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Recipe for safety: Make sure you’re insured for cooking fires

Wintertime is a time for food, friends and celebration, but too often the fun is marred by cooking fires.

Cooking is the leading cause of home fires, according to Lorraine Carli, a spokeswoman for the National Fire Protection Association. In 2010, about 157,000 home fires caused by cooking were reported across the country. That year, those blazes caused 420 deaths and about $993 million in property damage.

cooking_fireThe kitchen is one of the most dangerous rooms in your home. Stove fires outpace appliance, fireplace, smoking, candle and furnace fires, according to Nationwide Insurance claims data. Elizabeth Stelzer, a Nationwide spokeswoman, says the average cooking fire claim exceeds $30,000 – four times higher than the next costliest type of homeowner’s insurance claim, electrical fires.

“We found that one in eight households will have a cooking fire each year,” Stelzer says.

The best way to recover from a cooking fire is to avoid it in the first place, says Ronald Papa, a public claims adjuster in New York and former president of the National Association of Public Insurance Adjusters.

“There is no such thing as a small kitchen fire,” Papa says. “It most likely will involve cabinets, which can’t be cleaned and refinished if there is heat damage.

Most fires occur in the winter, he says. Even leaving a single pot unattended on the stove can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in damage from smoke, flames and water.

Getting adequate homeowner’s insurance

A standard renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy offers property and liability coverage to help you recover from losses resulting from a variety of disasters, including fires. However, if you are a tenant, your landlord’s policy won’t protect your personal property. You’ll need to buy a separate policy.

As a homeowner, you should make sure you have enough coverage to replace your possessions and repair or rebuild your home. Coverage for your belongings usually is a percentage of the amount the home is insured for. If you insure your home for $200,000 and the contents coverage is 50 percent, your possessions are insured for up to $100,000.

If you’re willing to pay extra, extended and guaranteed replacement cost policies can protect you from escalating repair costs that may follow a fire that involves numerous structures, creating a high demand locally for building materials and construction labor.

The nonprofit Insurance Information Institute says some extended policies pay a percentage over your policy limit to make sure your home can be rebuilt.

Some companies offer a guaranteed policy that pays whatever the price is to restore your home following a fire. Neither an extended nor a guaranteed policy pays for building materials that are more expensive than those used originally.

You can select a higher deductible to lower your premiums, but then you’ll assume a higher financial risk when you file a claim.

A standard homeowner’s policy “is going to cover the building, the contents, your furnishings and clothing,” Papa says. “It also will cover your loss of use if you have to stay at a hotel or rent another house.”

If a home fire happens to damage your car, keep in mind that damage isn’t covered under your home policy, says Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California. Most home policies also require additional coverage for landscaping, swimming pools and outbuildings like gazebos and detached garages.

Policies typically set limits for items such as collectibles, jewelry and computers. If you own expensive things, it may be wise to pay extra to have them insured under what’s known as an endorsement or rider.

It’s important to make sure you understand your policy’s limitations before you go through a disaster, Nationwide’s Stelzer says. “We always tell people no two policies are alike,” she says. “We urge people to talk to their agents and make sure they read their policy before they have (a catastrophic) event.”

Paying attention to the stove

Most cooking fires are caused by distracted chefs. You can avoid disaster by staying aware of what’s happening in the kitchen. The U.S. Fire Administration offers these six tips:

  1. Keep anything that can catch fire away from your stovetop.
  2. Remain in the kitchen whenever food is broiling, frying or grilling.
  3. Whenever a meal is baking, boiling, roasting or simmering, check on it regularly.
  4. If a grease fire starts in a pan, smother the flames by placing a lid over it and turn off the burner. Do not attempt to carry the pan outside.
  5. If your oven catches on fire, turn off the heat and close the oven door.
  6. When in doubt about your ability to control a fire, evacuate your home and call 911.

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