We all love classic holiday comedies in which characters tumble down staircases, battle wildlife intruders and fight tooth and nail against burglars. But in the real world, holiday disasters can damage property and hurt people.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, between 2013 and 2017, fire departments responded each year to an average of 160 fires caused by Christmas trees resulting in around $10 million in property damage. During the same period, fire departments across the country also responded to nearly 800 fires per year caused by holiday decorations other than trees.
But tree and decoration fires don’t account for all holiday tragedies. Cooking fires increase during the holidays as do traffic accidents and fireworks-related injuries. And the current COVID-19 pandemic adds another level of safety concerns this holiday season.
Relax and enjoy this holiday season by understanding your homeowners insurance coverage and learning some simple tips to protect your family and home from holiday-related dangers.
What types of holiday incidents are covered under home insurance?
Your current home insurance policy may already cover many potential holiday mishaps. Most standard homeowners policies include:
- Dwelling coverage: This protects your home’s primary living space and attached structures, such as garages and carports. Typically, home policies cover damages caused by explosions, fire, lightning, sleet or snow, theft and vandalism.
- Personal property: This covers your home’s contents, including appliances, clothing, electronics and furniture.
- Personal liability: A coverage that applies to incidents in which the homeowner is at fault for injuries or property damage, including bodily injuries or property damage sustained by someone outside your household while on your property or damages or injuries caused by your child or pet.
- Additional living expenses: This coverage helps pay your living expenses if a covered calamity such as a fire requires you to temporarily move to another house or apartment.
- Medical payments: Unlike personal liability insurance, this coverage pays the immediate medical expenses of an injured guest, regardless of who is at fault.
Common holiday-related claims
In most cases, your standard homeowners policy will cover holiday-related mishaps. If you plan to purchase expensive gifts or entertain guests, you might want to review your homeowners coverage to understand how you would be covered in the event of a claim. Common types of holiday-related claims include:
- Theft: If thieves steal property worth more than your deductible, your personal property insurance should cover the loss. However, personal property insurance may not provide adequate coverage for expensive items. For example, if you plan to give your wife an expensive diamond necklace this holiday season, you might want to purchase a separate jewelry policy.
- Injuries and property damage: Fun-filled gatherings make the holidays enjoyable, but they can also lead to events that leave you legally liable for injuries or property damage. A rowdy reveler could take a tumble down your stairs, an errant bottle rocket could set your neighbor’s yard ablaze or your feisty French bulldog could attack a caroler. Personal liability coverage typically starts around $100,000, which can cover many holiday mishaps, but if you plan to install elaborate decorations or throw holiday parties, talk to your insurance agent to find out if you have enough liability insurance.
- Fires: House fires are one of the most common holiday calamities, so you want to make sure your dwelling coverage is sufficient enough to rebuild your home.
- Credit card theft: Most standard homeowners policies include around $500 in coverage to pay for items purchased with a stolen credit card.
How can I protect my home during the holidays?
Purchasing enough insurance may set your mind at ease, but taking certain precautions can help prevent disasters and holiday-related claims. Holiday activities such as decorating, preparing meals—and this year, having guests over—come with risks, but there are steps you can take to prevent issues.
The holidays and COVID-19
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends assessing your community’s COVID-19 levels and following safety guidelines when planning how to celebrate:
- Indoor gatherings increase the risk of spreading infection, but you can open windows and doors to improve ventilation.
- Consider celebrating in smaller groups for shorter periods of time.
- Remember to wash hands frequently.
- Social distance as much as possible.
- Wear masks when in close contact with people outside of your immediate household.
Christmas tree safety
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 44% of holiday tree fires are caused by electrical issues or lighting equipment. If your family prefers a live tree, follow these precautions to keep your home safe:
- Buy a fresh tree with green needles that do not fall off when touched.
- Before inserting the tree into its stand, cut off two inches of the trunk to ensure good water penetration.
- Place the tree at least three feet away from heat sources or open flames, including candles, fireplaces, floor and table lamps, heating vents and radiators.
- Do not place the tree in a space that blocks an exit or creates a trip hazard.
- Refill the tree stand’s water reservoir every day.
- Never decorate a tree with lit candles.
- Discard the tree after it becomes dry and needles start to fall on the floor. Many communities have tree disposal programs, so check with your local sanitation department.
While an artificial tree can offer some safety advantages, you should still exercise caution. Look for the UL 2358 certification, the highest safety rating. When placing and decorating your tree, follow the same precautions recommended for live trees, except for watering and disposal requirements.
Indoor and outdoor holiday lights can pose risks, but following a few safety tips can mitigate those:
- Only use lights certified by Underwriters Laboratories. Look for the “UL” symbol when shopping for holiday lights.
- Never use lights designed for outdoor use on an indoor tree.
- Before placing lights on the tree, look for broken or loose bulbs and frayed or exposed wires. If a strand displays any of these issues, throw it away and purchase new lights.
- Do not overload power strips, and only use strips equipped with circuit breakers or surge protection.
- Turn off lights when you go to bed or leave home, even if you’re only leaving for a few minutes.
- Never use extension cords designed for indoor use for outdoor lighting or holiday displays.
- Use low-heat LED strip lights on trees and shrubs.
- Do not stretch extension cords across dry grass or through water puddles.
- Never decorate dry, dead trees or shrubs with lights.
Holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving have the highest number of fires during cooking because of increased cooking times and distractions. These are some precautions when preparing holiday meals:
- Make sure kids stay at least three feet away from stoves and ovens. Or, make your kitchen a kids-free zone during holiday meal preparation.
- Always remain in or near your kitchen while cooking. Don’t cook your holiday turkey or ham overnight, while you are asleep or while you’re away from home.
- Plug cooking appliances directly into an outlet, and avoid connecting them to an extension cord.
- Never use a deep-fat turkey fryer indoors, even in a garage. Place the turkey fryer on concrete at least three feet from dry grass or shrubs. Or purchase an oil-less turkey fryer for safer cooking.
- Do not place flammable materials such as bags, cooking oil and grease containers, food packaging, oven mitts, towels and wooden utensils near stove burners. Likewise, do not wear baggy clothes when cooking to prevent contact with stoves. If you have long hair, tie it in a ponytail or bun and use a head cover.
- Place completed dishes on back burners to avoid accidental burns.
- Clean grease from stove tops and countertops to avoid flare-ups.
- Avoid serving excessive amounts of alcohol. Inebriated partygoers could sustain an injury or cause an accident.
- Make sure intoxicated party guests have a designated driver or go home by taxi or rideshare. According to the National Safety Council, nearly 1,100 people in 2017 died in traffic accidents on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, one-third of which were attributed to alcohol impairment
Using battery-operated candles, kinaras and menorahs is the best way to avoid burns and fires during the holiday season. If you choose to use real candles, follow these tips to keep your family and home safe:
- Only use durable candle holders made from glass or metal.
- Never leave candles unattended. Extinguish candles before going to bed, when you leave home and when you leave the room for more than a couple of minutes.
- Keep candles out of reach of kids and pets.
- Never place candles less than three feet away from flammable materials such as beds, carpeting, curtains, holiday trees, sofas and tablecloths.
- Don’t let candles burn to their base. Extinguish them when they reach two inches from the holder.
- Avoid wearing baggy clothing around candles and secure long hair in a ponytail, bun or head covering.
- Secure matches and lighters out of reach of children and at least four feet from open flames.
- Don’t use candles for outdoor decoration.
A fireplace enhances the ambiance of any home, especially during the holiday season. To prevent fireplace mishaps during the holidays, follow a few extra precautions:
- Hire a licensed specialist to inspect and clean your fireplace and chimney before winter arrives.
- Keep fireplaces clean by promptly removing ash and coals after each use.
- Store combustible materials such as newspaper, kindling and wood three to four feet away from the fireplace.
- Always open the flue before starting a fire and avoid closing it until the fire has completely burned out.
- Never use a flammable liquid to start a fire. Use only matches or lighters.
- Prevent embers from escaping the fireplace by placing a metal mesh or glass screen in front of it. Attached glass doors can provide a better alternative.
- Always use dry wood in your fireplace because wet wood can cause a chimney fire if creosote buildup occurs.
- Do not use your fireplace to dispose of items such as boxes or wrapping paper, because some materials produce toxic fumes when burned.
- Never burn a holiday tree in a fireplace.
- Always extinguish a fire before going to bed or leaving home.
- Store fireplace ash in a metal can – at least 10 feet from your house, and store dry firewood at least 30 feet from your house.
- Remove tree branches that grow over your chimney and keep the roof around your chimney free from leaf and pine needle debris.
- Fit your chimney with a chimney cap to prevent embers from escaping and to keep animals and leaves out.
- Install carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in your home. Many insurance companies offer discounts for installing these safety devices.
- Do not allow small children or pets within three or four feet of your fireplace, especially when the screen is removed or glass doors are open.
Typically, gas furnaces do not require special consideration during the holiday season – but you can take these additional steps to ensure everyone’s safety:
- Have your furnace inspected and cleaned before winter by a technician that has earned North American Technician Excellence certification.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home to warn you in the event of a dangerous gas buildup.
- Never operate your furnace with a dirty burner or filter.
- Make sure your furnace’s door panel remains closed during use to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Never store combustible materials near your furnace, including boxes, gasoline cans and newspapers.
Our family pets often don’t understand dangers, so it’s up to us to keep them safe during the holidays by following these simple tips:
- Prevent pets from accessing electrical cords as they often see an electrical cord as a chew toy, especially cords on light strands and extension cords. When possible, run cords under furniture or cover them to prevent your pet from suffering a serious electrocution injury.
- Avoid giving pets table scraps during the holiday season unless you know the food is safe for your pet’s species.
- Research holiday plants before bringing them into your home. Plants such as mistletoe and poinsettias are toxic for some pet species.
Most homeowners don’t need to beef up their insurance coverage during the holiday season. If you plan to decorate your home with lavish ornaments, entertain guests or purchase expensive gifts for your loved ones, you might need to review your liability or personal property coverage with your insurance agent.
As the holiday season draws near, the most important priority is to keep your family and home safe. By following a few simple safety guidelines, you can rest assured that your holiday plans won’t turn into a movie-worthy disaster.
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