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Whether it's tumbling temperatures or a blackout blizzard, winter weather can wreak havoc on a home. But you can avoid a disaster with some preventive action.
Here are four common types of winter-related home damage and how you can prevent them, plus how home insurance works if you can’t.
1. Burst water pipes
If your kitchen faucet isn’t working on a cold winter morning, you could have a frozen water pipe. Frozen pipes can burst and cause accidental water damage, which can be expensive to repair.
To prevent burst pipes, let your faucets drip on the coldest days, which will keep pipe water from freezing. Use sleeves or newspaper to cover pipes in spaces exposed to the chilliest temperatures, like basements and attics. If a pipe does freeze, shut off your water immediately, then use a heated pad or hair dryer to thaw the frozen water.
But don’t fret if a pipe bursts. “Almost all [home] insurance policies will cover the resulting damage from a burst pipe,” says Steve Wilson, senior underwriting manager at Hippo Insurance. Once you pay your deductible, your home insurance will pay out up to your policy’s limits. Your dwelling coverage will cover home repair costs, while your personal property coverage will pay for damaged belongings.
Keep in mind that in order for an accidental water damage claim to be approved, homeowners are expected to take steps to lower the risk of it happening, such as maintaining the home’s temperature at a minimum of 55 degrees during cold weather. If water damage does occur, homeowners need to take action to mitigate further damage, like turning off the water valve.
2. Ice dams on the roof
An “ice dam” forms on a roof when snow melts and refreezes near the gutters or roof edges. When the ice begins to melt again, the water can seep under roof shingles, which can lead to mold and leakage. And the subsequent icicles hanging from your roof might be enchanting, but a heavy icicle could rip off a gutter.
Your homeowners insurance likely covers damage caused by ice dams, but some extra care could prevent it entirely. Ensure your attic is sufficiently insulated by sealing spots where warm air could leak up from your living areas. This will keep your roof cold, which helps prevent an ice dam from forming. Have a professional inspect your roof to see if solutions like heat cables and rubberized shingles can keep ice dams from forming in the first place. You should also keep all gutters clear of debris so melted snow can drain properly.
Don’t climb up on your roof to scrape off snow. Doing so can damage the shingles and weaken your roof over time.
3. Fallen tree branches
Large tree branches that extend over a home could pose a problem in the winter. “We'll get tree limbs that will break and fall on homes, or fall on fences ... because of the weight of ice,” says John Merkle, manager of property claims at Country Financial.
If an icy branch does fall, your insurance policy’s dwelling coverage should cover necessary repairs to the home, while your other structures coverage will pay for things like a damaged fence or shed.
Merkle recommends trimming your trees regularly to avoid the problem altogether. In fact, an insurer might deny a claim if the damage is deemed to be from a lack of maintenance over time.
4. House fires
House fires are a common cause of winter insurance claims, as people light candles and fireplaces. These tips can help prevent unwelcome flames:
If you lose power, use flashlights instead of candles, and turn off all electric appliances.
Keep Christmas trees hydrated so they don’t dry out and become fire hazards.
Never use your stove to heat your home.
Keep portable heating devices at least 3 feet away from anything flammable and unplug them while you sleep.
Install a glass or metal screen in front of your fireplace, and have a professional chimney sweep clean it once a year.
Your home insurance will pay for fire damage as long as the fire wasn’t intentional. If you need to stay somewhere else because of smoke or reconstruction, your insurance policy’s loss of use coverage can help pay for hotel bills and additional living expenses. Keep any receipts in case your insurer needs a record of what was spent.
Know your insurance limits and exclusions
Talk to your insurance agent or company about what is and isn't covered in your home policy so you’re prepared if disaster strikes. You can also check the declarations page provided by your insurer for a list of what is covered and the exclusions section of your policy for anything that’s not.
Another thing to check? Your personal property limits. Certain items, like jewelry or antiques, could have lower limits than other belongings. If you own a lot of valuables, you may need additional coverage.