Home Insurance Companies May Use Aerial Images to Drop Policies

Insurance companies may check photos of your home before deciding whether to renew your policy.
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Written by Sarah Schlichter
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It’s a notice no homeowner wants to get: Your insurance company has decided not to renew your policy, effective in 30 days. The reason? Based on aerial photos of your home, your roof is in poor condition.

Your first response might be outrage. Is your insurance company spying on you? Can it really take photos of your house at any time?

The practice is legal — and in some ways it’s nothing new, according to insurance experts. Looking at aerial photos “is just another method of doing something that insurers have always been doing,” says Bob Passmore, vice president of personal lines at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.

Inspecting homes is part of a process called underwriting, in which an insurer evaluates how likely you are to file a claim. In the past, many home insurance inspections were done in person. Someone might drive by your house to take photos or come inside for a thorough investigation.

While these inspections still happen, many insurance companies are relying on aerial images as a cheaper, more efficient way to see your property. But to homeowners shocked by a non-renewal, it can feel like a violation.

“Just because a technological opportunity exists doesn't mean it can or should be used without guardrails and consumer protections,” says Doug Heller, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. “Using images that were gathered without consumer awareness, or let alone consent, is really problematic.”

How insurers use aerial images

Insurance companies study aerial photos for issues that could lead to future claims. Red flags may include:

  • Debris in your yard. “It could be home for vermin. It could be a trip-and-fall hazard,” says Karl Susman, owner of the Susman Insurance Agency in Los Angeles.

  • Trees hanging over your home. “That's a horrible, horrible fire risk,” Susman says. A tree could also crash onto your house in a storm.

  • Trampolines or swimming pools you didn’t tell the insurer about. These could be a lawsuit risk, Passmore says.

But the biggest issue may be the condition of your roof, says Alaina Hixson, director of sales and operations at the Churchill Agency in Brentwood, Tennessee. Because roofs are battered by severe weather and expensive to replace, they’re a major source of claims.

Insurers may check satellite images of your roof for moss, broken shingles or other signs of wear. Such issues could lead to a non-renewal notice.

Why insurers are dropping policies

In recent years, insurance companies have gotten pickier about which properties they cover. Insurers “want to keep their customers,” Passmore says, but “they also have to keep in mind what their exposure to risk is.”

Right now, insurers’ financial risks are significant. In 2023, the U.S. had 28 disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate change is making hurricanes and wildfires more severe, while inflation has raised the cost of rebuilding homes.

As a result, many home insurers have recently paid more in claims than they made in premiums. One way they’re trying to stem the losses is by dropping their riskiest policies — and aerial imagery can help them pinpoint those homes.

What you can do

“If you get a non-renewal notice, immediately contact the insurer and ask why,” Heller says. If the insurer used aerial images, ask to see them, and find out when they were taken.

Perhaps the photos are from six months ago and feature an overhanging tree that you’ve since trimmed back. “If you can show documentation that something isn't what they think it is,” Hixson says, “an insurer will often work with you.”

Even if the issue in the photo is legitimate, an insurer may extend your policy if you fix the problem, Hixson says.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the budget for pricey home repairs. If you can’t address the issue, search immediately for new coverage. Having a non-renewal in your insurance history can make it harder to find another policy, Hixson warns.

An independent insurance agent can help you shop around with other carriers. Keep in mind, though, that a new company’s home inspection may flag the same problem the old one did.

If you think your insurer handled your non-renewal unfairly, file a complaint with your state’s department of insurance, Passmore suggests.

Prevent insurance issues

You can’t keep an insurance company from taking aerial photos of your home, but you can make it more attractive to insure. “Number one is keep your house maintained,” Passmore says.

This includes ridding your yard of debris, trimming trees and monitoring your roof’s condition, Hixson says.

About two months before your policy renews each year, Heller recommends getting quotes from a few other insurers. “Know what your options will be in case you find yourself in the midst of a non-renewal problem.”

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