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Protect Your Home From Pricey Winter Problems

Use this checklist to prevent costly damage from cold and ice.

Winter seems to have arrived earlier than usual this year. What should I be doing now to protect my house from winter storms and cold weather?

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Winter-related damage is the third-largest cause of property loss, according to the Insurance Information Institute, and some damage isn’t covered by insurance. Here’s what you can do to protect your home from potentially pricey winter problems.

From the inside: Pipes that freeze can burst and cause costly water damage. And if you’re away on a trip when pipes burst, the damage can get much worse. Pipes in outside walls, in a cold basement, in an attic or along the backs of cabinets are especially at risk of freezing. Add insulation to these pipes, and open kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warm air to circulate around the pipes -- especially if you’re leaving town. Instead of turning off the heat while you’re away, set the thermostat no lower than 60 degrees to help prevent the pipes from freezing, says JoAnn Streem, vice-president of the risk consulting practice at insurer ACE Private Risk Services.

If you’ll be gone for a while -- if you’re a snowbird, for example -- consider installing a device that automatically shuts off your home’s water supply if it detects unusually high water flow, which could result from a burst pipe. These devices can cost from about $500 to $2,500, but they could earn you a homeowners insurance discount. Or you could spend about $75 to $150 for sensors that detect a strong water flow and sound an alarm or alert your security system or mobile device. Give a friend or neighbor access to your home, and show that person where the water shut-off valve is in case a pipe bursts.


From the top: Ice dams happen when heat inside your house causes snow or ice in the middle of your roof to melt and then refreeze near the edges. The dams that result can lead to roof leaks, which can also damage your ceilings and walls. Icicles hanging from your roof can be a clue that ice dams are forming, says Streem. To help protect against this problem, keep your attic cold -- no more than 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature -- by sealing holes from light fixtures and ceiling fans to prevent warm air from flowing into your attic. See Preventing Ice Dams from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, for more information.

From the bottom: Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover damage from water that seeps into your home from the bottom up because of melting snow or rainstorms. You can get flood coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program (go to for price quotes). But even flood insurance may provide only limited coverage for certain improvements you’ve made to the basement, such as finished walls and carpeting. Your sump pump can help protect your basement from storms, and a battery back-up system can keep it going even if your power goes out.

From the outside: If tree limbs freeze and become brittle, they can cause expensive damage. Homeowners insurance will cover the damage if a limb hits your home but may provide only about $500 for removal -- and insurance may not cover the cost to remove a downed tree at all if it doesn’t hit your home. What’s more, branches that fall on power lines can knock out your power and lead to other problems. Streem recommends that you get an arborist to give your trees a check-up at least once a year, prune them back, and remove dead and damaged limbs. Now that the leaves have fallen, it’s also a good time to clean your gutters, which can also help prevent water damage. And don’t forget to disconnect garden hoses.

The whole house: Fires are a big cause of damage during the winter. If you have a fireplace, now is the time to get your chimney cleaned to avoid buildup of flammable creosote. Also buy a sturdy screen to keep sparks in the fireplace. Get a carbon monoxide detector for each floor of your home.


Consider getting a home generator. If the power (and your furnace) goes out, a generator will help keep your house warm and comfortable, prevent your pipes from freezing, and keep your sump pump and alarm systems running. You can get a portable generator for less than $1,000, but insurers will give you a homeowners insurance discount only if you have an automatic backup generator, usually powered by natural gas or propane, that can detect a power outage and immediately turn on. These generators cost about $2,000 or more, not including installation, depending on size. See Costs, Benefits of a Generator for more information about what to look for and how to calculate how much you need.

Your car: Keep an emergency kit in your car with a shovel and road salt (or cat litter), a first-aid kit, some food, water and medications, a cell-phone charger that plugs into your car, a battery-powered radio and flashlight (with extra batteries), and a sleeping bag or blanket. For more information, see our slide show Winter Car Maintenance Tips.

Also see the Web sites of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety for more advice about protecting your home.

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