There are dozens of ways water can damage your house and your insurance only covers some of them. If your toilet valves jam or your kid flushes a toy, any overflow damage is probably covered. If sewer pipes are blocked or backing up, you're out of luck -- most policies won't pay for problems that stem from the sewer.
Read Your Policy
Before you talk to your insurer, review what coverage you're paying for. If you have an HO-3 policy, it covers any damage not specifically excluded. Most policies include toilet overflow that's not sewer-related, but there are some that put it on the excluded list. Even so, if you get an estimate and it's less than your deductible, you're not going to collect. If it's slightly above the deductible, consider eating the cost -- the more claims you file, the greater the risk of cancellation.
Once you discover the problem, act fast to minimize further losses. Get the water turned off, mop up as much water as possible and clean and dry the carpets. If your insurer can blame some of the damage on you being lax, it can duck that part of the bill. The company can make the same argument if you knew the toilet had a problem and never bothered to fix it, so don't neglect your plumbing.
Once you've turned off the water, take photos or video of the aftermath. If you can identify the cause of the problem, photograph that too, or save the plumber's description of the problem. Keep records of whatever repairs you pay for or damaged goods you have to replace. If you have receipts for any damaged property, add copies to the file. The more you can prove you've lost, the better for you.
If your insurer says no, you're not covered, ask for a reason in writing. If you think the company's wrong, ask your agent about the appeals process. To be ready for an appeal, create a paper trail starting the first time you call the company. Get the name of anyone you talk to and take notes showing when you spoke and what they said. If you exchange letters or emails, save copies. If you decide to file a complaint with the state Department of Insurance or take your insurer to court, records help.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.