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Danger from Above

Insurance Companies Enlist Help from Homeowners to Prevent Losses

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When recalling the bizarre weather that descended on Western Mass. in 2011 — tornadoes in June, midsummer flooding, the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm — it’s easy to forget that, even absent all of that, the year would have been a challenging one for home insurers.

The reason? A January and February riddled with ice dams and roof collapses, thanks to snow that seemed to fall every other day for weeks on end, gradually building up the weight on houses and damming under the eaves, causing water to pour into homes.

“We paid a lot of claims. That was a big deal,” said Kevin Ross, vice president of Ross Insurance in Holyoke. But while the past few weeks have brought a similar onslaught of snowstorms, he doesn’t expect nearly as many claims this year.

“A lot of people are absolutely more attuned to this; everywhere I go, people are talking about getting a roof rake and cleaning off their roof,” he told BusinessWest. “People are well aware of ice dams and the problems they can cause. I just contacted a roofer to clean off my roof because ice is starting to build up in the gutter. In general, the population understands what can happen, and everyone is cleaning off the roof now.”

It’s a learned behavior being observed across the industry.

“We’ve had a couple of claims come in,” said Corey Murphy, president of First American Insurance in Chicopee. “Fortunately, it’s not as bad as it has been in the past, even with some of these strong storms we’ve had.”

John DiStefano of Preferred Mutual Insurance agreed.

“As I drive around, I see homes where people have used roof rakes to get some snow off around the edges, or they have people going up on the roof shoveling for them. That’s always a proactive approach,” said the personal-lines territory manager for Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

That’s good news for both homeowners and insurers, he said, considering that such events are covered by most basic plans. “Roof collapses and water damage, where water seeps into the home, is covered under most forms. That is a pretty common thing.”

Therefore, it’s good news for insurance companies — which implemented rate increases of 5% to 15% regionally after the 2011’s series of unfortunate events — that customers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands by keeping their roofs and gutters as clear of snow as possible.

But when it comes to winter home hazards, they say, roofs are only part of the picture.

Peak Problems

Typically, Ross said, homeowners facing winter roof damage don’t have to scramble to see if they’re covered.

“The standard policy doesn’t have to change to provide coverage of interior or exterior dmage caused by an ice dam, or even the collapse of a building,” he noted. “However, there are certain exclusions for the collapse of a fence, a patio, a swimming pool — those are not covered. Collapse of foundations or retaining walls, bulkheads, are not covered.”

Kevin Ross

Kevin Ross says homeowners have become more proactive about preventing roof damage during the winter, and insurance companies have become better at educating them.

But once an ice dam is reported, “right away, the insurance company will pay a reasonable amount to remove ice and snow from the roof to prevent further damage,” he explained. “But only once the damage has begun — we’re not going out to clean off everyone’s roof.”

The immediate drama of an ice dam, pouring water into interior spaces, can panic policyholders, Ross added. “They’re wondering, ‘what should I do?’ Call the insurance agent right away; they will only take one deductible until all the snow is gone from roof.”

That could encompass the entire winter, he noted. “Don’t be afraid that a week later you might have more water coming in. It’s considered one event until all the snow is off the roof. So, once it starts, once you notice water inside the house, call your agent right away.”

As for roof-collapse concerns, that’s a tricky area to navigate, because the weight of the snow isn’t always clear from a visual check, forensic meteorologist Steve Wistar noted at accuweather.com.

In the Northeast, he explained, roofs are generally designed to support 30 pounds per square foot, but some are built to support 40, 50, or even 100 pounds per square foot. Further complicating matters, that weight is determined by water content, not merely depth.

Specifically, dry, powdery snow weighs less than wetter snow, and its flaky texture makes it prone to drifting, which is ideal for roofs designed to handle drifting snow. But, over time, snow compacts and settles down, meaning the snow won’t be as deep, but the weight will be the same, Wistar said.

Finally, when temperatures rise and snow becomes rain, the snow already coating rooftops can become saturated with moisture, weighing it down. And even when the snow does begin to melt, it can refreeze around gutters and drains, trapping more melting water on the edges of the roof — which, of course, can cause ice dams.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts recently issued yet another concern for homeowners regarding rooftop snow accumulation — specifically, a number of incidents involving large icicles and snow accumulation falling from rooftops onto natural-gas meters, causing gas-line ruptures and gas leaks.

The company noted that it’s important that natural-gas meters and exhaust vents for heating equipment and other appliances are free of snow and ice, as gas equipment requires adequate airflow for safe combustion — and proper venting of appliances — to prevent dangerous carbon-monoxide situations.

prevent ice dams

Recent winters in Massachusetts have seen brisk sales of roof rakes as homeowners try to prevent ice dams from forming.

Columbia Gas president Steve Bryant encouraged homeowners to use a broom — not a shovel — to clear ice and snow from gas meters, and to avoid kicking or hitting the gas meter to break away snow and ice.  “Don’t shovel snow up against your meter.  Be careful when using a snow blower or snow plow near your meter. Where possible, have a clear path to your gas meter in the event a technician or emergency responder should require access.”

Cold Snap

When protecting their homes from cold-related damage, Ross said, customers shouldn’t look outside only.

“Losses can occur if you don’t keep adequate heat inside the home,” he noted. “Sometimes, when you leave for a week in Florida, you figure, ‘I’ll just turn my thermostat down and save on energy costs,’ and you come back to find that a pipe froze and burst. That’s something else from a loss-control standpoint. You need to keep adequate heat in home to keep things from freezing. It’s important to maintain the heat at 60, 62 degrees so they don’t have that problem.”

DiStefano agreed. “Do everything you can to maintain temperature,” he told BusinessWest. “Also, if you’re going away, shut off the water. That way, if a pipe breaks, it’s not a major problem. It’s easy to do, but so many people don’t do that.”

Because home insurance covers personal liability in addition to property damage, he also encourages customers to keep sufficient ice melt handy to prevent slips and falls by the mailman, UPS driver, or neighbors.

“The policy does provide personal liability coverage for slip-and-fall types of claims,” Ross added. “The owner of the property has a responsibility to keep their walkways and driveways, safe for pedestrian traffic. That’s definitely another area people really need to be cognizant of right now.”

It’s not like winter necessarily poses more weather-related insurance hazards than the rest of the year; damage from warmer-weather events, like tornadoes and hurricanes, are typically covered, Ross said, although policyholders might want to check on whether they’re in a covered flood zone and, if not, whether they’d like to add that to their plan as well.

But cold-weather threats are typically slower-developing, DiStefano said, giving insurance clients a chance to prevent them with tools as simple as roof rakes and sidewalk salt.

“More and more companies, like Preferred Mutual, have our websites set up with information for the general public to look at,” he said, “and we talk about what to do during the winter months to prevent losses.”

That pleases Ross, who clearly recalls the surge of claims in early 2011, when roof collapses and ice dams caught too many Western Mass. residents off guard.

“It was huge,” he said. “But it’s not going to be quite the same this year from a claim perspective, because people are more proactive; they’ve learned from it. A lot of people are raking the snow off already, getting the snow out of the gutter before the next storm. You have to stay on top of it. It’s a big maintenance issue.”

And one with no end in sight, Bryant added. “With record snowfall over the past month,” he said, “this winter season continues to be a challenge for us all.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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