Most people think about their homeowners insurance only a few times in their lives: when they select their insurer, when they're writing premium checks and when they have a claim.
By the time something goes wrong, however, it's usually way too late to begin learning about your policy.
There are some gaps in your coverage you can't do anything about, of course. Insurers aren't going to cover you for a nuclear accident, for example, no matter how many companies you ask.
Many so-called exclusions, though, vary by the insurer. If you know about them in advance, you may be able to switch carriers or buy extra insurance to stay protected. So pull out your policy and check for the following:
Mold and water damageA spike in mold-related claims at the turn of the century led most insurers to strike the coverage entirely from their homeowners policies.
The frenzy over toxic mold reached a peak around 2002, the year television personality Ed McMahon filed a $20 million lawsuit against his insurer over mold that he said sickened his family and killed his dog. (McMahon later settled for $7.2 million.) A huge increase in mold-related claims in Texas, California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona led insurers to eliminate or at least reduce their exposure.
Most homeowners insurers now exclude mold from their coverage, said Frank J. Coyne, chairman and CEO for the Insurance Services Office, which supplies statistical data to property and casualty insurers. Many insurers also limit how much they'll cover for water damage.
In fact, in some cases you may have trouble getting coverage for a home that's had water claims in the past. Read "Insurers keep a secret history of your home" for more details.
Sewer backupThe only thing more disgusting than a bathroom floor overflowing with waste is the fact that you may have to pick up the cleaning bill yourself.
Sewage backups are frequently not covered by homeowners policies unless you purchase a special rider. Many homeowners who experience this particular disaster try to get their cities to pay for the damage, but governments typically aren't liable unless the homeowner can prove negligence -- and is willing to go to court over the matter.
War, nuclear accidents and terrorismIf your home is burned in a riot or other civil commotion, your insurer probably will pay to rebuild it. If your home is damaged by an invading army or is irradiated by a nearby power plant, however, you're not covered. If your house is destroyed during a terrorist attack, you also may be on your own.
Insurers have long excluded war and nuclear accidents from the list of perils they cover. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, though, most homeowners policies either covered terrorism or were silent on the issue, which usually implies coverage.
Since the World Trade Center attacks, an increasing number of insurers are specifically excluding terrorism coverage from their personal insurance lines, such as homeowners, in addition to banning it from their commercial coverage.
Natural disastersIf your home burns in a wildfire, you're probably covered if you live in a developed area. If you live in a remote cabin or your home is rattled apart by an earthquake, inundated by a flood or blown away in a hurricane, you may not be.
The more likely you are to be a victim of a natural disaster, the more reluctant insurers may be to cover you. That's why residents who live near the Gulf Coast or the Atlantic Ocean typically need to supplement their homeowners insurance with hurricane coverage offered by a high-risk pool (and the number of properties considered high-risk has exploded since Hurricane Katrina). California residents, meanwhile, get earthquake coverage from the state-run California Earthquake Authority or from a handful of insurers willing to write earthquake policies.
Many insurers also won't cover fire risks for people who live in forests or far from fire stations. That's true even though some of the biggest wildfire losses have come in developed areas: the Oakland Hills fires of 1991, for example, the Laguna Beach and Malibu fires of 1993, and the San Diego wildfires in 2003. Most of those homeowners had no trouble getting insurance before the fires, while their more remote neighbors often had to buy insurance from high-risk pools.