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Spring Guide to Homeowners Insurance and Your Lawn

It's that time of year when thoughts turn to spring and the possibility of a tree-lined, lush green lawn with manicured shrubs and blooming flowers. Whether your approach this year is a DIY project or calling in a professional, chances are it won't come cheap.

And if something goes  wrong with those new plants, who's on the hook to pay? The answer can get complicated.

Depending on what caused your pine tree’s peril or your sickly shrubs you may find some protection in your homeowners insurance policy.

Most standard homeowner insurance policies include clauses that protect plants, shrubs and trees around your home. That protection, however, isn’t absolute and it isn’t comprehensive. You need to read your fine print closely to see what is covered and when.

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Chris Hackett, senior director of policy at the Property Casualty Insurers of America, an insurance trade group based in Chicago, says there are two basic situations when your homeowner policy would come into play to protect your landscaping — when trees fall in certain ways, and when your plants are destroyed or lost during a covered peril.

In the first situation, a tree falls in your yard because of a windstorm, hailstorm, or because of the weight of snow, sleet or ice.

If that tree fell and crashed into your house or detached garage, your insurance would kick in and cover both the damage to your home and the removal of the ill-fated tree — within limits. Typically, policies pay removal costs of no more than $500 per tree and no more than $1,000 in total.

Now, if that tree missed your home and fell in a way that blocked access to your property, like say in your driveway or in front of a door, then again, the insurance may pay to remove that tree, within those same limits.

Jeanne M. Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute based in New York, says in some cases, your neighbor might be on the hook for the cost of the felled tree.

"If the tree was in poor health or not properly maintained, the policyholder's insurer may try to collect from the neighbor's insurer in a process called subrogation. If the insurer is successful, the homeowner may be reimbursed for the deductible," Salvatore says. 

If the tree fell on your car, you may also be saved — auto insurance policies cover vehicles hit by falling trees as part of their comprehensive coverage.

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But, let’s say the tree fell in the middle of the yard and it didn’t hit or destroy anything on the way down — well, in this case, you may be out of luck.

“In that case, it would be considered a maintenance issue, and you would need a landscaper to take care of it out of pocket,” Hackett says.

The same is true if the weather merely kills your tree — like a palm tree in a freeze. In those cases, the insurance policies see the damage as a routine maintenance issue and would not reimburse you for that loss.

When will insurance cover landscape damage?

The second circumstance where you are covered is if the landscaping was destroyed during certain conditions, such as a fire, lightning, explosion, riot or civil commotion, aircraft accident, or an accident involving a vehicle not owned or operated by the homeowner.

In those cases, the policy typically would pay to replace the landscaping, but within coverage limits — typically 5 percent of the dwelling limit of the home. That means if you have a $200,000 home, you would be covered for up to $10,000 in landscaping losses.

Theft and vandalism is often covered in the same way, as well.

The costs involved in landscaping can be significant; according to the Insurance Information Institute, Americans spend an estimated $27 billion on landscaping projects each year.

In the cases of specialty landscaping or particularly expensive plants, you might need to be covered by an endorsement to your homeowner insurance policy.

“I understand how expensive landscaping can get, and I understand why you would want it covered, but anything beyond the typical policy limits would have to be a specific conversation with your agent before the disaster happens,” Hackett says. 

Now, when it comes time to replace that landscaping, it might be wise to do so with disasters in mind, says Claudette Reichel, director of the Louisiana AgCenter’s LaHouse program.

She says that it is important to select trees that are appropriate for the natural disasters and weather conditions typical for your area.

In the South and along the Eastern Seaboard, for example, homeowners should generally choose trees that can withstand hurricane winds without breaking, becoming spears or uprooting.

“When you have high winds, you tend to have more damage from the trees than from the winds themselves,” Reichel says.

She says to also remember to plant trees far enough from the foundation so that they don’t wreak havoc with your house’s slab — a good rule of thumb is to plant them far enough from the house that the canopy of the tree does not overhang the roof line.

That spacing can also help prevent leaves clogging your gutters, which might lead to a costly roof leak and another insurance claim.

And if you are worried about the weather harming that expensive landscaping, it is important to take precautions in advance — keep trees healthy and pruned, cover exposed plants during cold conditions, and select plants that are appropriate for your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone.

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