9 Smart Ways to Prepare Homes for Winter and Reduce Claims
Expensive homes can mean expensive claims, particularly during harsh winters. Water damage from ice dams and frozen pipes and structural damage from falling limbs cause losses that can quickly escalate, especially in unoccupied or secondary homes, where it may go undetected for days or weeks.
“We look at data from past events and see how that information can influence our member’s behavior,” said Jason Metzger, SVP, risk management, PURE Insurance. He explained that from a cold snap in February 2015, which spanned from Virginia to Maine, PURE was able to prepare for a cold snap in the winter of January 2018.
“The January 2018 event was really a nonevent,” he said. And that was because they were able to prepare their members for the dangers of water in the winter.
From full-house generators to smart thermostats, the best way to stop winter’s wrath is to prevent it.
1) Install a leak detection and emergency water shut-off system.
These devices shut off a home’s water supply if they detect abnormalities in water pipes. Together with a low-temperature sensor, this can be tremendously helpful if a home is going to be unoccupied for an extended period of time during the winter months.
“Some of the biggest losses I see on a regular basis are from water leaks or water entering the home,” said Jason Ott, director of field operations, Aon Private Risk Management. “You want to stop water as soon as possible. Being aware of water and being able to stop it will help you mitigate the situation.
“The longer a house sits with water, the bigger the loss,” he said.
A water shut-off system, then, can help set parameters on what is a normal amount of water use for a home. Anything ancillary to that typical amount will trigger the system to shut it off.
Having this system connected to home alarm systems can also alert the homeowner immediately when the water is shut off, enabling them to check in on the occupancy and act quickly on any damage.
2) Inspect and update your roofs.
Water can drip down, refreeze and create dams that can block drains and ultimately weaken your roof, putting it at risk of collapsing, said Mike Gulla, director of underwriting at Hippo Insurance.
Ice dams are one of the biggest causes of winter damage and older roofs have a higher chance of forming them than those built in the last 10 years. Flat roofs are particularly high-risk and should routinely have snow removed.
Additionally, “some companies have different levels of coverage depending on the age of a roof,” said Ott. Therefore, updating the roof might lead to better costs in premium or a better payout at the time of a loss.
Other good roof practices would be to check the roof flashing, making sure it’s in good condition and can prevent water penetration, and trimming back trees and dead branches that could cause damage to the roof in a storm, said Gulla.
3) Consider installing heat strips on gutters and/or roof edges to prevent ice dams from forming.
Ice dams are most common on the northern and eastern slopes of the home. Heat strips can actively stop them from forming.
4) Have a contractor inspect the insulation and pipes in your attic to avoid heat loss or water leaks.
A well-insulated attic will help keep a home’s heat from melting the snow on the roof, which is another potential contributor to ice dams.
Hippo’s Gulla suggested that homeowners insulate the attic and make sure its ventilated. “This will allow cool air to move through your attic while insulation seals the heat within your home,” he said.
A water shut-off device will also be a lifesaver when it comes to attic insulation. Metzger said this device shouldn’t be limited to cold-weather climates “Even just a few days of 20 degree weather in the southern states can cause a pipe to burst. And that usually comes down to the way the attic is insulated.”
A frozen pipe can cause more than $5,000 in water damage, according to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.
“When water expands and freezes, it can put a tremendous amount of pressure on plumbing pipes,” said Gulla.
5) Winterize your swimming pool and irrigation system and upgrade your outdoor faucets to frost-free ones.
If outdoor systems are connected to a faucet that leads to indoor piping, the outdoor systems can freeze, causing pressure on indoor pipes, which can then potentially burst. Outdoor faucets should be covered and water turned off to prevent the faucet tube from bursting in freezing conditions.
6) Install a whole-house generator.
Whole-house generators can restore electricity during power outages, helping prevent losses from interruptions to heating systems or central alarms.
When electricity is out, heating systems can fail, said Ott. “With no electricity, no heating, pipes can burst.”
And, he said, this could be a bigger issue than just flooding or related water damage. Fine art hung on walls that house pipes can be destroyed by a leaking pipe.
“For fine art, outside of transit, it’s water damage” that acts as the biggest cause of loss.
But loss of electricity can be avoided; clients who proactively seek our a generator before a major storm can preempt an event in a cost-effective manner. Most vendors recommend putting in generators during the fall, before the ground freezes. However, sometimes installation of a whole-house generator might slip off the radar. In that case, Metzger said, “we work with our partners to see where we can do it. There’s always the portable options available to get us to the spring when we can work towards the whole-home solution.”
7) Consider installing a smart thermostat.
Ideally, the heat in a home should be set to at least 65 degrees. A smart thermostat allows control of a home’s temperature remotely and alerts homeowners to dramatic temperature changes that might cause problems. Once colder weather arrives permanently, interior doors, cabinets and vanities should be left open, so the whole home is heated.
“The installation of a smart thermostat is a great way to be able to control temperature settings right from your smart phone or tablet. This technology can be very convenient for clients who travel frequently or who do not have a caretaker who is regularly checking on a secondary or vacation home,” said Sarah Aguirre, northeast client advisory leader, Marsh Private Client Services.
“Maintaining a consistent temperature during the colder months can help to prevent frozen pipes while on vacation or for homes that are not frequently occupied during the winter. This is an inexpensive and simple way to maintain the temperature in your residence and help to protect against the unnecessary freezing of pipes.”
Metzger recommends smart thermostats be kept around 65 degrees. “Some can also protect you from a burst pipe,” he said. “It can alert you to water damage, which can give you enough time to get an indication or a head start on stopping damage.”
8) Arrange weekly inspections for secondary or unoccupied homes.
If a property is going to be unoccupied during the winter, it should be inspected by a caretaker or relative on a weekly basis — especially if there isn’t a water shut-off product installed. Provisions should also be made for snow removal. This makes the house appear occupied and ensures reliable access to the property for fuel delivery and emergencies.
“There are many benefits to having weekly inspections of secondary and unoccupied homes especially during the winter months. These inspections can ensure that the temperature is being properly maintained to help avoid frozen pipes, uncover water leaks or more potentially severe issues such as ice damming or damages to the roof resulting from winter storms,” said Aguirre.
“There’s never too many layers of protection,” added Metzger.
He shared one scenario: PURE had a member who did not have a water shut off system installed but did have a caretaker checking in on their home. They also had an alarm system that kept detecting movement. The caretaker accessed the home to discover a pipe had burst and the movement was the dripping of water. The member was able then to stop some of the damage before it got too out of hand.
“Scheduling regular inspections not only helps our clients to proactively protect their homes,” Aguirre said, “but by identifying an issue early they can prevent potentially devastating damages to their homes.”
In addition, Ott added that it would be wise to check in with the insurance company or a broker to see if there’s a discount offered for clients who have a caretaker checking in.
“Sometimes insurance will add a surcharge if no one is checking in,” he said. Likewise, insurance might offer that discount if a client shows they’re actively protecting their home.
9) Have the trees on your property inspected and treated in the fall or early winter.
Temperature fluctuations, ice, and heavy snow, combined with wind and other winter conditions can weaken trees. If they fall or break, they could injure someone, knock out electricity or damage homes, cars and other property. &