Brace yourselves! Winter is coming--and with it, a variety of potentially destructive and expensive weather-related hazards. Winter’s high winds, heavy snows and deep freezes cause more than $1 billion in insurance claims every year, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). The most expensive year for insurance carriers when it came to winter-related homeowners’ claims, at $3.5 billion, was 2015, according to Peter Kim, assistant vice president of Risk Management Services, Philadelphia Insurance Companies.
But since many homeowners are underinsured or even uninsured, and because even the insured ones have deductibles to meet, the true annual losses due to winter weather are even higher.
What's more, standard homeowners insurance policies may not cover every possible hazard.
Winter represents just 25% of the calendar, but causes 51% of home insurance claims, according to III.
Wind and hail claims amount to 38.2% of all property damage claims, and water damage and freezing-related claims account for another 19.5%, according to III. Wind and hail damage cause the most claims of any single hazard, by far.
What your standard homeowners/landlord insurance 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.
Here's what you can expect a standard, off-the-shelf insurance policy to cover:
- Damage to a house, its attached or outlying structures (like carports, sheds and garages, if specified in the policy) and to your contents or belongings, up to the insured limit, and subject to a deductible and/or 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)
- Frozen/burst pipes
- 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 (ALEs) 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. So damage from a heavy rain or a big melt that cause a nearby stream or river to flood would not be covered under homeowners, landlord or even a renters insurance policy.
To protect your property against groundwater flood risk, you need to purchase separate flood coverage. 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 and 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 functionality of the roof or other damaged structure component has been affected by the hail.
Insurers will not cover damages that arise because of owner negligence, either. This is a major factor for absentee homeowners, such as snowbirds who take off for Florida every winter and leave their homes unattended. If damage can be attributable to negligence because you were absent or otherwise failed to exercise reasonable care, your carrier may deny the claim.
If you must be absent for any reason, take steps to ensure someone is keeping an eye on your property and has the skills and initiative to prevent winter damage.
Common winter hazards
Here are some of the most common winter-related homeowners insurance claims, by incidence and severity.
When 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 total insured damage from leaked 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. That’s almost four times the average claim for all other water-damage-related claims, according to III.
If your property has an interior sprinkler system, you may have additional risk exposure as well.
You can reduce the risk with the following actions:
- Insulate pipes with foam insulation, pipe sleeves or heat tape – especially in attics, basements, interior walls, crawl spaces, corners and other at-risk areas.
- Find your water shutoff valve ahead of time. If a pipe freezes or bursts, shut off water immediately to prevent further damage, and contact a plumber.
- Drain and disconnect hoses.
The most severe roof damage usually occurs when there is a rapid freeze followed by a rapid thaw. This freeze/thaw cycle causes ice to build up, adding weight and putting strain on your roof structure and components. The average claim from winter-related water damage and freezing from 2013-2017 was $10,234, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Flat roofs and roofs with elevation changes are especially vulnerable to ice and snow damage.
It's a good idea to have your roof inspected before the winter weather arrives. If there are any problems, winter weather will make them worse.
An ice dam is a thick ice buildup 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 is blocking roof water so it can’t drain off the roof’s edge or into your gutters, it will build up on and in your roof. If the water freezes and thaws again and again, the resultant water damage, expansion and contraction will slowly tear apart your roof components and substrate materials. The damage soon spreads to ceilings, walls and insulation. From there, the moisture can cause mold growth, warp baseboards and cause ceilings to collapse.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average insurance claim arising from ice dams is $5,531. In New England, where snows can be particularly heavy, claims can range from $12,000 to $15,000.
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 occurred over a long period of time.
Some policies may exclude ice dams, so check the fine print.
Preventing ice dams
- Keep your roof and gutters clear of leaves, debris, snow and ice.
- Install heat cables along the edge of your roof. These cables are designed to melt ice before it has a chance to form a dam.
- Use a roof rake to remove fresh snow buildup, especially along the lower three to six feet of roof space.
- Install snow and ice slides.
- Install a rubberized shield below your lower shingles.
- Check and seal vents, chimneys and other possible gaps where ice dams may form.
- Don't try to use a blower, pressure washer or blowtorch to remove ice dams. Consult a licensed and insured vendor for removal.
Wind and hail damage
Hail damage represents 2.10% of all homeowners insurance claims. The average wind and hail claim from 2013-2017 totaled $10,182 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. Or make sure you have enough savings on hand to cover your deductibles for your home and car insurance.
The holidays are an especially risky time of year when it comes to house fires. According to the National Fire Safety Association:
- Christmas trees cause 170 home fires each year, resulting in an average of four deaths, 15 injuries, and $12 million in direct property damage yearly. One out of 45 Christmas tree fires results in a death. Sadly, more than 20% of Christmas tree fires are intentional.
- 800 home fires per year start with Christmas decorations.
- Candles cause 23 home fires each day. The top three days for home fires caused by candles are, unsurprisingly, Christmas Day, Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.
- Thanksgiving is the biggest day for home cooking fires, followed by Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.
More generally, heating is the second leading cause of all house fires, according to the NFPA. Naturally, the peak months for heating-related house fires are November through January. Space heaters are a frequent culprit, accounting for 40% of all 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 $68,322.
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, they could still sue you," he says. "This same liability applies if they are hit by a falling icicle, dead tree branch and other winter weather hazards. 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 his or her drive home.
Homeowners policies generally come with two types of coverage for these incidents: "Med pay" coverage, which pays the direct, immediate medical bills up to the limit of coverage ($5,000 to $10,000 is common), and liability coverage. This protects you against the claimant’s possible demands for compensation for other damages, such as pain and suffering, missed work, etc.
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 and are therefore more prone to freezing.
- Set your thermostat to at least 55 degrees – especially if the property will be vacant.
- Ensure windows, doors, vents and other gaps in your building envelope are weather tight.
- Install low-temperature alarms in remote, exposed or vulnerable areas with plumbing.
- Blow out ground and sprinkler plumbing 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. Basic leak sensors can be had 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 will shut off water automatically.
- Keep kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors open during cold weather, when you’re heating the property.
- If weather gets severely cold, keep a little water running through both your cold and hot water lines.
- Have boilers, furnaces and water heaters inspected at least annually, preferably in the fall.
- Trim or cut trees near homes before snow and ice weighs down branches, causing them to break.
- Keep sidewalks and walkways and stairs free of snow and ice to reduce risk of injury and liability.
Resources:Average insured loss from fires: $68,322.
Average insured loss from water damage and freezing $10,234.
Average insured loss from wind and hail damage: $10,182.
1 out of 50 houses nationwide has a wind or hail-related claim each year
1 out of 50 houses nationwide has a freezing or water-damage-related claim each year
1 out of 20 insured homes have a property damage claim each year
Source: The Insurance Information Institute