When bad weather causes costly damage to homes, home owners often are confused about what is covered by insurance—and what is not covered. Here are the answers to common questions…
Will insurance pay for repairs if a winter storm knocks out my power for days, shutting down my furnace and making my pipes freeze and crack?
Frozen-pipe damage typically is covered (minus the deductible) if you have done your best to avoid having your pipes freeze. What constitutes doing your best is subject to interpretation by the insurance company and depends on whether you could reasonably predict that the power would be out long enough to freeze the pipes—which tends to be two to three days. If it is clear that this is the case, then you might be expected to take steps to avoid a freeze-up—for example, quickly winterizing the home’s pipes by shutting off the water supply, draining the pipes and appliances, and putting a nontoxic antifreeze in all drains—either on your own if you are handy or by hiring a plumber. But if it is not clear that the power will be out that long, you might not be expected to take such measures.
Will homeowner’s insurance cover water damage stemming from an ice dam on my roof?
Homeowner’s insurance will cover any damage to the structure of the home due to ice damming but not necessarily to the contents of the home. In the standard homeowner’s policy, water damage to the contents of a home is covered (minus the deductible) only in specific, named circumstances, and an ice dam, which can occur when water gets backed up and freezes on the roof, is not one of the circumstances that policies typically name.
What to do if you want coverage: Buy an “all risk” policy, also known as a “super deluxe” policy, available from just a few insurers, including Chubb and Fireman’s Fund. These policies tend to be extremely expensive, however.
HURRICANES AND FLOODS
Does it matter whether a storm is officially declared a hurricane?
It might. Some policies have special hurricane deductibles that take effect when sustained hurricane-force winds of 74 miles per hour (mph) or above are recorded at the nearest weather station. These deductibles are higher than standard policy deductibles—typically they are 2% to 5% of the total coverage amount. If a home is insured for $500,000 and has a 5% hurricane deductible, for example, the home owner pays $25,000 out of pocket.
Other policies have “named storm” deductibles. The higher deductible applies if any named storm enters the state, even if that named storm has winds below hurricane speed. Worse still are policies that have “wind storm” deductibles, where higher deductibles apply to damage caused by any wind.
Sandy, the superstorm that struck the Northeast in late October, no longer had hurricane-force winds when it reached shore, so the governors of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Maryland informed insurance companies that they could not apply hurricane deductibles—but named-storm deductibles and wind-storm deductibles still would apply.
How does flood insurance coverage differ from homeowner’s insurance coverage?
Flood insurance, issued by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (www.FloodSmart.gov) and sold through insurance agents, is more restrictive than homeowner’s insurance. Coverage for the home is capped at $250,000, not enough to replace a large home. Coverage for the home’s contents is capped at $100,000. Flood insurance does not cover things that are on the property but not part of the home, such as swimming pools, fences and walkways.
Coverage for flood damage to basements is very limited. Structural elements and essential equipment such as furnaces, water heaters and circuit-breaker boxes are covered, but basement furnishings, possessions and improvements such as flooring are not.
The way flood insurance defines basements can be confusing. If a level of the home is even slightly sunken below ground level, it’s officially a basement, even if it’s part of the living area of the home…but if the house is built into a hill and any part of the basement floor is even with or above ground level, it’s not officially considered a basement, even if it’s unfinished.
Is there any way to get help repairing flood damage if I don’t have flood insurance?
Grants and/or loans might be available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) if the government declares your area a federal disaster area. Go to www.DisasterAssistance.gov for details.
Homeowner’s insurance covers water damage when high winds rip off a roof, allowing rain to enter. But what if heavy rains cause my home to flood?
This would be covered only by flood insurance. Homeowner’s insurance covers rain damage only when the damage is from rain falling from the sky. Once rainwater is on or under the ground, it’s considered floodwater, even if it was rain just moments earlier. That’s why it’s a good idea to buy flood insurance if your home is at the base of a hill or in a valley, even if you don’t live near a body of water prone to flooding. Flood insurance is priced by zone and often is very affordable for those who don’t live near flood-prone bodies of water.
Flood insurance won’t cover basement improvements and possessions kept in the basement, but it will cover damage to heating systems, water heaters and electrical boxes in the basement.
Does homeowner’s insurance cover basement flooding caused by sump pump failure?
A standard homeowner’s policy doesn’t, but most insurers allow policyholders to add a sump pump endorsement for as little as $50 per year for $10,000 in coverage. It’s money well-spent if you have a sump pump.
If your sump pump stops working in a flood because of a power failure, this endorsement should provide at least some coverage—though in a major flood, the insurer might contend that the sump pump couldn’t have prevented the flood damage even if it continued to operate.
Does homeowner’s insurance pay for tree removal when trees are downed by storms?
If a tree falls on your home—or some other covered property, such as your garage, shed, swimming pool or fence—the policy will pay the cost of taking the tree off the home or covered property and repairing the damage (minus your deductible). But the policy will not necessarily pay the full cost of chopping up the tree and hauling it away. Most policies limit coverage for this to $500 per storm, though I have seen limits as high as $1,500.
That assumes that the tree came down on your home or some other covered property. If it landed only on your yard or driveway, insurance probably won’t cover removal costs at all. (It is worth reading the policy or calling your agent, however—some policies do allow that $500 to $1,500 limited tree-removal coverage to be used in this situation.)
If a tree in my yard falls onto my neighbor’s home, whose insurance pays?
Your neighbor’s—unless the tree was obviously rotten or dead before it fell. If the tree was in such bad shape that you should have noticed the problem and had it removed, a court could find you liable for failing to do so, shifting the cost of repairing the damage and removing the tree to you and your insurer. This becomes more likely if the neighbor had alerted you to the danger in advance.