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We came up with 12 simple strategies that can help you protect your home from some of the most common causes of winter-storm damage.
1. Prevent ice dams. Icicles hanging from your roof may look cool, but they're actually a telltale sign that you might have ice dams building up under your roof, which can lead to expensive damage. This happens when heat from inside your house causes water to melt in the middle of your roof and then refreeze near the edges, creating a dam that can lead to leaks in your roof and damage your ceilings, walls and roof. Solution: Keep your attic no more than 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperatures. Open a window or vent in the attic to keep it cold, and seal holes from light fixtures and ceiling fans to prevent warm air from escaping into your attic, says Remington Brown, senior engineering manager for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. See Preventing Ice Dams for more information.
2. Bundle up your pipes. Frozen pipes cause some of the most common insurance claims in the winter -- especially in warmer parts of the country that experience an unexpected cold snap. Wrap attic, basement and crawl-space pipes in insulation, which costs as little as $1 per six feet, says Trenise Lyons, of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Especially when temperatures drop below 20 degrees, open kitchen and bathroom cabinets to allow warm air to flow around the pipes, and let water drip slowly from faucets.
3. Protect your roof. Another cause of winter damage is roof collapse, especially on flat roofs over porches or additions. Most roofs in good condition can support weight equal to about 20 lbs. per square foot (or more in parts of the country with frequent snow, where roofs tend to have extra reinforcements). Most roofs can support about 4 feet of new snow before becoming stressed, or 2 feet of old, packed snow. If the accumulation on your roof is getting close to that level, use a roof rake (which has an extra long handle) to remove packed snow while you are standing on the ground. If your roof is too tall for the rake to work, ask neighbors before a storm to recommend a contractor who can safely shovel your roof. Don't risk shoveling it yourself, and don't depend on strangers who go door-to-door after a snowstorm offering to shovel your roof -- if they cause damage, you probably won't be able to track them down. For more information, see DisasterSafety.org's Preventing Roof Collapse fact sheet.
4. Do some quick maintenance. Trim trees, clean gutters and downspouts, and install weather stripping to seal drafty windows and doors. If you have extra time, make sure your landscaping is graded so runoff from rain or melting snow moves away from the foundation.
5. Keep an emergency kit in your home. The Red Cross recommends stocking an emergency preparedness kit with basic supplies, including a three-day supply of food and water for each person in your household, flashlights, extra batteries, a weather radio, a first aid kit, and a seven-day supply of medications and medical supplies. Don't forget to have extra food and supplies for your pets, says Melanie Pipkin, of the American Red Cross. Also keep printouts of your insurance and emergency information (so you're not dependent on a computer if the electricity is knocked out) and enough cash to cover your needs in case ATMs and credit card readers in your area go on the blink. If you still have a land-line, get a phone that plugs into the wall and isn't dependent on electricity -- it will probably still work if your power goes out. You can get pre-made emergency kits at the Red Cross Store. Also see the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Ready.gov guide for preparing for winter storms.
6. Keep an emergency kit in your car. Tod Pritchard, emergency preparedness coordinator for Wisconsin Emergency Management, recommends keeping in your vehicle a shovel, windshield scraper and small broom; snack food, including energy bars, and water; extra hats, socks and mittens; booster cables; and emergency flares and reflectors. Also stock some road salt (or cat litter), a first-aid kit, your crucial medications, a cell-phone adapter to plug into your car lighter, a battery-powered radio and flashlight (with extra batteries), and a sleeping bag. Keep your gas tank at least half full during winter.
7. Reinforce your roof and windows. Consider some longer-term home improvements, which could protect your home and save you money on insurance. Impact-resistant roofing material can protect your home from hail and may get you a home insurance discount of up to 30% in certain states, says Betsy McDermott, an underwriting analyst with State Farm's loss mitigation unit. Adding storm-proof shutters may reduce your premiums by up to 25%.
8. Protect against floods. Homeowners insurance covers a lot of winter storm damage, but it doesn't cover damage from water that seeps into your home from the bottom up from melting snow and rainstorms. For that, you need flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program. Get price quotes for flood coverage at FloodSmart.gov; there's a 30-day waiting period.
9. Prevent sewage back-up. Snow melt and heavy rains can also overburden the storm-water system, causing water or sewage to back up into your house -- an expensive mess that typically isn't covered by home insurance, either. But you can usually add a rider to your home policy that pays if your sump pump stops working or your sewer line backs up; it typically costs just $50 per year for $10,000 to $20,000 in coverage. A battery-powered back-up sump pump is a good idea, too.
10. Install a home generator. So many bad things can happen when your electricity goes out: You lose light and heat; your pipes can freeze; your sump pump, and fire and burglar alarms can stop working; your electronics could be damaged; and you might be tempted to use dangerous heating devices. Many insurers offer discounts for automatic back-up generators (usually powered by natural gas or propane) that detect a power outage and immediately turn on.
Portable generators cost a lot less than automatic back-up generators, but you need to take a lot more safety precautions. Generators that run on gasoline can create carbon monoxide, so never operate them in your house or garage, or outside near open windows or vents. Make sure the engine is cool before refueling. And plug a generator into a grounded extension cord. See the Backup Generator page in State Farm's Learning Center for more information.
11. Stay warm safely. One of the biggest winter dangers is carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by improper ventilation of furnaces, generators, charcoal-burning or propane-burning devices, or wood-burning stoves, says Pritchard. Have a carbon monoxide detector on all floors of your home. Have your chimney cleaned every year to avoid flammable creosote buildup, buy a sturdy screen to keep sparks in the fireplace, and dispose of ashes in a metal container.
12. Install a leak-detection device. Your insurer may give you a discount for installing an automatic leak-detection device that shuts off the water supply if it detects unusually high water flow (from burst pipes, for example), which can be especially important for snowbirds and frequent travelers.