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A reader asks: With storm season starting soon, what should I do now to get my home ready and try to avoid problems this year? We were hit pretty bad by storms last summer.
Kiplinger answers: Hurricane season begins on June 1, and now is the perfect time to take steps to protect your home (and finances) from the storms – rather than waiting until a storm approaches and scrambling to get ready.
Consider a home generator. Not only will you be more comfortable with lights, electronics, your refrigerator and air conditioning, but the generator can also help you avoid other problems when the power goes out -- such as flooding when your sump pump stops working or mold that can grow if your basement floods when your air conditioning is on the blink, too.
You may even get a 5% discount on your homeowners insurance if you install an automatic standby generator, which is powered by natural gas or propane and turns on automatically after detecting a power outage. The most common is 17 kilowatts, which powers 16 circuits, says Roy Cranford, president of generator dealer CDS Emergency Power, in Baltimore. The generator costs about $4,000, plus about $3,500 for installation (to connect to your electrical system and gas or propane line) .
Portable generators are less expensive and can be a good option if you don't have a gas or propane line, although they generally won't qualify for a homeowners insurance discount. A 6.5 kilowatt portable generator costs about $800 to $1,000, says Cranford, and can power about ten circuits – enough for most of a 2,000-square-foot house, not counting central air conditioning.
Look into flood insurance now. Spring and summer storm flooding often causes damage, which is not covered by homeowners insurance. You can buy a policy from the National Flood Insurance Program from local insurance agents (get price quotes and a risk assessment for your address at FloodSmart.gov). But there's a 30-day waiting period before floodcoverage takes effect, so buy it soon to be sure your policy is up and running near the beginning of hurricane season. For more information, see Prepare for Storm Season With Flood Coverage.
Add sewage-backup coverage. Heavy rains can overburden the storm water system, causing water or sewage to back up into your house -- a common (and pretty gross) problem during storm season. But most homeowners insurance policies no longer cover sewage backup automatically. It generally costs about $50 to add $10,000 to $20,000 of sewage-backup coverage to your homeowners insurance policy, which will cover damages if your sewer backs up or if water gets into your house because your sump pump stops working. See the Insurance Information Institute's Insure Against the Risk of Sewer Backup fact sheet for more information.
Use new tools to update your home inventory. If you do have storm damage, an up-to-date home inventory can smooth the way to getting your insurance claim paid more quickly. You no longer need to go through your house and write down everything; you can take photos and video of everything -- including your valuables and the architectural details of your home -- with your smart phone , and e-mail it to yourself so you can access it from anywhere. Several insurance companies have apps that help you maintain your inventory and file claims online. Or you can use the Insurance Information Institute's Know Your Stuff app or the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' inventory app. See 8 Steps to Get Your Hurricane Claim Paid Quickly for advice that can help if your house is damaged in a storm.
Trim trees. Fallen tree branches frequently cause damage during a hurricane, tornado or storm with high winds. If a tree damages your home, the policy will usually pay to fix your home, but it usually pays no more than $500 to $1,000 for tree removal, even though it can cost a few thousand dollars to clean up a fallen tree. See When a Tree Falls in Your Neighbor's Yard for more information about the rules. This is a good time to do some yard maintenance: Trim shrubs and low-hanging tree branches, and clean your gutters of leaves and other debris so they can handle heavy rains. Do some financial maintenance, too: Add extra money to your emergency fund for any uncovered damages and to be able to pay your homeowners insurance deductible if you end up having a claim.
Put together a disaster kit. No matter when a disaster hits, it's a good idea to have a battery-operated radio, flashlights and a phone that isn't dependent on electricity in case the power is out for a while. And right before a storm, stock up on groceries and water, fully charge your cell phone and other electronics, and make sure your car has a full tank of gas. See FEMA's fact sheet on building a disaster-supplies kit.
Meanwhile, store some cash, insurance policies, your home inventory (if it's on paper), tax records and other important papers and contact information in a portable file you can take with you if you are evacuated. And it's also a good idea to store as many of these documents online so they are accessible wherever you are.