When thinking about buying home insurance, the average consumer probably considers such matters as structural integrity, flood potential and maybe even the possibility of a tornado touching down in the neighborhood. He probably doesn’t think about snakes, even though owning one can affect whether his home is covered.
Consider Bryan Hughes of Arizona. As a snake owner who works professionally with numerous species of the slithery reptiles, Hughes says he has been denied home insurance and renter's insurance several times.
“It was quite unexpected,” Hughes says of the first time he was denied coverage. “The rules are, of course, there to rule out any potentially dangerous animal. But almost all of the snakes kept by casual owners cannot cause more harm than a few cuts, and that’s only if they’re particularly mean.”
Ironically in Hughes’ case, it wasn’t the snake that ended up causing harm, but rather the fact that he wasn’t insured.
Nine years ago, Hughes’ uninsured apartment was burglarized. He lost almost everything he owned, including silverware, food and clothing. Just about the only thing the thieves didn’t take was his pet boa constrictor -- the animal responsible for him not being insured in the first place.
“She still lives with me and has never harmed anything other than her food,” Hughes says of his boa.
If you own a snake (or are looking at getting one), make sure you pay attention to these four points.
1. Be honest -- to a point.
According to Jeff Reinig, senior vice president of homeowner's insurance at Farmers Insurance, most consumers shopping for home or renter's insurance will be asked whether they have any “exotic" or "dangerous" animals.
“Then it becomes a judgment call,” Reinig says. “Can you make the argument that a rattlesnake is exotic? How about dangerous? Yeah, you can. But there are also a lot of big snakes that don’t do any harm.”
How literal you are in answering this question is a matter of interpretation. Since Hughes’ burglary encounter nine years ago, his insurance agent has advised him to classify his snakes as “aquarium pets” -- since, technically, that’s what they are.
2. Consider the snake's habitat.
Should you answer yes to the exotic pets question, your agent is then going to ask several questions about the snake. For example: Where is it kept?
Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm, says his company isn’t as concerned with the possession of a snake as it is with its enclosure. If it turns out there's a snake in the house, he says, the underwriter will ask whether the snake is going to be kept in an enclosed container and how often the snake will be removed from that container.
“We don’t attempt to evaluate the danger of individual snakes,” Luedke says. “We are concerned if the snake is going to be removed from its container.”
If the prospective policyholder does plan to remove the snake from its container, Luedke says, State Farm might have some concerns from a liability perspective. “It is certainly possible under those circumstances that we would not write the policy,” he says.
3. Don't despair.
Mike Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, says that although every insurance company differs in how it handles the snake situation, most insurers won't deny coverage completely, but rather will exclude coverage of the pet in question or offer to provide coverage at a higher cost.
Farmers' Reinig likes to use the example of a family dog with a history of biting.
“If you have a dog with a bite history, we don’t tell you that you can’t have a dog or that we won’t insure you, we just might not cover you against liability if the dog injures someone,” Reinig says. “In 30 years, I’ve never come across a situation where someone simply wasn’t covered at all.”
4. Look at the bigger picture.
The most significant consideration is safety, according to Reinig. In other words, don’t put yourself or others at risk simply because you’re trying to get home or renter's insurance.
“If you think the animal is at all dangerous or can do harm, the most important thing is to protect others from that,” Reinig says. “You think about dogs and fences, and when you think about snakes, you should think about lids. That’s most important. The more others are protected, the fewer problems you’ll have with your insurance.”