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 2014 and 2018, 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 770 fires per year caused by holiday decorations other than trees.
And Christmas isn’t the only holiday damage culprit. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, Thanksgiving saw more than twice the number of building fires than other days between 2014 and 2016, the most recent time range with available data. Additionally, if your religious or holiday celebrations include candles, you should be aware of basic safety rules to help prevent damage. Bankrate can help you prepare for the holiday season’s safety issues and help you understand what your home insurance covers should the worst happen.
Does homeowners insurance cover the holidays?
That depends on what kind of damage your property incurs. Homeowners insurance policies cover certain perils. Most standard property insurance policies include the following coverage types, although the covered incidents may vary based on the type of policy you have.
- Dwelling coverage: This is the primary coverage on your home policy and covers the physical structure of your home and attached structures, such as garages and carports. Typically, home policies cover damages caused by explosions, fire, lightning, sleet or snow, theft and vandalism.
- Other structures coverage: This coverage typically defaults to 10% or 20% of your dwelling coverage amount and covers detached structures like sheds, fences and pergolas. Usually, other structures coverage includes the same perils that your dwelling insurance does.
- Personal property: This covers your home’s contents, including appliances, clothing, some electronics and furniture. If you need additional coverage for high-value items, you could consider scheduled personal property coverage.
- Personal liability: This coverage 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. Personal liability insurance will also pay for your legal fees if you are sued for these types of damages.
- Additional living expenses: Also known as loss of use, this coverage helps pay your living expenses if a covered peril such as a fire requires you to move to another house or apartment temporarily.
- Medical payments: Unlike personal liability insurance, this coverage helps pay the immediate medical expenses of an injured guest, regardless of who is at fault.
The types of damage most common during the holiday season—fires, burglaries and guest injuries—are generally covered by standard homeowners insurance, although you should always confirm what is covered with your property insurance company.
Common holiday-related claims
In most cases, a 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 homeowners insurance 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 significant other expensive jewelry this holiday season, you might want to purchase a separate jewelry policy or rider. Additionally, your personal property coverage will also cover theft if items are taken from your car. Your car insurance usually does not include any personal property coverage. Even if items are stolen from your vehicle, they’re still covered under your home insurance personal property coverage.
- Injuries and property damage: Fun-filled gatherings make the holidays enjoyable, but can 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 pup could nip a caroler. Personal liability coverage typically starts around $100,000, which can cover many holiday mishaps, but talk to your insurance provider to find out if you have enough liability insurance.
- Fires: Housefires, especially cooking 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. Holiday credit card theft may be increasing due to the prevalence of shopping online. Experian reports that 43% of respondents who had their identity stolen during the holiday season say it happened online.
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 having guests over come with risks, but you can take steps to help prevent issues.
Christmas tree safety
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 45% of holiday tree fires are caused by electrical issues or lighting equipment. If your family prefers a live tree, follow these precautions to help 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.
Many households decorate with lights for fall and winter festivities; however, indoor and outdoor holiday lights can pose risks. Following these safety tips can help mitigate those risks:
- Only use lights certified by Underwriters Laboratories. Look for the “UL” symbol when shopping for holiday lights.
- Never use lights designed for outdoor use inside your home.
- Before using lights each year, 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.
Food and drink
Historically, the holiday season has more reported fires, most of them cooking fires, than any other time of the year. These are some precautions to take 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 oilless 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 headcover.
- 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, alcohol is attributed to about one-third of fatalities on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
- If you do plan to serve alcohol to guests, talk to your insurance agent about your coverage. Depending on the size of your party and the type of alcohol you’re serving, your homeowners policy may not provide sufficient liquor liability coverage.
One of the best ways to avoid burns and fires during the holiday season is by using battery-operated candles, kinaras and menorahs. If you choose to use real candles, follow these tips to help 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.
- 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.
- Keep 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 can make the holiday season extra cozy. To help 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. 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. 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 home 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 might consider taking these additional steps to help ensure everyone’s safety:
- Have your furnace inspected and cleaned before winter by a technician who 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.
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. Animals can see an electrical cord as a chew toy. Where possible, run cords under furniture or cover them to prevent your pet from suffering a serious injury.
- Avoid giving pets table scraps during the holiday season unless you know the food is safe for your pet. Many common foods are poisonous to household animals like cats or dogs.
- Research holiday plants before bringing them into your home. Plants such as mistletoe and poinsettias are toxic for some animals.
Most homeowners don’t need to update their insurance coverage during the holiday season. If you plan to decorate your home with lavish ornaments, entertain guests or purchase expensive gifts, you might need to review your liability or personal property coverage with your insurance agent. And if you’re serving alcohol, be sure to talk to your agent about liquor liability coverage.
As the holiday season draws near, keeping your family and home safe is likely your top priority. By following a few simple safety guidelines, you can rest assured that your holiday plans won’t turn into a movie-worthy disaster