Winter wonderland of claims: Northeast winters are nasty, brutish, and last far too long - by Jonathan Berman

February 23, 2018 - Spotlights
Jonathan Berman,
Berman Adjusters

In Leviathan, renowned English philosopher Thomas Hobbes describes life in it’s most primal form as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” His description would be applicable to winter in the Northeast if he excluded one word…“short.” 

As many residents in the Northeast know, winter is certainly nasty, brutish, and lasts far too long. Each year, the weather begins to turn as the calendar approaches Thanksgiving. Once the New Year arrives, the temperature plummets and we brace for all types of jarring winter weather. For residents of this region, getting slammed with ice and snow is more than enough. However, the winter temperatures bring other problems: insurance claims.

During the winter months, insurance claims spike in the Northeast. Unfortunately, residents and business owners know that freezing temperatures and snow storms can cause many types of costly damage to homes and properties. Winter claims include collapse from the weight of ice and snow, ice dams, pipe bursts, and fires.

What causes collapse claims? Collapse claims result from the heavy weight of ice and snow sitting on roof tops. Often times, the weight is too much to bear for roofs protecting homes and commercial properties and they give way. This can cause a tremendous amount of damage and very large insurance claims. 

What is an ice dam? Unfortunately, many people in the Northeast are all too familiar with ice dams. In 2015, the region was bombarded with three major snowstorms in four weeks. Lawrence Berman, CEO and treasurer of Berman Adjusters, Inc., referred to the onslaught of winter weather as “a hurricane with snow.” At that time, the insurance industry was inundated with ice dam claims one after another. Due to the tremendous amount of claims, insurance carriers needed to enlist the services of company adjusters from all over the country to fly in to assist with claims processing.

For the uninitiated, an ice dam is a frozen mass of water that forms on a roof and prevents melting ice and snow from properly draining off of a roof. If the water is unable to drain off of the roof, then it can find its way inside. This can cause significant damage to roofs, ceilings, walls, floors, and insulation.

What can a policyholder do to protect their property from collapse and ice dam claims? We recommend engaging in proactive measure to protect your property. These include preventative maintenance such as removing the ice and snow from your roof before damage occurs. We strongly recommend hiring a professional to remove the ice and snow from your roof. At times, policyholders will use roof rakes or shovels to clear the ice and snow. If a roof rake is use improperly, then a policyholder could damage their roof. Moreover, policyholders should not climb on their roof to remove ice and snow because it could lead to serious physical harm. Unfortunately, these preventative steps are not covered by insurance. However, the cost of an insurance claim can be infinitely more expensive than paying to prevent the damage in the first place.

In addition to collapse and ice dams, frigid weather can cause pipes, sprinkler systems, and water supply lines to freeze and burst. This can cause a tremendous amount of damage to buildings and personal belongings.

Why do pipes freeze and burst? Water is a very unique substance. Unlike most properties, water expands when it freezes. If water expands enough, then the pressure can be too great for a pipe to handle and it can rupture. 

How can a policyholder prevent frozen pipes? There are many ways to avoid this type of damage. Perhaps the most simple and effective way is to maintain heat in a property. During the icy winter months, it is recommended to keep the temperature of a home or building no lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It is critical to maintain this level of heat even if you are away from the property or on vacation.

Other preventative methods include allowing a faucet to drip. Opening a faucet, even a slow drip, can provide the necessary relief from excessive water pressure. Also, policyholders can open cabinet doors in kitchens and bathrooms to allow warmer air to circulate and reach the pipes. We recommend checking all windows and doors to make sure they are properly closed to prevent cold airflow. If the property is left unattended, then we recommend draining your plumbing system and shutting off the water at the water meter. Doing so ensures that if a pipe break occurs, there will be no pressure to pump water throughout your property while you are away. 

Will the insurance company pay my claim in the event of a pipe burts? As long as a policyholder can show that they have acted reasonably and attempted to maintain heat in the property, then an insurance company should pay the insurance claim in the event of a disaster.

Finally, there is often an increased volume of claims as a result of fires during the winter. Unfortunately, homes and properties are kept warm using alternative methods of heat (i.e. space heaters, wood burning stoves), which can be very dangerous. The increased amount of travel and more frequent use of chimneys can also contribute to fire damage claims.

How can a policyholder limit their risk of a fire during the winter? We strongly recommend that policyholders do not use alternative methods of heat to keep a property warm. Also, properties should have working smoke detectors, a person assigned to regularly check the property, and chimneys should be well maintained and cleaned.

Policyholders should take necessary steps to mitigate their exposure to the perils that the winter weather brings.

Jonathan Berman, Esq. is president of Berman Adjusters, Inc., Newton, Mass.

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