse a homeowner for damage resulting from acts of vandalism such as graffiti or broken windows. It shouldn't make a difference whether the damage was holiday-related. Minus the deductible, a homeowner should receive a fair settlement to make necessary repairs.
However, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the vandalism portion of your insurance policy so you can be prepared if your home becomes a graffiti artist’s canvas.
Vacant homes are targets
Frank Darras, an attorney who specializes in insurance matters, says the biggest vandalism threat arises if a homeowner leaves the home vacant for more than 30 days. “Whether the house is vacant because it’s on the market or the family is away on an extended trip,” he says, “homeowners need to be vigilant about protection.”
Here are five tips from Darras to keep vandals away from your home if you’re going to be away for an extended period:1. If the house is being sold and but isn’t occupied, Darras says, homeowners should display a real estate sign that includes the phrases “By appointment only” and “Do not disturb occupants.”
- If the house is being sold and but isn’t occupied, Darras says, homeowners should display a real estate sign that includes the phrases “By appointment only” and “Do not disturb occupants.”
- Ask a trusted neighbor to park his car in your driveway. “This gives the impression someone still lives there, which is an obvious deterrent to would-be vandals,” Darras says.
- Install motion-sensitive floodlights and set your interior lights to variable timers to give the illusion that the home remains occupied.
- Ask relatives, friends or neighbors to look after your property while you’re away. This includes collecting mail regularly and inspecting the home for any damage.
- If your house is up for sale, put the lock box for Realtors at the back of the home, not the front. “A lot of vandalism and theft occurs when a lock box is put out in front of a house for sale,” Darras says. “Vandals come in the middle of the night, cut the lock box, drill out the key, and the next day they return to trash your house and remove everything that’s not nailed down, including copper piping, toilets and built-in shelving.”
Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California, says homeowners who plan on being away for a lengthy period should consider alerting their insurance agents about the vacancy. Lehman says absent homeowners should look at buying a vacant-home insurance policy, which can cover the increased risk of vandalism.
Barry says the cost of this type of policy can vary from two to five times the amount you’re paying for a basic policy. The good news is that insurers often sell insurance for vacant property on a month-to-month basis.
Was it arson?
Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania, says some of the most seemingly harmless forms of vandalism often can lead to a fire.
“For instance, what if a neighbor plays the prank of lighting a bag of dog feces and throwing it onto your porch?” Lynch says. “That fire could spread to the straw door mat and then to the wooden door itself. Suddenly you’ve got significant damage on your hands.”
Darras says some insurance companies won’t cover fire damage caused by vandalism.
“I always tell people that they need to call their insurance company and ask this simple question: Does my policy cover fire caused by vandalism?” Darras says. “You should know this before an event occurs.”
5 steps for filing a vandalism claim
Filing an insurance claim after an act of vandalism should follow specific steps, says Dan Odess, president of East Coast Public Adjusters.
- Minimize the damage, but don’t repair. “If a window is broken, board it up so no further damage occurs from rain or wind, because that won’t be covered by your insurer,” Odess says. “But do not make any repairs to the damage before an adjuster has come out and looked at the house.”
- File a police report. “As soon as you find out your house has been vandalized, call 911 and get the police to file an extensive report,” Odess says. “This policy report is the Holy Grail of your claim, because it’s an accurate record of the specific damages you incurred and the only piece of evidence you have.”
- Look around one last time. “If you find additional damage after the police have left, call them right away and ask that the police report be amended,” Odess says.
- Document, document, document. You should keep a precise paper trail of everything you’ve purchased for your home, every upgrade you’ve made and any damage that occurred, Lehman says. “The more photos and videos you have, the better you will be able to make your case to the insurance company,” he says.
- Call your insurance company. “A lot of people will want to call their insurance company right after they find out the house has been vandalized. But you need to make sure everything else is in order first,” Odess says.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that originally ran in 2012.