Brace yourselves! Winter is coming — and with it, a variety of potentially dangerous and expensive weather-related hazards. Learning more about common winter claims and the insurance policies that cover them can give you peace of mind that your home is financially secured no matter what winter brings.
Insurance Information Institute
Since many homeowners are underinsured or even uninsured, and because even the insured ones have deductibles to meet, actual annual losses due to winter weather are likely higher than the figures above. What’s more, standard homeowners insurance policies may not cover every possible hazard.
If you live in an area impacted by winter weather, it’s crucial that you prepare your home adequately and get the coverage you need to protect it financially. MoneyGeek's tips can help you learn more about what your policy covers and how to ready your home for potential winter hazards.
What Your Standard Policy Covers – And What It Doesn’t
Most base homeowners insurance policies are written to a few industry-wide standard forms. They'll cover a lot, but they won't cover everything. The same goes for landlord insurance policies, which are a must for rental real estate investors.
Damage to the house, its attached or outlying structures (like carports, sheds and garages, if specified in the policy) and contained belongings up to the insured limit, and subject to a deductible and coinsurance
Wind damage (but not necessarily damage from named tropical storms and hurricanes)
Damage from fallen trees and limbs
Damage from wind-driven snow or freezing rain (but not groundwater)
Ice damage, including ice dams
Damage from falling ice or snow
Damage from the accumulated weight of snow on the structure
Most policies will cover additional living expenses in the event your home is made uninhabitable. For example, your policy may provide coverage for you (or your tenants) to get a hotel room while the property is repaired.
What's Not Covered?
Generally, damage due to flooding is not covered under your base insurance policy. For example, damage from heavy rain or a big melt that causes a nearby stream or river to flood would not be covered under homeowners, landlords or even a renters insurance policy.
Flooding is one of several natural hazards excluded from most policies, and for which you would need to buy separate coverage. Others include earthquakes, sinkholes, mudslides (catastrophic ground movement), hurricanes and even sewer backup.
Some policies exclude hail and wind damage if the damage is cosmetic. However, your insurance carrier should cover the damage if the roof's functionality or other structural components have been affected by the hail. If you live in a state with a high risk of hail damage, it's crucial that you secure home insurance that will cover repairs caused by hail.
Insurers will not cover damages that arise because of owner negligence, either. Negligence includes cases of absentee homeowners, such as snowbirds who spend every winter in another location and leave their homes unattended. If the damage can be attributable to negligence because you were absent or otherwise failed to exercise reasonable care, your carrier may deny your claim.
If you must be absent for any reason, take steps to ensure someone keeps an eye on your property and has the skills and initiative to prevent winter damage.
Common Winter Hazards
Some of the most common winter-related homeowners insurance claims involve ice buildup, frozen pipes, wind and hail damage and house fires.
The most severe roof damage usually occurs when a rapid thaw follows a rapid freeze. This freeze/thaw cycle causes ice to build up, adding weight and putting strain on your roof structure and components. The average claim from water damage and freezing from 2015–2019 was $11,098, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
One of the most potentially destructive forces of ice buildup is an ice dam.
An ice dam is a thick buildup of ice that can occur along the edge of your roof, preventing water from draining properly. It occurs when melting snow runs down the roof but then freezes again when it gets to the edge, forming the dam.
If an ice dam blocks roof water from draining off the roof’s edge or into your gutters, that water will build up on and in your roof. If the water freezes and thaws repeatedly, the resultant expansion and contraction will slowly tear apart your roof components and substrate materials. The damage can soon spread to ceilings, walls and insulation. From there, the moisture may trigger mold growth, warp baseboards and collapse ceilings.
If you can trace the formation of the dam and attribute the damage to a single storm, your carrier should cover the claim. But many times, carriers will not approve claims related to ice dams. A denial may occur if the insurer believes the homeowner was negligent in preventing the damage or the damage happened over a long period.
Some policies may exclude ice dams, so be sure to check the fine print.
When the water inside pipes freezes, your plumbing may burst, releasing water into the property and damaging carpets, floorboards, drywall, appliances and other belongings. Be especially vigilant once the outdoor temperature dips below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, as burst pipe incidents begin to spike below this temperature.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, freezing pipes account for almost 20% of all home water damage claims.
State Farm alone paid out more than $270 million in frozen-pipe-related claims nationwide in 2018. Illinois incurred the most insured damage from leaking pipes last year, with insurance companies paying out more than $18 million. The average claim was $18,000. Tennessee had $15 million in frozen-pipe-related claims, with an average claim per incident of $19,000. According to the Insurance Information Insitute, that’s almost four times the average claim for all other water-damage-related claims.
If your property has an interior sprinkler system, you may have additional risk exposure as well.
Wind and Hail Damage
Hail damage represents 2.1% of all homeowners insurance claims. The average wind and hail claim from 2015–2019 totaled $10,801 per incident, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
There's not much you can do to avoid hail, but you can minimize the damage by installing hail-resistant asphalt shingles with a Class 4 rating from Underwriters Laboratory.
Inspect your roof for damage immediately after a hailstorm. If you wait until you discover a leak, which could be weeks or months later, you may not be able to get your insurance carrier to pay the claim.
Check your insurance policy for any hail and wind exclusions that may apply.
Also, don't neglect your car insurance, either. Hail and falling trees and limbs can cause significant damage to automobiles, says Mark Friedlander, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. "Make sure you have optional comprehensive coverage which will repair your car from hail, falling icicles or icy branches," he advises. Alternatively, confirm that you have enough savings on hand to cover your deductibles for your home and car insurance if needed.
The holidays are a hazardous time of year when it comes to house fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA):
Christmas trees caused an average of 160 home fires each year from 2015–2019, resulting in an average of two deaths, 12 injuries, and $10 million in direct property damage yearly. Approximately 20% of Christmas tree fires are intentional.
An average of 790 home fires per year start with Christmas decorations, excluding Christmas trees.
Candles cause 20 home fires each day, on average. Fires caused by candles peak in December and January.
Thanksgiving is the biggest day for home cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.
More generally, heating is another leading cause of house fires, according to the NFPA. Naturally, the peak months for heating-related house fires are December through February. Space heaters are a frequent culprit, accounting for 40% of all heating equipment-related fires.
Fires generate the highest homeowners insurance average claim out of all common hazards, according the Insurance Information Institute, with an average insured loss of $78,838 from 2015–2019.
Personal Injury Liability
Snow and ice can cause liability concerns on your property, cautions Friedlander. "An icy walkway or driveway could cause slips and falls, for which the homeowner is liable. Even if the person injured on your property wasn’t invited to your home, they could still sue you," he says. "This same liability applies if someone is hit by a falling icicle, dead tree branch or other winter weather hazards on your property. Ensure you are covered with homeowners liability insurance."
You may also be exposed to liability if you host a holiday party and your dog bites someone, or someone leaves your home intoxicated and injures someone on their drive home.
Homeowners policies generally come with two types of coverage for these incidents: "MedPay" coverage, which pays the direct, immediate medical bills up to the limit of coverage ($5,000 to $10,000 is standard), and liability coverage. Liability coverage protects you against the claimant’s possible demands for compensation for other damages, like pain and suffering and missed work.
Settlements for these types of events vary widely, but if someone is seriously injured, a six-figure settlement is not uncommon.
Winter Damage Prevention Checklist
Ensure your pipes are well insulated.
Have a plumber do a preventive check for you before freezing temperatures arrive.
Inspect your attic, basement and crawl-space pipes.
These areas frequently have less insulation than other areas of homes and are therefore more prone to freezing.
Set your thermostat to at least 55 degrees.
This measure is particularly important if you have to leave your property vacant for an extended period.
Weatherproof your home.
Ensure windows, doors, vents and other gaps in your building envelope are weather tight.
Install low-temperature alarms.
These are most useful when installed in remote, exposed or vulnerable areas with plumbing.
Blow out ground and sprinkler plumbing.
This action is particularly critical before freezing weather.
Walk around your house and look for cracks in the exterior walls.
Cold air can enter these cracks and cause your pipes to freeze and burst. Use caulk or spray foam sealant to seal any cracks, or call a trusted contractor to fix them for you.
Invest in leak detection and water flow monitoring technology.
You can purchase basic leak sensors for about $50. These will send an alert to your phone or computer if they detect a leak, so you can take immediate action to prevent further damage. Some more expensive systems shut off your water automatically if they detect a leak.
Open cabinet doors.
Keep kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors open during cold weather when you’re heating the property.
Run your water.
If weather gets severely cold, keep a little water running through both your cold and hot water lines.
Inspect heating appliances yearly.
Have boilers, furnaces and water heaters inspected at least annually, but preferably in the fall.
Trim any trees near your home.
Taking this precaution before snow and ice weigh down branches — causing them to break — is crucial.
Clean sidewalks and other outdoor walkways.
Keep sidewalks, walkways and stairs free of snow and ice to reduce the risk of injury and liability.
About Mark Fitzpatrick
- Insurance Information Institute. "Facts + Statistics: Winter storms." Accessed November 22, 2021.
- Insurance Information Institute. "Facts + Statistics: Homeowners and renters insurance." Accessed November 22, 2021.
- State Farm. "Frozen Pipe Losses Up in 2018." Accessed November 22, 2021.
- National Fire Protection Institute. "Home Heating Fires." Accessed November 22, 2021.