You pay the premiums every year, but if your home was damaged or destroyed, would you get the amount you're insured for?

Not necessarily.

Stuart and Annie Brown of Markham, Ont., are fighting that battle.

A life-changing moment occurred for the couple on Dec. 23, 2013.

The Browns were living in St. John's at the time and sitting by the Christmas tree when Annie Brown noticed a small flame near the wiring for the lights.

"Before we could do anything further, the tree exploded into flames.... The whole tree just went up and blew back on me," said Brown's husband.

Christmas fire leads to year-long insurance coverage battle

The Browns' St. John's home appears after it was gutted by fire last Christmas. (Stuart and Annie Hall)

He was burned so badly, he said, that he was in a morphine-induced coma for seven weeks and stayed in hospital for several months.

His wife suffered from smoke inhalation, as well as frostbite because the pair had to run outside into the snow in their bare feet. They only had moments to escape the flames that destroyed their home.

"We've lost everything. I mean everything. We've had to start from scratch," Annie Brown told CBC News.

While her husband recovered in hospital, she started the process of dealing with Johnson Insurance.

'We had a very beautiful home, we had beautiful things that we loved and treasured and we've lost everything.' -—Annie Brown, owner of home destroyed by fire

The couple had paid premiums to the same insurance company for 30 years, and now they needed Johnson Insurance to pay out.

The Browns eventually settled on an amount for the loss of the house. But almost a year later, they are still fighting for the value of the contents, Annie Brown said.

"Isn't that why you have content insurance in the first place? So it seems to me that should make it quite simple. That's what we were paying premiums on."

Archeologist collected valuable rare items

As an archeologist, Stuart Brown has directed excavations in Australia, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and sub-Arctic Canada.

Go Public - Christmas fire leads to year-long insurance coverage battle

Real estate listing photos show the Browns' home before the fire. (Stuart and Annie Brown)

When the house was destroyed by fire, so were rare items from around the world he and his wife had been collecting for years.

The archeologist says the contents were insured for $396,000. But he says Johnson insurance is offering them only a quarter of that amount.

"They set the value of the contents. We didn't."

Certain items may have coverage limits

But it's not that simple, according to Steve Kee, a spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada

Kee said many people believe they are insured for the full amount on their policy, not realizing certain items have limits.

"It's important to be insured for what you have. It's not always the case. People assume they are covered, but there are limits on certain policies," said Kee.

"Each insurance company may have slightly different wording. Pick up the phone, talk to your insurance representative and get that peace of mind."

Christmas fire leads to year-long insurance coverage battle

Real estate listing photos show the Browns' home after the fire. (Stuart and Annie Hall)

Kee can't speak about the Browns' situation specifically, but he said many people aren't aware of limitations in their coverage until it's too late.

"Home insurance is an interesting product, because unlike auto insurance — your vehicle will depreciate — your home will appreciate in value, and you gather more things.

"So a policy you may have taken out four years ago may not take into account some of the value you have in your home," he said.

If someone does make a claim and isn't happy with what the insurance company is offering even after reviewing the policy, Kee said there are several places consumers can go for help resolving the issue.

  • Your insurance company's ombudsman. Each company will have an ombudsman whom you can talk to and appeal your case.

  • General Insurance Ombudservice. If you need to take it a step further, this is an independent dispute resolution service for people dealing with insurance problems. 
  • Provincial Superintendent of Insurance. Ultimately, provincial governments oversee Canadian insurance companies. If all else fails, most provinces have a superintendent of insurance you can contact as a last resort.

1-year deadline for the Browns

In the Browns' case, time is running out. The couple has one year from the date of the fire to list every single item that was lost and its value, and provide that list to the insurance company.

"It's been the worst possible thing that could ever happen to anyone. I mean you just don't think it'll ever happen to you," Annie Brown said.

"We had a very beautiful home, we had beautiful things that we loved and treasured and we've lost everything. We have each other, thank goodness, but I would hate anybody to go through this."

Insurance Bureau of Canada - Steve Kee

Steve Kee from the Insurance Bureau of Canada says Canadians need to ask key questions when buying or renewing home insurance. (CBC)

After the fire, the couple moved from St. John's to Markham, Ont., to be closer to her family. 

These days, they are renting a small place, because the insurance issues, combined with the higher cost of housing, has made it impossible to buy a home in Markham.

If they have one thing to share, Stuart Brown said, it's this advice: "Check your policy. Know your policy really well. Call your insurance company and say, ‘What if? ... If my house burns down and I'm insured for this much in contents, is that what you are going to give me?’  without any qualifications."

Ahead of this story's publication, the Browns gave Johnson Insurance written permission to speak to the CBC about their case. But the insurance company declined to answer our questions about the Browns' claim, citing privacy reasons.

12 must-ask questions when buying or renewing home insurance

  • What does my home insurance policy cover?
  • Is there a specific kind of insurance for the type of home I live in?
  • Are there certain risks or potential perils to my home for which I can't buy insurance?
  • Is optional coverage available for perils like earthquake, flood or sewer backup that are not normally included in my homeowner's policy?
  • What things could happen to my property that won't be covered unless I make special arrangements?
  • What are some items that might require additional insurance?
  • What is a deductible? How does the deductible affect the price of my home insurance?
  • Am I entitled to any discounts?
  • What is the difference between replacement cost and actual cash value?
  • Is my home business covered by my home insurance policy? 
  • Should I make a claim for every loss? 
  • What kind of liability coverage do I have? How much do I need?

Source: Insurance Bureau of Canada

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