Most people buy home insurance with the intent never to make a claim. When damage occurs, ignorance of what to do increases an already stressful situation. Let me pass on my knowledge from 46 years of claims handling.

First rule: make sure everyone who lives in your home is safe. This can range from rescuing people from a damaged building to securing food, water clothes, and new shelter while the home is being repaired.

Don’t hesitate to call 911. These are trained people who can not only provide help, but can also help you cope with a difficult situation.

If everyone is safe and the appropriate authorities have been notified, your next step should be to protect property. This can be as simple as turning off a main water mains or calling a home remediation company to secure the property.

Restoration companies specialize in handling insured claims and can not only secure property but also provide services such as cleaning, content removal and structural repairs.

Don’t do anything that would put you in danger. Remember that all insurance companies recommend that you try to prevent further damage.

Now is the time to file your claim. One of the first questions your insurance agent asks is whether someone has been injured. If so, who are they and are they receiving medical care?

An agent will then want to know whether the apartment is uninhabitable. If it’s not habitable, your home insurance should include additional living expenses. This insurance covers any additional costs you may incur if you cannot live in your home.

When a home is uninhabitable, insurance companies understand the need to act quickly and take steps to find temporary residence and advance money on clothing and necessities.

Years ago it was often difficult when a landline was the only way to keep open communication with a family who had lost their home. Nowadays, contact with cell phones, email and SMS has never been more convenient.

When reporting your claim, be sure to include any contact numbers you know. It would also be wise to check with your insurance agent to make sure he or she has up-to-date points of contact before the damage occurs.

If you can live in your home, your next step would be to find a contractor to fix the damage. Insurance companies can recommend home remediation companies, but the final decision as to who will fix your home is yours.

This does not mean that the insurance company has to accept your contractor’s prices. A reputable contractor will work with your insurance company to determine what needs repairing and what is covered by your policy. Insurance companies monitor construction costs in your area and know the current material and labor costs.

Remember: you have a deductible so you have to pay part of the claim. You may not want to file a small claim as it can affect your policy. Your insurance agent should be able to discuss the pros and cons of reporting a claim.

Taking photos of all damage and submitting it to your insurance company makes handling the damage easier. I also recommend that you take photos of all the rooms in your house and keep them in a safe place before making a complaint. Proof of damage – whether photos, receipts or inspection of the property – is common practice at all insurance companies.

Also, if you want your life to return to normal as soon as possible, there may be delays. If you have a concern, call your insurance agent who will be best able to explain your insurance coverage and move the process forward.

Bob Hollick is a State Farm Insurance Agent based in Washington. His column appears every second Friday in the Observer Reporter.