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Maybe you snuck into your neighbor's swimming pool when you were a kid. Perhaps you jumped on their trampoline when they weren't around or used their pile of random junk as a fort.
To a child, these youthful indiscretions seem pretty harmless. But for a homeowner, such acts of rebellion can pose a serious liability problem thanks to a legal principle known as the attractive nuisance doctrine.
What is an attractive nuisance?
A swimming pool, trampoline and pile of debris are each an "attractive nuisance" — a feature on your property that entices children to use it, even without your permission, and could potentially cause them harm. Other attractive nuisances include:
Under the attractive nuisance doctrine, you as a homeowner have a legal obligation to either make the attraction inaccessible to curious children or eliminate the danger entirely. Below are a few ways to limit the risk of attractive nuisances on your property.
Get rid of it
If you already have something that could be considered an attractive nuisance, the easiest way to reduce your risk and save on home insurance is to simply get rid of it. How practical that is, however, depends on a couple of factors.
The cost of removing a nuisance from your property can vary. If it’s an old junker you need removed, some charity organizations, such as Wheels for Wishes and Goodwill, will haul away a nonworking car for free, and the donation is tax-deductible. Renting a dumpster to dispose of your debris might cost somewhere between $200 and $800 depending on the dumpster’s size and duration of the rental.
On the other hand, removing an above-ground pool or filling in an in-ground pool can be far more costly. Depending on the removal method and size of the pool, it could cost $10,000 or more.
Of course, you may not want to eliminate the nuisance of a swimming pool or something else just because it increases your annual homeowners insurance cost.
Secure the area around the attractive nuisance
Work with your homeowners insurance company to make sure you're covered for anything that might be considered an attractive nuisance. Shoring up your insurance coverage should ideally start before the nuisance ends up on your property, says Karen Collins, assistant vice president of personal lines at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
"Being transparent and being forthcoming with [your insurer] will always set you up for a better experience because then you're not caught by surprise" when your policy doesn’t fully cover an accident, Collins says.
To help avoid a major liability problem, one option is to put up a barrier. Collins notes that depending on the nuisance, your insurer might require you to take specific precautions to get coverage.
With a pool, for instance, a carrier may require you to install a fully enclosed fence with a self-closing and self-latching gate. Some states such as Florida and Arizona already have laws requiring these safety precautions to be in place in certain cases.
Barriers come in all forms, and it's your duty to make sure the barrier is actually acting as one. Confirm the latching mechanisms are always working and that any fence rails are too narrow to squeeze through.
Securing nuisances can involve simple acts too, like laying a ladder flat on the ground, locking away power tools and clearly marking any areas that might be dangerous.
Expand your insurance coverage
If you're held responsible for an accident, insurance can provide a substantial safety net. Homeowners insurance policies typically come with liability coverage starting at around $100,000, but you may want to expand that amount to at least $300,000 if you have an attractive nuisance on your property.
Adding personal umbrella insurance to your homeowners policy can also help put your mind at ease. Umbrella policies offer additional liability coverage with a high limit — often starting at $1 million — for about $150 to $300 per year, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Anthony Kondos, a State Farm agent in Portland, Oregon, points out that an umbrella policy can make a big difference if you’re on the hook for an injury.
"Even if you don't have a lot to lose, you could still face things like wage garnishments that you could be having docked out of your paycheck for several years," he says.
In addition to covering any payouts that you're responsible for, an umbrella policy will cover your legal defense costs without impacting the overall limit on your policy. For example, if you're held liable for $1 million and you incur $200,000 in legal fees, as long as you have $1 million in umbrella coverage, your insurance company will pay for everything.
Attractive nuisances can get you into trouble if you don't think ahead and address potential problems. Even if unintentional, the consequences of inaction can be serious.
"We don't plan to fail," Kondos says. "We fail to plan."