It's no big surprise that hurricanes rank at the top of the list for costliest homeowners insurance claims. Even a slow-mover like Superstorm Sandy can rack up billions of dollars in insured damage within hours.
But can you guess which home disaster ranks next? Here's a hint: It rarely makes the evening news and it's caused by something you use every day.
Amazingly, frozen and broken water pipes are the second costliest home disaster in the United States, both in terms of the number of homes damaged and their claims cost to homeowners insurance carriers, according to the Insurance Information Network of California.
A water pipe that ruptures while you're away from home can amount to a hurricane in your home, quickly filling your basement with water and ruining wood flooring, carpeting, drywall, furniture, cabinetry, window casings, draperies, electronics, and family heirlooms and memorabilia.
Oftentimes, that's just the beginning of the trouble. Once mold sets in, the house may need to be gutted. A damage claim of $50,000 from a broken pipe is common, the network says.
What can you do to avoid unleashing a hurricane in your home this winter?
First, winterize your outside faucets. Disconnect all hoses, and drain the pipes by shutting off an indoor valve if possible.
While you're at it, be sure to locate your water main shutoff valve; it's usually located in the basement, under the kitchen sink, in a utility closet, near the water heater or even in a crawl space. You can test the valve by turning it to the "off" position, then turning on each faucet in your house. If no water comes out, the valve is working. If not, call a plumber.
Next, insulate the exposed pipes in your basement, crawl space, along outside walls, under kitchen sinks and in your attic. In extremely cold regions, you may want to use heat tape, taking care to install it correctly to avoid the risk of fire.
Don't forget to drain your sprinkler system and any evaporative, or "swamp," cooler that could rupture in a freeze.
Finally, if you're planning a winter getaway or if the home is unoccupied for any length of time, be sure to set the thermostat to at least 55 degrees. It might also give you peace of mind to have a friend or neighbor check on the place periodically to make sure your pipes are intact with no threat of freezing.
In extreme cold, or if you've had problems with frozen pipes in the past, consider running a light but steady stream from an inside cold-water faucet. The cost of the water is minimal compared to the damage from a ruptured pipe.
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