Eiman Jahangir never imagined cashing in on his homeowners insurance policy.
Still, he acknowledged, “Everyone says to insure for the worst.”
Then it happened, the destructive Tubbs fire of October 2017. Jahangir awoke after 1:30 a.m. to a knock at the door of his Santa Rosa, Calif., home. When he swung it open, he was mesmerized by flames.
Jahangir, his wife, son and dog jumped in the car, fleeing to a friend’s house with nothing but their wallets and some clothing. Two hours later, at about 3:30 a.m., Jahangir received a phone call telling him that the heat alarm in his home’s attic was sounding.
“I realized our home was gone and, with that, so much of our stability — in fact, all of our stability, except for our finances,” said Jahangir, a cardiologist with savings, but also $170,000 in student loan debt. “I also realized I was well-insured for my home.”
With a large insurance payout in his future, Jahangir faced a question that’s not uncommon in situations like his: Should any of the money from the insurance go to paying off other liabilities, such as student loans?
What to do when you receive a home insurance payout
There are three areas of coverage of homeowners insurance: structure (the house itself), belongings (everything inside it), and liability (accidents happening inside).
Fortunately, the fire that raged through Jahangir’s home was covered under his insurance, and they didn’t need a policy extension the way you might for floods and earthquakes.
With no home to return to, the Jahangirs elected to pay off their mortgage, cash out their policy, and move on. And yes, with some of the funds, Jahangir also repaid his student loans.
“The insurance payment put my debt and savings plan forward by 10 years,” Jahangir said.
Whether you could use your potential home insurance payout for student loans or other debt, however, depends first on whether you plan to walk away or stay put.
If you plan to leave your home…
Photo courtesy of Eiman Jahangir
After the Tubbs fire — the second-costliest in American history, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III) — the Jahangirs lived in four places in two years. They found themselves distracted during the day, and their son stopped sleeping through the night. Finally, the family decided to move back to Tennessee and buy a home there.
Leaving California meant leaving their ruined house. The family’s insurer, Allied, a subsidiary of Nationwide, helped Jahangir with the logistics of collecting on his claim. Once he paid the balance of his mortgage, the bank gave him what was left of the insurance payout.
This “cash out” policy isn’t standard, although high-end insurers like Chubb and Private Client from Forest Agency Insurance also offer it, according to insurance analyst Matt Timmons at ValuePenguin. (Note: Both Student Loan Hero and ValuePenguin are owned by LendingTree.)
And in fact, the average homeowner might leave money on the table by walking away from their home.
“For a typical homeowners insurance policy with replacement cost coverage, you’re usually paid in two parts,” Timmons said. “First, you get the depreciated or actual cash value immediately; then the remainder after the repairs are complete.”
In Jahangir’s case, his settlement offered the cash reserves necessary to cover his mortgage and pay off his debt — but he didn’t come to the latter decision easily.
If you plan to repair your home…
Unlike the Jahangirs, Brad Ruttenberg and his family didn’t lose their home. However, Hurricane Irma knock over three trees, damaging their house and fence in September 2017.
Ruttenberg, a certified financial planner (CFP) by day, was cut a $5,000 check to make repairs after meeting his hurricane insurance policy’s deductible. Ruttenberg handled the home improvements himself for $1,200 — then considered using the remaining cash on his wife’s student loan debt.
“We could have paid down some of that debt with the excess funds, but I knew we had an impending expense coming that needed to be covered,” he said. “Our AC unit was outside of its warranty and on its last legs. Instead of financing a new unit, we were able to use our excess insurance funds plus additional savings to pay in cash.”
Ruttenberg wasn’t alone: About 668,000 homeowners filed insurance claims in Irma’s wake, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
For homeowners who stay in their homes, using a claim payout to cover debt isn’t always feasible, according to ValuePenguin’s Timmons.
“If you borrowed to finance your home purchase, your lender will want the home completely repaired as it serves as collateral for your loan,” Timmons said. “If you do have leftover money after an insurance claim — either because you repaired your home yourself or your contractor came in under budget — you will often be able to keep the money, and that can be used for whatever you want.”
Plus, unless you choose a DIY approach like Ruttenberg’s, you might not ever see the claim award, since some insurers will pay your contractor directly.
How to decide whether to use your insurance payout on debt
Jahangir enjoyed low interest rates on his debt — so low that he considered carrying it into his new life in Tennessee. After all, he could invest his insurance payout. Jahangir, who authors the Dads Dollars Debt blog in his spare time, considered chasing a higher return on his money than the interest rate he would be paying to his debtors.
Looking back, Jahangir easily recites his medical degree debt number as if it had been rattling around his brain daily: $170,000 at 3.10%.
Post-insurance payout, he made a debt decision that went against the math.
“I paid all of it off, even though they were low-interest loans,” said Jahangir, who also decided to cover his $30,000 car loan despite its 0.00% rate. “I wanted to … be truly free from the shackles of debt.”
If you’re not in the fortunate position of having a high-paying career and some savings in the bank, your plan could look different. But having lived through it, Jahangir has a recommendation for consumers at all income levels. He suggests “sitting on the money for a few months — let life settle out.”
“You are getting an insurance check because something bad has happened, something really bad. So take the time you need to recover,” he said.
When your head is in a better place, you might consult a CFP like Ruttenberg. He advises a two-step approach before deciding to use your payout on debt:
- Ensure you have an emergency fund with at least one month’s worth of essential expenses. You’ll likely want a larger fund if you lack job security.
- Brainstorm other potential expenses and save ahead for those too. Include living expenses that wouldn’t be immediately reimbursed through your policy’s liability coverage.
“Paying off debt is great,” Ruttenberg said, “but it doesn’t do any good unless you’re prepared to cover future expenses in cash.”
Future expenses like, say, an old air conditioner.
What to consider when using your payout on student loan debt
A windfall of any kind — whether it comes from your home insurer or your generous grandma — could be a boon toward your student loan debt. You can get an idea of exactly how helpful by using a loan prepayment calculator.
Say you owe $57,000 in student loans — about a third as much debt as Jahangir had — and a higher, more realistic 5.05% collective interest rate, which is the current rate for federal Direct Loans for undergraduates. By paying off the debt entirely, you could save more than $15,000 in future interest changes.
But you can also run another cost-benefit analysis to go beyond dollars and cents: Jahangir decided, for example, that the peace of mind of being debt-free was worth forfeiting potential investment gains on his insurance payout.
Unlike Jahangir, however, you might not have a high-paying career and savings account in your back pocket. In that case, consider Ruttenberg’s advice: Ensure you have enough cash to meet your immediate and near-future needs. Otherwise, you mind find yourself borrowing again, perhaps in the form of a personal loan, to make the same ends meet.
If you elect not to employ your payout on your education debt — or if you don’t receive a substantial payout — consider other ways to manage your federal and private loans in the aftermath of natural disaster.
Federal student loans
If you’ve suffered a major misfortune like the loss of your home, the Department of Education recommends reaching out to your federal loan servicer at your earliest convenience. Use the National Student Loan Data System to find your loans and servicer.
Once your servicer’s on the line, you can request to reduce or pause (not skip) your payments for between three and 12 months via forbearance. Keep in mind that interest will continue to accrue during this period.
Also, if your loans were already in default, you could ask your servicer to suspend collections on your debt, including wage garnishments, for up to 90 days.
Private student loans
Similarly, it’s wise to contact your private lender as soon as possible if you find yourself in a rough spot. Although protections vary from lender to lender, many banks, credit unions and online companies offer economic hardship forbearance. Through this measure, you can pause your payments, although interest will continue to add to your balance.
If a disaster has proved disastrous to your finances, you’re going to have more to worry about than just your student loans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, known more commonly as FEMA, might also offer financial support in your case.
If at all possible, don’t wait to manage your debt. At the very least, you can pause your payments via forbearance to keep your credit intact and focus on what matters most in your life.
Checklist for processing your home insurance payout claim
If you stand to receive a homeowners insurance settlement, expect a process similar to Jahangir’s. Here’s a rundown of the main tasks you’ll need to take care of:
Contact your insurance company
Jahangir called his insurer the day after evacuating. Within a week, they offered an initial payment.
“That eased some of the pain of purchasing clothes, etc.,” he said. “I imagine for those who do not have any savings (that) this would be a huge relief.”
When speaking with your insurer, have your policy number handy and be ready to provide details.
Itemize your losses
A personal property insurance adjuster recorded an interview with the Jahangirs, reviewing all the material items they’d lost.
“This was probably the most painful part of the process,” said Jahangir, who created a shared Google Drive document for him and his wife to organize. “To go through each room and categorize what was lost … even down to our socks.”
The III recommends taking pictures of the damage to your home, even if they don’t capture what you once owned. Your adjuster might also visit your property to inspect damages or repairs.
Gather paperwork relating to your home
A home insurance adjuster also interviewed the family about their lost home. Jahangir pored through his email account, gathering information about the home he’d purchased just 11 months earlier. He forwarded Zillow pictures and appraisal documents to detail the condition of the house.
“This process was slow and took months to finish,” he said of the back-and-forth with the adjuster.
The liability portion of your insurance would cover living expenses if you’re forced from your home and need to shack up somewhere else, as Jahangir did. Keep a record of expenses to make it easier to get reimbursed.
Double-check the adjuster’s work
Finally, the adjuster sent Jahangir a line-item estimate for damages that spanned 80 pages. He reviewed it room by room to ensure its accuracy.
“My diligence increased the amount of money we received, as some things were missed by the adjuster,” he said.
As painful as it might be to look back, putting in time could ensure you’re properly compensated for your lost items.
Collect your checks
Over seven months, the insurer sent 17 payments covering different damages, from the dwelling itself to other structures on the property and personal items. Once Jahangir paid off the destroyed home’s mortgage, all of the checks were sent directly to him, not his bank.
With a more straightforward claim, Ruttenberg waited less than 30 days for his check. Talk to your insurer about when and how you’ll be paid and what, if any, restrictions are placed on the funds.
Debt repayment: Make the best of a bad situation
Redirecting an insurance payout to repay debt isn’t the best decision for every borrower.
Jahangir’s advice? Review your options carefully.
“I see no problems paying down debt, but everyone’s situation is different,” he said. “Take the time you need to figure it out.”
If you’ve been through the trauma of natural disaster, take even more time. You might not be ready to look for silver linings like debt payoff.
More than a year after orange flames appeared beyond his front yard, however, Jahangir doesn’t have to look too hard.
“Oh, yeah, big silver lining,” he said. “I took the money, paid off debt, invested some, and saved some for a down payment for my next place. Plus, it let us revisit what we wanted in our lives, how we wanted to live, where we wanted to live — all of those big decisions.”
This article contains links to LendingTree, our parent company.
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