Water, freezing and flood damage: Is your home covered?

Depending on where you live, winter may bring you freezing temperatures, rain or snow. You may spending time in front of a cozy fire -- or you may be on your hands and knees, mopping up water from a burst pipe, leaking roof or flood.

If the worst happens, insurance can cover your losses. But what's covered and not covered varies, depending on your policy type. Also, what you do after the damage happens can help or hurt the chances of your home insurance claim being approved.

Keep in mind that insurers view water damage in two broad categories:

1. Water from above (rainstorm, ice storm or leaking pipe).

2. Water from below (floodwater).

home insurance water damage

Rainstorms and pipe leaks

Water damage is a common reason for filing an insurance claim. Winter storms caused an average of $1.25 billion in annual losses during the past decade, the Insurance Information Institute reports. The average homeowner's insurance claim for water damage or freezing is nearly $5,900.

Will your water damage be covered? It depends on your policy type, says Rick Kinney, a licensed claims adjuster and owner of the advice site PropertyClaimTips.com.

Some policies cover little besides fire damage. Others include water damage only if it's cited in the policy. Still others cover water damage as long as it is not specifically excluded in the policy. Read your policy carefully to know what's covered.

If you experience damage from water or frozen water, you still may not be covered if your insurance company considers you negligent. For instance, if you had a summer home and forgot to drain the pipes when you left, or your pipes are improperly insulated, you may not be covered.

"If you ran out of heating oil or propane, and then your pipes freeze, your insurance will deny your claim," Kinney says.

One important thing to note if you're filing a claim for water damage: You'll need to prove the damage was not caused by a slow leak that's gone undetected for months or years, says Jeff Reinig, senior vice president for home policies at Farmers Insurance.

home insurance water damages

"Water damage is covered from a sudden, accidental pipe break, for instance," Reinig says.

Mold damage is even trickier. Coverage parameters vary by state. As with water damage, the mold must have been caused by sudden water damage, not a gradual buildup.

Flood insurance

If you think your property is in danger of flooding, there's only one resource for insurance – the federal government. Since 1968, all U.S. flood insurance has been offered through the National Flood Insurance Program, according to Farmers' Reinig. If you're in an area prone to flooding, you may be required to obtain flood insurance to secure a home mortgage.

If you're at risk, it is well worth obtaining coverage. Last year, the National Weather Service reports, coastal storms, flash floods and river flooding caused more than $1 billion worth of combined property damage.

But keep in mind that federal flood insurance has its limits. You can obtain up to $250,000 of building-damage coverage. Meanwhile, coverage for your belongings is capped at $100,000.

Beyond there, you're out of luck unless your flood is declared a federal disaster, in which case you may be eligible for additional aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Claim tips

For your best chance at getting your water damage claim paid by your insurance, act quickly. Call your insurance agent immediately -- many will dispatch a team right away to help minimize damage, Farmers' Reinig says. If no help is imminent, take photos to document your damage, then take action yourself to stop the problem and begin cleaning up.

"Keep all the evidence, even if you have to pile sopping-wet insulation in the backyard and cover it with a tarp," Reinig says.

Your home insurer will send an adjuster to estimate the damage and present you with a settlement offer, PropertyClaimTips.com's Kinney says. If you think your insurer's estimate is too low, you can hire your own adjuster to do another estimate. The two estimates then go to binding arbitration, and an "umpire" appointed by the two estimators will make a final decision on the payment amount.

An ounce of prevention

The best way to cope with winter water hazards is to take steps to prevent damage. Here are some tips from State Farm Insurance:

home insurance water damage

Water

• Check for leaks in hoses on your dishwasher, washing machine and refrigerator.

• Watch for evidence of a slow leak, such as warped, discolored or soft flooring, wet spots on the floor or water-damaged cabinets.

• Check pipes under sinks for drips.

• Check bathtubs and showers for failing grout and re-caulk as needed.

• Check for hidden leaks by stopping all water use and recording the meter reading. If the meter reading keeps going up, there may be an undetected leak.

• Make sure all family members know where the water shutoff valve is and how to use it.

Freeze

• If you're going to be away from your permanent home or summer getaway, ask someone to stop by to check the property.

• Be sure to drain pipes or keep the thermostat on to avoid freezing.

• In extreme cold, keep a small trickle of water running through the faucet.

• Close exterior doors for unheated spaces.

• Install a household water-leak detection system.

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