When we purchase homeowners insurance, many of us don’t really take the time to look into everything covered by the policy we get. The last time you went through this process, you probably paid most of your attention to the premium, the deductible, and the limits of coverage both for the structure of your house and the belongings inside. If your house catches on fire or is damaged by a storm, you’d expect that to be covered by your policy. You’d have similar expectations if burglars hauled away all of your electronics, or if a drunk driver parked an SUV in your living room.
But aside from the “regular” types of claims that your homeowners insurance covers, there are some strange cases that your current policy probably covers. In some of these cases—especially in situations where damage has been caused due to someone else’s negligence—it’s always a good idea to collect from the negligent party or his or her insurer. All the same, as unlikely as these scenarios are, it’s nice to know whether you’re prepared for (and covered for) some pretty odd possibilities.
1. No Crying over Spoiled Steaks
Scenario: After finding a great deal on filet mignon at your local butcher, you purchase several hundred dollars’ worth of steaks and store them in your freezer. Several weeks later, unexpected high winds knock down dozens of utility poles in your neighborhood. The storm is so severe that it takes three days to restore electricity service to your home. By the time the power is back on, your steaks (along with other food in your fridge and freezer) have thawed and spoiled.
Power outages are often caused by weather-related events such as high winds, rain and flooding, lightning or ice storms. When the power goes out due to a major storm, spoiled food is often pretty low on a homeowner’s list of worries. According to one expert, people often don’t report food spoilage because the limits—often $500—are often lower than the deductibles. As the thinking goes, why pay $500 to collect $500 in damages? In this situation, where the only damage is in spoiled food, there would probably be no payout at all.
However, when the weather event that caused the blackout causes additional damage to your home, it makes sense to include the spoiled food as part of a larger claim. So in addition to getting windows replaced, a roof re-shingled or a flooded basement cleaned out, you might as well get those filets replaced since they were damaged along with the rest of the house. Also, if you’re going to be storing large amounts of expensive frozen food, it’s probably cheaper to invest in a generator rather than increasing your coverage with an additional endorsement.
2. Striking Once Is Enough
Scenario: You’re in the family room catching up on summer reruns when you hear the first clap of thunder. As you sit safely on your couch, the stars are blotted by heavy clouds and the booms and flashes get closer and closer together. Suddenly, a sound like an exploding bomb echoes through the house. Along with the smell of ozone, you begin to smell smoke. Running outside, you see a blackened hole in one corner of your roof. Small flames are licking out through the opening. You turn on a garden hose and begin to put out the fire.
Experts say that lightning strikes about 20 million times every year in the U.S. Each bolt sends 100,000 volts of energy through the path of least resistance into the ground. Though most lightning occurs in open areas (often leading to brush or forest fires), it’s not uncommon for homes, business, and vehicles to be targeted. Claims for property losses add up to hundreds of millions annually, and lightning causes an average of 57 deaths every year. Due to abnormally high thunderstorm activity in 2008, lighting damage in that year topped a billion dollars in losses.
There are a few things that you can do to prevent lightning damage. Putting in a lightning protection system is one of them, though such work should be done by a qualified installer. You may even want to power down and unplug big-ticket items such as computers and big-screen televisions during an electrical storm. Above all, review your homeowners policy with your agent to make sure your lightning coverage includes your home’s structure and infrastructure as well as the electrical devices inside.
3. The Goat Rodeo
Scenario: You’re in the process of alphabetizing your sock drawer when your home is suddenly filled with the sound of hooves—cloven ones. Several dozen of your neighbor’s Nubian goats were spooked by a passing butterfly, broke out of their pen and are currently rampaging through your property. Now you’re facing broken fences, wrecked shrubbery, a destroyed lawn, and other property damage that runs into the thousands.
According to several sources, most homeowners insurance policies will cover the damage caused by stampeding animals, as long as the animals are not your own and are considered “wild.” This doesn’t mean you would automatically file a claim with your own insurance carrier. The damage done by your neighbor’s goats should be paid for by your neighbor or his or her insurance company. However, if your neighbor turns out to be uninsured and subsequently skips town to avoid taking responsibility, you would still need to get your property repaired. It’s important to check with your agent, but chances are pretty good that in such a situation, this particular “goat rodeo” would be covered.
4. Last-Minute Location
Scenario: In a moment of extravagance, you offer to host your daughter’s outdoor wedding in your beautifully landscaped back yard. The announcements go out and the magic day arrives, but before the guests show up a kitchen fire damages part of the house. In the midst of trying to recover from that particular disaster, you’re forced to come up with an alternate venue. Luckily, a local hotel has a big enough ballroom available, and the wedding goes off without a hitch. Well—except for your daughter getting hitched.
It’s very likely that your homeowners policy includes “loss of use” coverage that would allow you to claim the cost of having to rent the hotel ballroom because of the fire. The one caveat depends on whether you had planned a champagne toast to the bride as part of the wedding festivities. Most insurance carriers do not provide coverage for events at which alcohol is served. A commercial event policy can solve the liquor liability problem, so that’s one more thing to consider if you’re holding a wedding at your home. Bottom line: it’s a good idea to check and see whether you’re covered before you send out the invitations.
5. Dorm Away from Home
Scenario: Your 19-year-old daughter is away at college, gaining her “freshman 15” on a combination of cafeteria food and delivery pizza. Though your own grown-up child is (almost) always responsible, her roommate has a habit of leaving their dorm room door unlocked. After one such occurrence, someone enters the room and leaves with a pillowcase containing your daughter’s laptop, iPod, jewelry and other valuables.
A 2010 press release from the Insurance Information Institute (III) noted that there were nearly 32,000 dorm-room burglaries and 6,000 dorm-room fires reported during 2008. According to III, most personal possessions in an on-campus dorm room are covered under a parent’s homeowners insurance policy, though this isn’t always the case. One caveat: some policies limit dorm-room coverage to 10 percent of the policy’s total for personal belongings. So if a student’s parents have $100,000 worth of coverage on the possessions in their primary residence, the dorm-room items would be covered up to $10,000. Also, most insurance providers have an age limit—usually 25 or 26—for the student involved. This means your daughter may have to purchase separate insurance if she continues to live in on-campus housing during graduate school.
It’s important to note that a homeowners insurance policy doesn’t provide coverage for students in off-campus housing. Separate renters insurance would be needed to cover a student in this situation.
6. Toppled Tombstones, Marked-up Markers
Scenario: It’s Memorial Day and you drive over early to pick up your mom. The two of you go to the cemetery every May to visit the grave of your father, a military veteran. You arrive at the memorial park with flags and a wreath—only to discover that vandals have defaced your father’s grave marker with spray paint. You try to console your mother as you wonder privately how she’s going to find the money to pay for the damages.
Luckily—and perhaps surprisingly—the damage is probably covered under your mom’s existing homeowners insurance policy. Sadly, cemetery vandalism is more common than most people realize. In 2013 hooligans tipped over 106 headstones in a cemetery in Denver, while more than 300 grave markers were damaged by juvenile vandals in Ohio. It’s important to be careful in placing blame, though. Most damage to grave markers is actually caused by heavy equipment operated carelessly by cemetery landscapers and burial crews. Spray paint is one thing, but if you notice a cracked or chipped headstone, report it first to the cemetery’s management. They should investigate to determine whether their own workers caused the damage.
Grave markers, urns, and other funerary items are generally considered “valuables” under most homeowners insurance policies. However, most polices will limit coverage by default to somewhere between $1,000 and $5,000. If you want to make sure a family crypt or particularly expensive memorial is covered, you’ll definitely want to talk to your agent about purchasing expanded coverage.
7. When the Dog Bites
Scenario: It’s not uncommon for your dog Phydeaux to bark occasionally at the neighbor kids as they play on the sidewalk outside. But one afternoon the barking seems abnormally loud and ferocious. As you get up to investigate you hear a little boy scream, followed by panicked shouts from other children. You open your front door to see six-year-old Tommy from next door crying on your front lawn with blood dripping from his hand. You send your daughter to fetch a first-aid kit as another child runs to find the injured child’s parents. As you clean and bandage the wound, one of the older kids tells you that Tommy had been reaching through the gap in the gate to bat Phydeaux on the snout with a stick.
Even the friendliest, most passive dogs will bite if provoked, so the best way to prevent bites is to keep dogs inside or in fenced-in areas, and to use a leash and/or muzzle when taking your pet outside areas you control. But even with careful precautions, bites can still occur. According to industry estimates, a full third of all liability claims under homeowners insurance are for dog bites. The average payout, according to the Insurance Information Institute, is nearly $30,000 per claim.
The good news is that dog bites are generally covered, so your homeowners policy will most likely protect you if your family pet bites someone. However, many insurance carriers maintain lists of “high-risk” breeds that are not covered under a standard policy. So it could matter a great deal whether Phydeaux is a Dachshund or a Doberman. (A few states prohibit such “breed profiling”—check with your agent.)
8. It Came from the Sky
Scenario: You live on a country road near a small municipal airport. One day, a light airplane experiences engine problems while preparing to land, and doesn’t quite make the runway. Instead, it clips your roof with its wheels and makes an emergency “belly landing” in a nearby field. Luckily, the pilot and his passenger are unhurt. But your roof has been heavily damaged by the impact of the aircraft’s landing gear.
While there are roughly 5,000 airplanes in the air at any given moment, plane crashes are extremely rare. According to one source, your chances of being in a plane crash are about one in 11 million, and the chances of your house being hit by an airplane are even smaller. In a situation like this, your first recourse is always to collect damages from the pilot or the pilot’s insurance company. In cases where this isn’t possible (if the pilot is uninsured and has no assets), chances are good that your homeowners policy would cover the damages to your house (though not the damage to the plane).
9. Just … Ewwwww
Scenario: You’re in your kitchen inventorying your breakfast cereal when you suddenly hear a loud crash. You walk through your home but nothing seems amiss. Then you go outside to check the exterior of the house and see a large hole in the roof. Upon further inspection, you discover a wet, smelly mess in your attic. Since it was a sunny day, the damage was definitely not related to the weather. Eventually you discover the falling “object” that caused the damage likely came from a passing airplane.
According to an article from CBS New York, this very thing happened to more than one homeowner in Valley Stream, NY, back in 2012. A similar incident happened in Santa Cruz, CA, in 2003. Apparently the holding tanks that contain sewage from airliner lavatories can sometimes rupture and leak, and then immediately freeze into solid chunks of extremely nasty ice. The Federal Aviation Administration says these so-called “blue ice events” happen a few times every year, and should be reported to the FAA for investigation. Luckily, damage from blue ice (and other falling objects like meteorites) is usually covered under the “open perils” section of your homeowners policy.
10. Grievances and Dirty Laundry
Scenario: Your teenaged son has a verbal altercation with one of his high school teachers, and ends up suspended from school. It’s been a difficult school year for him (and for you) because this one teacher seems to have it in for your kid. Later that night, you do a little venting on your personal blog. Recalling a juicy bit of gossip you heard from one of the other parents, you mention that this particular teacher is rumored to be making extra money by selling school property on eBay. Someone at the school gets wind of your accusation, an investigation ensues and though the teacher maintains his innocence, he is dismissed from his position. A week later you are served notice that the former teacher is suing you for libel.
This may come as a surprise, but many homeowners insurance policies—and even some renters policies—include provisions to cover the cost to defend yourself from various civil liability cases, including a libel or defamation suit, often within certain limits. In fact, when President Bill Clinton was sued in 1994 for sexual harassment, the $1.5 million bill for his defense was paid for by the insurance companies underwriting a personal liability umbrella policy connected to his homeowners insurance. In another famous case, OJ Simpson relied on the liability coverage provided by his homeowners insurance to stage a defense in the civil suit brought by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman after the former football player was acquitted in criminal court.
Some policies may exclude coverage if a libel suit is related to “business pursuits.” (That would need to be covered by a business policy.) What this means is that if your personal blog is in any way connected to business—if you accept advertising, for example, or possibly even if you have a digital “tip jar”—your blogging activities may not be protected.
It’s always a good idea to review your coverages with an insurance professional to see what forms of liability are covered by your particular policy. Often an umbrella policy is your best option to provide the additional coverage needed to ensure that your life wouldn’t be turned upside-down by a frivolous lawsuit. Another great tip is to avoid saying things that might prompt people to want to sue.