PODCAST: Is Your Home Insured Against Disaster? Better Check

Your insurance policy might leave you high and dry when things get wet (or hot, or shaky). We'll talk about making sure you're fully covered. Also, inflation is here. Time to freak out?

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David Muhlbaum: Storms are coming. Fire, too. Ahead of what looks like a rough season for hurricanes and wildfire alike, we'll talk about what insurance covers, what it doesn't, and how to fill the gaps so that you're prepared against adversity. Also, inflation is here. How worried should we be? All coming up on this episode of Your Money's Worth.

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David Muhlbaum: Welcome to Your Money's Worth. I'm Kiplinger.com senior online editor David Muhlbaum, joined by my cohost, senior editor Sandy Block. How are you doing, Sandy? But perhaps more importantly, how's the fuel level in your car?

Sandy Block: Much better right now, thanks for asking. And I know why you're asking too, because of the computer hack that took out the Colonial pipeline and created this gasoline shortage we're living through here and by here, I mean mainly the Southeast U.S., which is here.

David Muhlbaum: So you got gas.

Sandy Block: We got gas. Yes, we did. I think so.

David Muhlbaum: Well, I noticed you said living through. I thought that was telling because, you know, we're all going to be okay. I have confidence to that by the time this podcast drops, the pipeline will be up and running again or the various workarounds -- trucks, ships trains -- will have helped. I like the "Mad Max" franchise, don't get me wrong, but those were movies. We're not there yet.

Sandy Block: Yes. But it sounded like it yesterday when the Consumer Product Safety Commission tweeted out a warning telling people not to store gasoline in plastic bags. I really started to worry for the future at that point. But aside from the hoarding silliness, this gas "crisis" and I'm putting quote marks on crisis, does seem emblematic of a bigger economic concern: inflation. Now I covered the Consumer Price Index for a number of years and you did too, David. And before the economists get all riled, we understand that this gas blip is probably going to be a blip and that inflation numbers that everyone's talking about these days don't reflect the pipeline issue.

David Muhlbaum: A couple of months ago, we talked about doing a longer piece on inflation. In fact, we asked people if they wanted us to do that and, sadly, not much response. At the time, we quoted the Kiplinger Letter and the forecast was basically that inflation would rise enough for consumers to take notice, but that it wouldn't get out of hand. Now I think the first part has definitely come true. People aren't just freaking out about gasoline scarcity, things like the cost of lumber, rental cars, plastics -- it's all getting a lot of attention and from the stock market too. Yesterday, at least and that was Wednesday, May 12th, stocks sank on that CPI report. Sorry, Sandy. I'm talking too much. What's the current inflation forecast?

Sandy Block: All right. So I can give you some insight into the forecast of our staff economist, David Payne, he's working on it for this week's Kiplinger Letter. So, got to stay a bit vague because he's still working on it.

David Muhlbaum: Well, people could subscribe and they could get the final word.

Sandy Block: They sure could, or should. Anyway, the update looks like this, broad inflation is not just a threat it's here. But remember that's not all bad news. One of the reasons prices are up is because people have money to spend. Businesses that can navigate the shortages will have no problem selling their products. The big question is, will it last? And the big player here is the Federal Reserve. And their view is that this is a brief spike. These logistical worries and the shopping frenzy will pass. That's their gamble, and that's why they're standing pat on interest rates. If prices keep rising, then they may have no choice but to raise rates to try and curb inflation and I think that's why the stock market is so concerned.

David Muhlbaum: Right. So, will this be a blip like the pipeline crisis or will it stick around? We'll be watching. So I guess maybe you and I will have to do an inflation check-in every month, Sandy. It'll be like the old days at Dow Jones. Speaking of timing, we have some news for you about Your Money's Worth. We're going to ease up on our schedule for the summer. This is the last weekly episode for now as we transition to every other week or as our British friends say, fortnightly.

Sandy Block: Fortnightly, my liege!

David Muhlbaum: Oh, I like that. So we will be back with another episode on or about June 1st but stick around for our main segment with Kiplinger staff writer Rivan Stinson about making sure your home and insurance are both ready for a potential disaster. We want it to get that one in before hurricane season officially started.

David Muhlbaum: Welcome back. All the people who forecast these sorts of things suggest we are in for both an active hurricane season and that wildfire danger out west is going to be higher this summer. We don't have an earthquake forecast because humans aren't good at that sort of thing yet, but that's another hazard. Now, these threats are new and the risk to your individual property depends on a whole bunch of factors, some of which we have some control over. Plus, in the end, there's always insurance or we hope. But still, May is a good month to take stock of the risks homeowners face and what they can do to mitigate them. And to that end, Rivan Stinson, a staff writer for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, did a roundup on how to know what's covered, make sure you have enough coverage, and where to get that coverage. Oh, and also actual physical changes you can make to your home as well to make it more risk-proof. Obviously what you do depends on what risk you're facing and we'll get into that. Thanks for joining us, Rivan.

Rivan Stinson: Thanks for having me.

David Muhlbaum: At the risk of staying with this doom and gloom tone here, your article started out with some depressing details, not about impending storm, fire, earthquake, cicadas, any of that, but with a study that showed that Americans don't have a great sense of what homeowners insurance actually covers. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Rivan Stinson: Oh yeah. So through my research, I found Policygenius which is an insurance comparison website, they surveyed homeowners and about 53% of them believed that flood damage was covered in their regular policy. It's not. In the same survey, they also found that 80% of homeowners thought that earthquake damage was covered too. And again, it's not. And depending on where you live at, you do have a higher risk for these things. So you just don't want to be left holding the bag. And I guess that was the scarier part -- to think that people thought that they were covered, and when disaster strikes, then you can just be left out.

Sandy Block: Right -- ow! But I would argue that plenty of people don't know or care about flood insurance because they don't think they're at flood risk or it's vanishingly low. And people who do live somewhere with high flood risk like the outer banks of North Carolina or along one of the big inland rivers, well, they know and they're covered. So what's the problem?

Rivan Stinson: The problem is one, a lot of the flood maps are old for FEMA and just depending on where you live at stuff does change. The person I interviewed for the story out in Maryland, she didn't think her house would have flooded, but we do know rains are getting heavier, don't have construction with storm, clogging the storm drains, you don't have enough vegetation. It doesn't really matter anymore. Your basement or anything does have a chance to flood.

David Muhlbaum: Tell us a little bit more about that term you threw out: FEMA maps. Because again, the people on the coast and along the rivers, they're going to know who FEMA is and what it does and what it's got to do with flooding, but maybe those in between or people who should be paying attention, they don't know. So tell them more about that resource, even if it may be out of date.

Rivan Stinson: So the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, these are the people who update the maps and you see them when bad storms happen and people are at the gymnasiums getting assistance. These are the people that are running the show through the Department of Homeland Security. So they have a resource on their website under floods and maps. You can click on it and it shows flood insurance, flood plain management, and more importantly for you as a consumer of flood maps. And you can look up your zip code or zip code that you want to live in, somebody else's, just to see your disaster risk of a flood. And again, it's helpful but the thing is, we do know that the maps are out of date. And so, it's just take stock of what's happening in your area that the weather is changing. Does your basement flood? My dad's basement floods all the time. He just doesn't put an insurance claim on it.

Sandy Block: And Rivan, I think one of the things you talk about in your story that has been a big issue after hurricanes or even just really heavy rains is that your policy might protect you from wind, but it won't necessarily protect you from water coming in and there's always a lot of big controversy about where the water came from and whether your insurance covers it. Is that right?

Rivan Stinson: In the insurance world, they are going to ask you, "Did the wind come first or did the rain come first?" If it's a hurricane and the hurricane is slanting water into your house, yes. Your flood insurance is not needed. But if it's coming up from the ground, that's a high possibility, it is a hurricane. Water is coming in. Thinking of a surge. Then it's going to be under your flood insurance policy.

Sandy Block: If you have one. Right.

Rivan Stinson: If you have one. And even now even with hurricane insurance, you need to just be on the lookout for just how bad the wind can be, and that will increase your policy and everything. But again, they will have a distinction on how did the water get into your house? If a pipe burst in your house, it's more than likely covered under your standard homeowners insurance policy, because that's something that's out of your control, especially if it's plumbing-related. The issue with flooding is, did the whole septic system jack up the neighborhood, did the rain mess up the neighborhood? And that's when you have some difficulties.

David Muhlbaum: Well, I'm glad you mentioned wind because I remember in your article too that wind coverage is changing as well in the sense that homeowners can have a separate deductible for wind damage and that could make some real big differences in how much you're paying out of pocket.

Rivan Stinson: Yes. Wind damage is getting much more expensive for you as a homeowner and it is a separate deductible that you have to meet and it's usually doled out to you in percentages, it's not a flat amount. And they're just making everything higher.

David Muhlbaum: So why is that happening?

Rivan Stinson: It's just the part of the industry. It's been gradually shifting just these different deductible types and especially in the 19 states where they're prone to having hurricanes. The insurance company is there to mitigate their risk. And so a lot of these disasters, they're just becoming so prone and they know that it's going to happen, that it's not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity anymore that they're willing to pay out for. So they're making you, the consumer, just pay more and just realize that this stuff is separate because now it's a known event.

Sandy Block: And I think what you point out in your article, Rivan, is that when they're charging you a percentage of the damage, it can be five to 10% of your total coverage. That could be a lot more than say $1,000 deductible or a $500 deductible, which I think is what most people are used to when they have an insurance policy.

Rivan Stinson: Yes. You're right. So let's say your home is insured for $500,000 and you have a 5% wind deductible, a storm comes and you end up having $30,000 worth of damages because of the high winds. At that 5%, you're responsible for $25,000 out of pocket. And then the insurance will only cover $5,000 of damages because now you met your deductible. But $25,000 is steep.

David Muhlbaum: It might not also be the only hurricane damage you have.

Rivan Stinson: That's right.

David Muhlbaum: So you have a separate deductible to cover for whatever else happened and then you have this additional $25,000. And yeah, that's adding up pretty big.

Rivan Stinson: Correct.

David Muhlbaum: Okay. To paraphrase or rather, mangle the poet Robert Frost, the world might end in a flood or it might end in fire. It seems like every year we get a more expensive wildfire surge out west. What's the story there both from a risk and insurance perspective?

Rivan Stinson: This is the area that I found most interesting. So again, wildfires are becoming a known event. We just know, "You know what? It's going to burn, just be ready." The issue is of some of these insurance companies are pulling out of the areas where people have homes in. So, whereas before you had more choices to even pick a home insurance policy that would cover wildfires, now you're probably down to two to three choices where maybe before you had eight people to pick through. And the deductibles are running high and it can be based on a percentage of your home or just a flat fee for your deductible. And just prices have gone up. And like before a policy could cost you $1,000 maybe a year ago. Now it's probably costing you three to six times that when it's up for renewal. And now let's say you had a policy, things are fine. Now the insurance company can opt to not renew your policy because you just live in a high-risk wildfire area.

David Muhlbaum: And those policies are on a one-year cycle?

Rivan Stinson: Yes.

David Muhlbaum: So yeah, you could be out of luck pretty quickly. Do you think this is going to get to a point where we have a insurer of last resort situation like the state might step in?

Rivan Stinson: I think so only because earlier in the year, the insurance commissioner for California did put a moratorium on policy cancellation. So I do think the state will eventually step in. But that's just my assumption.

David Muhlbaum: Well, yeah. Because no homeowners insurance equals no mortgage, no lah-di-dah. Yeah. That doesn't work.

Sandy Block: Well and in fact, that's what happened with flood insurance. That's why we have Federal Flood Insurance because private insurers didn't want to have anything to do with that business. Speaking of California and disasters that happened out there, let's talk a little bit about earthquakes. It was about 10 years ago here that we in Washington had a significant earthquake, but it just knocked over a couple of lawn chairs. But if you live in California, earthquakes can flatten your home. It can be quite devastating. And as David pointed out at the beginning of this broadcast, they're very hard to predict. So I guess the question is, does homeowners insurance cover damage from an earthquake Rivan?

Rivan Stinson: It surely doesn't. So for those living in California, you would have to get a separate policy, which is similar to the idea of getting flood insurance. And you do that with the California Earthquake Authority and they will set your deductibles and how much your belongings are covered for. And their deductibles do range from five to 25%. So again, similar to when you really are coming out of pocket.

David Muhlbaum: Okay, even non-Californians know that's where the earthquakes happen. But as we see with our Washington D.C. example, earthquakes do happen in other places, sometimes even with damage. What should someone in between, a non-Californian who thinks they're at risk for earthquake, what should they do in terms of assessing their risk and possibly insuring for it?

Rivan Stinson: Honestly, I would talk to an independent insurance agent. I would go to trustedchoice.com and just ask them, they will know your area. They live in your area just like you do and will be able to access that risk for you. Because unlike with FEMA in the flood maps, in my research I didn't see anything that mentioned earthquake map.

David Muhlbaum: Got it. I'm going to check the USGS site because I'm curious, but we could follow up on that. If I do succeed, I'll pop in a link.

Sandy Block: This has been a gloomy conversation, but we like to be actionable here at Kiplinger. So maybe you could talk about a few of the things that people can do to lower their insurance costs or their out-of-pocket costs. And let's start with flooding. What can you do to reduce the cost of damages or perhaps even insurance premiums there?

Rivan Stinson: So for this is just as simple as getting a water leak detector. You want to put it in your basement next to where your hot water heater is at. For example, the Flow Smart Water Detector is about 50 bucks at Amazon and it will notify you through an app on your smartphone that, "Hey, there's a leak happening." And some of these detectors will even do an automatic water shut-off, but those tend to cost more. So you basically just want to get something in that basement or any place that you think is prone to leaking so that the sensors can detect it.

David Muhlbaum: And with fire, there are a whole lot of steps people should be taking and I guess most people in fire zones know about these, but maybe there are people on the edges who should address them as well. What are some of the steps you need to safeguard your house against wildfire?

Rivan Stinson: When I tell you this you're going to laugh because it's just basic home maintenance. You want to keep anything that's flammable away from your house. You want to create what they call these defensible safe zones. So in about the first five feet from around your house, you want to remove any flammable outdoor furniture, combustibles. If you have firewood for a stove, do you have a propane tank? You want to clean out your gutters, keep your leaves raked. If you have tree limbs close to your house, see about getting them trimmed down because you just want to make sure your house is free and clear. And then it's the same type of principle as you walk further and further away from your front door. Just what's around? What could catch on fire? And: move it.

David Muhlbaum: As an East Coaster. I understand exactly what you mean rationally, but I think about my own house and I'm like, "A, I'm nowhere near that and B, it probably doesn't matter. So I guess I'm just lucky."

Sandy Block: The other thing we've been talking about, the increase in hurricanes and the forecast but this year is a lot of hurricanes and you also mentioned the big wind deductibles. So what should you do if you live in an area that's susceptible to hurricanes, tornadoes, and other types of wind storms. And that is an awful lot of territory because we've had some pretty fierce wind storms just around here in the DC area recently. So what should you be doing to strap yourself down?

Rivan Stinson: I'm going to take just what you said. You said, "strap yourself down." You basically want to make sure your roof is strapped down. It's usually easier to do as you're getting your roof replaced. But if you're not doing that, you can make some inexpensive upgrades to it. I'm going to have David drop a link. It's the Insurance Institute for Business and Homes safety Fortify standards will walk you step by step in terms of what layers need to be nailed down. You're looking for these things called ring-shank nails.

David Muhlbaum: Yes!

Rivan Stinson: And they basically hammer in your roof for you.

David Muhlbaum: And it's funny that the cost difference between an individual ring-shank nail and a nail that doesn't have these little bumps on it, it's tiny but all the cost is in the labor and the installation of doing it. So yeah, it really does pay to do that when you make an upgrade or a change because the incremental cost at that point is not much. But it's amazing to think that just by changing the kind of nail you use, you can vastly change the susceptibility of your roof or other things to wind damage.

Rivan Stinson: Yeah. And you also want to look for roof straps and metal connectors or retrofit clips in your attic. You just basically want to make sure that the contractors are keeping everything down together.

David Muhlbaum: I know this is, of course, a very state-by-state thing and I know, for example, Florida has been really on the leading edge of implementing these, requiring these, and having their building code reflect the need for these. So again, if people are in a state that's maybe more inland or not historically at as great a risk as Florida is to hurricanes but they do want to make changes, they might actually want to look to these other states, building codes, and inspiration to see what to do because they've got a wealth of knowledge down there.

Rivan Stinson: And also just think of, are you going to replace your roof soon? It's just something to add to your arsenal, to think about. Asking these when you get quotes about how much it's going to cost.

Sandy Block: So, the final thing that you talk about in your story, which is very relevant to us right now because we're all home. People have been working from home for the last year and a lot of them are going to continue working from home even after it's safe to go out. But what should you be thinking about in terms of your homeowners insurance if your home is your workplace?

Rivan Stinson: Appliances, appliances, appliances. You are at home, you're running the stove more, the air conditioner's running more, the air is running more. You're just having a lot of wear and tear on that. So you just want to add a buffer to your policy and it's very cheap. You can add equipment breakdown coverage, and this will reimburse you the cost for mechanical breakdowns of your equipment due to an electrical problem or something that stems or let's say it got installed wrong. And it's pretty cheap. It's about $24 to add to your home insurance policies. And you also want to think about your computers and your printers, whatever else that you have. And so typically you can get $2,500 in business equipment coverage. It's already in your standard policy. But if you're like me, I have a MacBook, I have a couple of cameras laying around. Stuff just gets really expensive.

Rivan Stinson: So if you have more expensive tech, you want to bump it up and you can increase it to $5,000 and that's roughly an additional $25 a year to your additional policy. So you're adding higher coverage for pennies, but it's for peace of mind. And you also want to think about if you're meeting people at home in the winter, though we are over that at the moment. People do slip and fall and they may decide to sue you. So if you're worried about the $100,000 is not enough liability and your standard homeowner's policy, you do want to get an umbrella policy because it will cover you for more. And the first million is generally $200 to $400 a year. Then the next million runs from $75 to $100. So it just all depends on your level of comfort and how much you want to be protected.

David Muhlbaum: Yes, it depends on your assets in total, essentially. If you don't have any money, they can't take you for much, but if you do, it could be gone. So it is an inexpensive way to provide that peace of mind. I just wish I could find some insurance to assure that my Wi-Fi at home or rather I should say, my internet connection, would be always on but I don't think that's coming anytime soon. Rivan, thank you very much for joining us today. We appreciate your insights on coverage and everyone out there, stay safe.

Before we leave you today, we're going to come back to cryptocurrencies, a topic we took seriously last month when we spoke with Tyrone Ross. I know that episode was not everyone's cup of tea, but let me just say that I get more out of it every time I listen. Now, I have to listen to it because it's my job. But I would say that if your initial reaction was, "What?" -- try going back and relistening or maybe read the transcript because we loaded that up with links to the underlying concepts and terms and frankly, jargon, that Tyrone brought up.

Sandy Block: So David, are you going to just plug past content, or do you have something new to talk about?

David Muhlbaum: I have something new. New-ish! One of the questions that we really didn't get to with Tyrone was the idea that some experts have that cryptocurrencies are -- or at least some of them are -- an overpriced asset bubble. The latest short squeeze or Dutch tulip-bulb craze.

Sandy Block: I'm not going to answer that.

David Muhlbaum: Fair enough. Neither am I. Except for Dogecoin, which is literally a joke. It's an overvalued joke with a market capitalization bigger than say, General Mills, but it's a joke. And here we go name-checking Saturday Night Live again, but Elon Musk, albeit as a character in a skit, he also called Dogecoin a joke.

Sandy Block: I think what he actually called it, and even if you didn't watch the episode, you may have heard this later. He called it a "hustle."

David Muhlbaum: Okay. Fine. A hustle.

Sandy Block: What cracked me up about the bit was how the Saturday Night Live host kept asking, "What is Dogecoin?" Over and over. And I think they were picking up on the zeitgeist there, that fairly reflects the general state of puzzlement over digital currency. So David, please tell the people, what is Dogecoin?

David Muhlbaum: It's a hustle! Okay, fine, fine. Dogecoin is a digital currency. But first we must explore, who is Doge? Doge is a Shiba Inu dog, a doge if you will. And a photo of this dog became an internet meme. Doge drinks bubble tea, Dodge goes skateboarding. My older daughter was into Doge, like, two years ago, which of course is an eternity in meme years. But Doge is cute.

Sandy Block: Yeah. After you sent it to me, I looked at the picture. I guess Doge is not Elon's dog.

David Muhlbaum: No.

Sandy Block: That's what I thought. Actually, he looks a little bit like the first dog my husband and I had. His name was Snoop. Now Snoop died like 13 years ago, so no digital currency for him.

David Muhlbaum: Oh, I don't see why not. Look, if these guys who launched Dogecoin-- and I stress again, they did so AS A JOKE -- why not Snoopcoin? It's not too late. So, anyway, Doge is a meme.

Sandy Block: Okay. David. What is Dogecoin?

David Muhlbaum: I see what you did there. Okay. Let me be clear. I'm cribbing my answer here from an article we published called, "Dogecoin's a Joke. Don't Make Yourself the Punchline." Riley Adams, a contributor, he wrote it. And he explains that Dogecoin, like Bitcoin and other digital currencies, it operates on one of these peer-to-peer transaction networks. We call it blockchain. All the trades get logged in this virtual decentralized ledger by people who verify them by mining. Well, actually for Dogecoin they call it "digging" because Dogecoin creators said dogs don't mine, they dig. Did I mention this is a joke? And so the miners are diggers. They receive a nominal amount of the virtual currency in return. That's how the currency is created.

David Muhlbaum: But people can buy Dogecoin. So it has a value in well, dollars. And at the start of 2021, the value of a Dogecoin was half a cent. It's suitable for a joke. "Hey bro, I got like 4,000 Dogecoins!" Now each Dogecoin is worth 43 cents at current exchange rates, which creates a total market capitalization of $50 billion, more or less.

Sandy Block: That's a lot of money or a lot of Doges, whatever. I take it this isn't going to last, or at least that Riley Adams, the contributor, doesn't think it's going to last.

David Muhlbaum: Well, no. I tend to think that when archeologists look back at the smoking rubble of the 21st century, one of the things they're going to find is Dogecoin. Actually, they're not, because it's only virtual! You won't find a doubloon, but anyway. In fact, after Elon did his little bit on Saturday Night Live, the thing, Dogecoin, lost a third of its value. Now, one thing that brings us full round to cryptocurrency in total is that Riley's article, the one published on Kiplinger, it also breaks down why the Dogecoin situation is not analogous to Bitcoin, or Ethereum, or a few of the other big cryptos. But I am not getting into that because we are out of time. We'll probably come back and talk about crypto some other day. We'll put a link to the article. Thank you.

Sandy Block: There you go.

David Muhlbaum: That will just about do it for this episode of Your Money's Worth. If you like what you heard, please sign up for more at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your content. When you do, please give us a rating and review. And if you've already subscribed, thanks. Please go back and add a rating or review if you haven't already. To see the links we've mentioned in our show, along with other great Kiplinger content on the topics we've discussed, go to kiplinger.com/podcast. The episodes, transcripts, and links are all in there by date. And if you're still here because you want to give us a piece of your mind, you can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or by emailing us directly at podcast@kiplinger.com. Thanks for listening.

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Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.