Ask Kim


Protect Your Home for the Winter

Kimberly Lankford

Follow these simple steps to avoid cold-weather insurance claims.



I have bad memories of last year’s brutal winter. Do you have any preventive maintenance tips to protect my house from expensive storm damage?

It’s a great time to prepare your home for the winter, especially if you’re about to leave town for the holidays. Here’s how to protect your home for the winter -- and get some valuable homeowners-insurance discounts at the same time.

Many homeowners-insurance claims in winter are caused by frozen pipes, which can result in thousands of dollars of water damage and expensive cleanup. Even though most of your house may be warm, pipes can still freeze in cold spots , such as your basement, garage, and the back of your closets and cabinets. “I was called in on a claim where a pipe was installed between the living room and the unheated garage,” recalls Keith Weinhold, an appraisal technical specialist with Chubb Insurance. "The water came out at such high pressure that it drilled a hole through the drywall, and the living-room floors were all destroyed,” adds Weinhold, who has more than 30 years of experience assessing homeowners’ insurance claims. Here are some of his tips for protecting your home.

Simple steps such as checking the insulation in your home’s cold spots and opening cabinets and doors to let warm air circulate can make a big difference. “Whenever the wind blows and the temperature drops, the wind is forcing air into every crack in your house, and your cold spots are going to be even colder,” he says.

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Don’t turn your thermostat down too low when you’re going out of town. “The problem is if you turn your thermostat down to 50 degrees, that’s 50 degrees at the thermostat -- but the temperature could be down in the 30s in the cold spots in your basement,” says Weinhold. “You always have to be conscious of what the temperature is in the coldest part of the house.” He recommends reducing your thermostat to no lower than 60 degrees when you leave your home for a winter vacation.

For extra protection throughout the winter, consider installing a low-temperature sensor in the coldest spot in each heating zone (including the basement). A sensor provides an alert if the temperature drops below 54 degrees. Weinhold says that it can cost about $100 to install the system when building a house, or $200 to add it in later. But it could reduce your homeowners- insurance premiums by up to 2% if the low-temperature sensor is tied into a centrally monitored alarm system. The specific discounts vary by insurer, state and details of the system.

If you travel frequently, you may want to consider an automatic water shut-off system, which cuts off the main water line if it detects a malfunction in the pipes. This type of system could reduce your homeowners-insurance premiums by up to 3% -- or as much as 5% if it is linked into your home-security system and alerts your security provider.

An automatic back-up generator can also help protect your home’s plumbing from freezing. If the electricity goes out -- which isn’t unusual during winter storms -- your heat may go out and your pipes could freeze. Your homeowners-insurance company may give you a discount of up to 2% off your premiums if you have an automatic back-up generator that switches on when the electricity goes off. The generator will not only keep your house warm, but it will power your alarm system. .

Make sure you disconnect and drain any hoses outside your house and shut off the outside faucets. Don’t forget to drain the faucet after you turn off the water to prevent freezing.

Cleaning your gutters, so water doesn’t back up and freeze, can also help you avoid a lot of winter-weather claims. If you live in a northern state, consider installing heat strips in the gutters to prevent ice dams.

Trimming trees can protect your home, too. Winter weather and ice storms often make tree branches brittle, causing them to break off and land on your house or your power lines. See When Your Tree Falls in Your Neighbor’s Yard for more information about what homeowners insurance will (and will not) pay for tree damage.

For more information about homeowners insurance, see Prepare Your Homeowners Insurance for Storm Season. For advice about getting your homeowners-insurance claims paid, see Make Your Insurer Pay.

Got a question? Ask Kim at askkim@kiplinger.com.



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