The Complete Guide to Home and Auto Insurance during Freezing Weather

An elevated brick house with sandstone retaining walls covered in snow and ice.

In the Pacific Northwest, we know a thing or two about severe weather. Wind, rain, ice, and snow – We get it all. Below you will find a thorough guide to everything you need to know about preparing your home or auto for an ice or snowstorm, keeping your items safe, and having the right insurance when disaster happens.

What is freeze damage?

When a cold front moves in, the damage to your home or car can be catastrophic. Although the freezing temperatures may not directly cause damage to your property, it could affect you in other ways.

For your home, the damage is typically caused by a water pipe that burst due to ice expansion. Once the ice thaws, water begins flowing and could cause major damage if not cared for immediately. In addition to water damage, heavy ice or snow could cause a roof collapse or trees to fall. Whether you own your residence or you rent, having proper protection for your personal property is paramount. Be sure to discuss some of the scenarios you expect may happen with your local insurance agent to make sure your home or renters policy will protect you.

When it comes to your car, the damage could be caused by slick roads or debris. Losing traction on an ice- or snow-covered road could destroy your vehicle, another driver, buildings and could require medical attention. If your car is parked, it could be hit by another driver or from falling debris such as a tree branch loaded with ice or snow. This is why it is important to carry comprehensive coverage. Comprehensive insurance coverage covers most other damages besides a collision that could happen to your vehicle.

Performing an annual review of your insurance policies will help ensure you are properly protected based on where you live and the extreme weather you may experience. One of the many benefits for Cross Insurance Agency customers is that a local, fully licensed, and Pacific Northwest experienced insurance agent is your professional advisor. We perform annual reviews with all our clients and monitor the industry for you, so you know you always have the best.

If you experience a claim:
  • Make sure you are somewhere safe. Whether you are in a car accident or have water damage to your home, keep yourself and those with you in a safe location.
  • Assess any injuries and contact emergency services or the police. It’s important to file a report and always have documentation of how the event happened.
  • Take pictures and gather any witnesses. If you have a dashcam or home surveillance system, make sure to save the photos or videos and save them to a safe location
  • Contact your insurance company. You can find your insurance companies contact information in our app or on your insurance policy documents, such as proof of insurance cards.
  • Keep in contact with your insurance company and keep good notes. As the details of the event fade, you want to make sure all the information is available.

Depending on the damage, you may want to consider the cost of your deductible versus the cost to repair. If you can, request estimates to get a gauge for the cost and then compare.

Ask the expert: Understanding how ice or snow impacts your insurance

Stephen Harrington, the COO of Cross Insurance Agency and a long-time insurance expert, sat down for a Q&A all about navigating insurance when living in an area that experiences snow and ice during the winter. In this interview, Stephen answers some of the most common questions for homeowners, renters, and car owners who want to be protected when freezing weather hits.

Click here to read the video transcript.

How to prepare your home for ice and snow

If you expect extreme weather this winter, including prolonged sub-freezing temperatures or snowfall, here are some steps to protect yourself and your residence:

  • Keep inventory of your items in your home. Preparing a home inventory can be a large task, but taking the time to do so can make a difference of thousands of dollars when it comes to your claim’s settlement, as well as simple ease of processing your claim. By the way, you can do this right in our app!
  • Water damage from broken pipes is one of the highest causes of claims during a freeze event. Be sure to insulate any water pipes that are exposed to cold temperatures. In addition, turn off the water and drain any water lines that are not being used during the winter months, such as sprinkler systems.
  • Take fire safety seriously. If you have a fireplace or woodstove, be sure to have it inspected and cleaned each year. Install smoke detectors in each room and replace the batteries twice a year. Keep it away from other flammable items when using a space heater, and never plug it into a surge protector.
  • Install a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector and never use fuel-burning equipment, such as a BBQ or a propane or kerosene heater, indoors. If you have a generator, make sure it is a safe distance from your home.
  • Perform regular heater maintenance and replace the filters.
  • Keep regular maintenance on any trees on your property. Be sure to hire a certified arborist for this task who will know your local rules and regulations for trees.
  • Prepare an emergency kit that includes a first aid kit, flashlight, batteries, warm clothes, water, and shelf-stable food.
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Preparing your car or vehicles for freezing weather

Driving in icy or snowy weather is something we all have to face at some point here in Washington State. Although it is best not to drive when the roads are dangerous, sometimes we don’t have a choice. Before the wintery weather comes, be sure to prepare your car for the weather with these tips:

  • To keep safe, prepare an emergency car kit.
  • Perform regular maintenance on your vehicle, including keeping your radiator serviced, windshield wipers and fluid, oil, and battery.
  • Before severe weather arrives, fill your vehicle with gas just in case you need to evacuate.
  • Keep your tires in good shape, check the amount of tread wear regularly and carry snow chains. There are affordable testing devices for tread wear available at most auto retailers. In a pinch, use a penny.
  • When the camping season is over, decommission your RV for winter using this guide.
  • If you own a boat, be sure to fully drain all systems that hold water, including the engine, tanks, plumbing, and hull. Then, remove any item that the weather could damage.
  • Check on your insurance policy for your outdoor toys, such as boats, RVs, and motorcycles, that way, you are protected should they be damaged.

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Ask the expert video transcript

This transcript was generated using a combination of speech recognition and human transcribers. It has been lightly edited for clarity and general grammar corrections but still may contain errors.

Does homeowners insurance cover broken pipes from freezing?

Homeowner’s insurance for burst pipes in the home, normally that’s a covered cause of loss. The time, it would pay for the surrounding damage, not necessarily the damaged pipe itself, which sounds kind of crazy, but it’s normally the resulting damage that is caused by the pipe. So you might be responsible for your deductible and the cost of the pipe itself. They would fix drywall, flooring, et cetera. As long as you took measures to minimize the damage. And you just didn’t say, “Oh, my house flooded. And I waited three weeks to do anything about it.” The time that it might not cover, is if your home is temporarily unoccupied and you don’t have a central heat source on set to where the pipes wouldn’t freeze. Then that might be excluded under your homeowners policy because the homeowners policy is written, assuming that you’re occupying the home on a regular basis. Maintaining heat, et cetera. So, I know for some of our secondary customers, or when we write a secondary home, we recommend turning off the water before you leave for the season at the main. So that you don’t have water running into the house, you don’t have to worry about it. Worst case scenario is if something did happen to a pipe over the winter, you come back, you turn the water on, you’re going to catch it right away.

So I mean, a lot of times what we see is pipe burst under a sink or a water line going to a bathroom. Normally though, it’s under the sink or to the kitchen area, pipe breaks, bursts, whatever happens. Floods causes damage to cabinets, underlayment of flooring, flooring, that sort of thing. If it does happen to damage furniture or any other personal content that can’t be repaired or mitigated, it should cover the contents as well.

Does renters insurance protect me if a frozen pipe breaks?

Renters coverage normally only covers your personal property. So if we take the unit, turn it upside down, shake it out, whatever’s yours that falls out of the house is what the coverage would be for. There’s not an exclusion under a renters policy for water damage caused by a water leak in a water main or water pipe. The only time it would be an issue if it was like rising groundwater, or heavy rain. Flooding would be excluded.

What if a tree or large branch falls on my house?

So as long as the tree was a healthy tree or reasonably, we didn’t have a reason to believe that it should have been removed prior to a storm, any branch damage may be covered under the policy. It would also depend on what your deductible is. So a lot of times we see big branch comes down, damages the gutter. Well, it costs $400 to get the gutter repaired. That’s probably going to be less than the deductible. Probably not a smart choice to turn in. If it pierces the roof that we need new underlayment or, you know, we need to replace a portion of the roof, perfect example of where it would be covered.

As long as the roof still has a functional life left, they will only replace the part that was damaged. The contract or the policy for insurance is not to make you better than you were before a claim. It’s to bring you to the point you were at directly prior to the claim. So, if they replace your entire roof, that’s putting you in a better position. That doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate at the time of a claim to the carrier is gonna to pay for a third of the roof. And you contract separately with the roofer to pay for the other two thirds of the roof out of pocket.

What if my neighbor’s tree falls on my house? Do they pay for it?

No. Not necessarily. It’s considered an active nature. We have no control over… Your neighbor can’t control whether the wind comes along and or snow and ice come along and make something, do damage to your property. If it was a dead tree or a diseased tree, or we had a reason to believe it should have been removed prior to the loss, then maybe their insurance would step in or help possibly. But normally it’s your insurance that’s going to be primary. The important thing to remember is when your insurance pays out, they then get the right to subrogate. So your carrier will then decide if they feel the neighbor was negligent, they may or may not then contact the neighbor or contact the neighbor’s insurance carrier. So, but that’s completely up to the company. Once you submit the claim to the company, you don’t have the right to go after your neighbor or your neighbor’s insurance any longer.

What if my car is damaged from falling debris from a tree?

The auto would need to have comprehensive coverage on the vehicle itself to be covered for damage. So, comprehensive is: acts of nature, which is exactly what that is. It’s a branch, tree, other falling objects, things crashing into the vehicle while the vehicle’s not in motion. So, comprehensive coverage would need to be on the vehicle. You’d pay your deductible, and damage would be repaired.

What if my car is damaged by someone else or the snowplow while parked on the street?

So, that gets a little tricky. Collision might step in. Normally what that would be considered is uninsured or under-insured motorists, because it was a phantom vehicle. The vehicle was parked, it wasn’t moving. Something else hit it. You would have a separate deductible to pay, and they would do an investigation as to whether they could prove somebody, you know the vehicle was parked, but it doesn’t always pay under collision ’cause your vehicle was not the one in motion. So, uninsured motorist is where that coverage might come from. So that’s another important coverage to have if you’re worried about something like that. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the proper coverage, there’s going to be no coverage for damage to your vehicle. You can’t, I mean, you might be able to take your neighbor to small claims court over a tree branch, if it was their tree, but then you’re going to have to prove neglect and it was really their fault and blah, blah, blah. And why didn’t you move your car? If you knew a storm was coming, ’cause that could have been a risk. So, it could turn into, you know, not a beautiful situation.

What if I spin out and damage someone else’s property due to freezing roads?

Common ones like telephone poles, medians, that, you slide through an intersection, hit two other cars, that all comes from your liability coverage. So whatever your primary liability is under property damage, that would be the limit available to pay for the damage. So, in Washington, the minimum, the state minimum limit is $10,000. As you can imagine, that doesn’t cover much these days. I want to say a median is gonna probably be more than $10,000. Telephone poles are not cheap. It requires re-engineering and special people to replace those. You damage more than a quarter of one new car and that’s over $10,000. So you really need to look at your property damage limit under your liability. The damage to your car would be covered under collision. So, kind of two separate coverages there.

What do you recommend for home & auto coverage in freezing climates?

We can never predict the future. So it’s really hard to recommend anything. The safest way or the best way to make sure that you’re properly covered, is normally through an umbrella. Umbrella is going to provide an additional layer of protection. It’s kind of like a big bucket of money that if your primary limit runs out, if you only have a $100,000 in property damage and you cost $150,000 in property damage, the umbrella might step in to cover that other $50,000. So, it’s something that’s just an extra layer of protection over your existing liability policy. So, home liability, you buy the maximum limit available. An umbrella would go over the top of that, as well. So, somebody comes, like, Aunt Sue comes over to warm up because she has no power. She slips and falls on the walkway, breaks a hip, and ends up with $600,000 in medical bills. That might go over your primary homeowners liability limit. The additional coverage would come from an umbrella.

So, I’ve actually had a claim in the past where a newspaper person went up to the porch to deliver a paper early in the morning, it had just snowed and everything was nice and frozen. The porch light was burnt out, which it had been for a couple of weeks, not a big deal. They go every day. They went, slipped on the ice, fell, shattered their leg in a couple of different places. So they weren’t able to continue working, because of the paper delivery. But the way that it fractured, also caused problems with their future sport career. So, then there was loss of future earnings. There was all kinds of other things that went into a claim settlement that actually did go into an umbrella limit. So it’s that random things that you never think about that, I mean, somebody is delivering a newspaper. You know, who would have thought that would have been a $700,000 loss? But after a few hundred thousand in medical and everything else, and then not being able to work or not being able to pursue what they were doing, unfortunately that’s, yeah.

It’s important to have somebody assess your risk and see kind of what you might need or, you know, what might be the best option for you. I mean, we can tell you to buy 5 million dollars in coverage and it might not be enough one day, but as long as we’re, you know, trying to make a good guess of what the risk is versus what you might need, is not a bad place to start.

Another thing that happens is collapse of patio, awnings, other things. Sheds, roofs, due to weight of snow and ice. So, that’s something under a homeowner’s policy is normally covered. Under a dwelling fire policy, a basic dwelling fire policy is not always covered. So, it’s really important to review as well, what kind of policy do you have? You know, if you have a rental property, do you have the right kind of protection? I mean, it is pretty rare in Washington, specifically, to get that much snow and ice, in Western Washington, but it does happen. Where the covered patio collapses, or a carport collapses, and it’s due to the weight of the snow and ice.