How protected are you from snow damage?

Eileen Ambrose -- Personal Finance

February 09, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose |

With 2 feet of snow this past weekend and more flakes forecasted, many homes in the Baltimore area are likely to end up with some weather-related damage.

So while icy streets and snowdrifts keep you indoors, use this time to review your homeowner's policy. Then take a few small steps to protect your house from winter storms and the meltdown that follows.

A homeowner's policy typically will cover burst pipes, a tree falling on a house, removal of fallen trees, wind and sleet damage to the roof, melting snow dripping through the shingles and water wreckage caused by "ice dams" that block gutters, insurance experts say. Flooding caused by melting snow is usually covered under a separate flood policy that you must purchase through a federal insurance program.

Your own policy, though, might have limitations. Consumers sometimes opt out of certain coverage to keep premiums down and later discover they are unprotected, says Karen Stakem Hornig, deputy commissioner for the Maryland Insurance Administration.

So what if your house has already sustained damage? Your first decision will be whether to file a claim, even if you're fully covered by insurance. Make a claim if the damage is extensive. If it's minor - a couple hundred dollars worth - you're better off paying for the repairs yourself.

That's because when it comes time to renew your policy, the insurer will look at the number of claims you filed in the past 24 to 36 months, Hornig says. If you made three claims in that period, you'll appear too risky to the insurer and might not be renewed, she says.

If you decide to file a claim, call your agent or insurer as soon as possible to get the claim process started. Insurers are geared up to handle claims from the recent snowstorm.

"Before the snow even fell, insurance companies were making sure they had enough adjusters and systems in place," says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman with the Insurance Information Institute.

Document the damage with photos. Also, prevent the problem from getting worse by putting up tarp or plywood to protect the affected area, Hornig says.

If your house hasn't been damaged, you can take measures to protect it.

Shovel snow away from all doors and dig out snow in window wells, the recesses that allow light into basement windows, says Tim Reinhold, chief engineer for the Institute for Business & Home Safety. Otherwise, once the snow starts melting, water will seep through doorways or basement windows.

Still, with this much snow on the ground, you can expect some water seeping into basements. So clear basement floors and move shelves away from walls so items aren't warped by water, Reinhold says.

Protect outdoor faucets with foam covers available at your local hardware store, Reinhold says. The foam covers draw heat from the house and keep the outdoor faucet from freezing.

If your house is in an exceptionally cold area, or if you lost power, keep the indoor faucets trickling to prevent pipes from freezing, Reinhold says. Open cabinet doors under the sinks so any heat in the house will keep the pipes from freezing, Reinhold says.

Moisture coming through the ceiling is often a sign that gutters are blocked by an ice dam. "You might want to get a contractor in to get the gutters free so water can run off," Reinhold says.

Flat roofs - and Baltimore has plenty of those - can become overburdened with snow and collapse. This is more likely to happen with garages and commercial buildings than houses that have walls inside offering additional support, Reinhold says.

If the snow is piling up on your flat roof, don't get on top of the house to clear it off, Hornig warns. You can fall or cause more problems to the roof with a shovel. Instead, contact a contractor or professional who can do the job, she says.

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