According to the Insurance Information Institute, winter storms caused an estimated $1 billion in insured losses in 2016. And if that wasn't shocking enough, the record for winter storm damage claims is much higher: $5 billion in a single year.

Snow, ice, and water from melting snow are the principal causes of all this damage. And the roof you count on to keep the interior of your home safe from the elements is especially vulnerable in the wintertime.

We'll go over some insurance and home maintenance considerations that will help get you and your home through the winter.

Home Insurance and Winter Damage

You've heard that this winter's gonna be a rough one, but you're not worried. You've paid your premiums on your home insurance, so you're confident that whatever the winter can throw at you might be inconvenient, but it won't really set you back financially.

But not so fast. Don't assume your insurance will pay for anything and everything. Unless you have the right coverage in place and take steps to maintain your home, you might be left without compensation even if your home undergoes serious damage.

Negligence and Denied Claims

A homeowner’s insurance policy typically covers damage that results directly from winter weather events, including:

  • A tree falling on your home
  • Damage from wind-driven snow
  • Roof collapse
  • Frozen or burst pipes

However, your insurer is likely to require that you take reasonable steps to prevent losses. If the damage was preventable and occurred partially due to your negligence, your claim might be refused.

Here are a few examples of when this might happen:

  • A pipe burst because you left water in the lines or shut the heat off in sub-zero weather
  • A tree toppled and damaged your home, but there’s obvious evidence of disease or rot
  • Water seeped through the roof due to poor upkeep or inferior workmanship
  • You neglected your sidewalk and someone injured themselves on the icy, packed snow
  • Your 20-year-old shed was beyond its useful life and the weight of snow caused it to collapse and damage your neighbor’s garage

Policy Exclusions

You also have to be on the lookout for exclusions in your policy. No matter how many preventative steps you take, if damage results from an excluded event, the insurance company will deny your claim.

Snow eventually melts, so come spring or an unusually warm winter day, you might experience flooding. Unfortunately, flooding is not covered in standard insurance policies (nor is sewer or septic backup). If you want protection against these perils, you'll have to purchase separate coverage (see The Seas Are Rising - Do You Need Flood Insurance? to learn more).

Your policy might also only cover the house itself, leaving you entirely on the hook for any damage to your swimming pool, hot tub, fence, septic tank, or other property.

And you might be responsible for removing any debris on your property, too.

Go over your policy carefully. If you're still not sure what you will or will not be covered for, ask your insurance agent (and be sure to watch out for the Insurance Policy Exclusions that Might Catch You Off-Guard).

Snow Damage Prevention

So now you know that proper home maintenance is essential to getting your claim paid. But what steps do you need to take, exactly? These tips will help you prevent snow damage and costly repairs. And when the time comes to file, these steps will strengthen your case.

Clean gutters in the fall – leaves and debris can cause water to back up and freeze in the gutters.

Prune trees and remove dead branches – the weight of the snow and the force of the wind can cause them to break and damage property.

Direct downspouts away from the house – when snow melts, the water is less likely to collect around the foundation.

Inspect the walls and foundation – check for cracks or holes and take appropriate measures to seal them (you may need to enlist a professional).

Check attic ventilation and insulation – a warm roof causes snow to melt, which runs to the edges of the roof and under shingles, where it freezes again. The result are ice dams that heave up shingles and allow water to penetrate your home. A cool roof and plenty of ventilation will help prevent this.

If you see icicles regularly, they often indicate heat loss. Plug any gaps between the attic and your living spaces so warm air does not reach the roof.

Monitor snowfall – some storms drop huge quantities of snow on your roof. Average snow (not wet or fluffy) weighs 15 pounds per cubic foot. If your area gets 3 or 4 feet of snow, that can put enough weight on your roof to cause it to sag, shift door frames, or crack structural members. Either use a snow rake to clear the snow off your roof or call in a professional with the right training and equipment to do the job safely and effectively.

Ensure roof integrity – roofs can have a long, useful life if they’re properly maintained. Even if your roof is rated for a 20 year lifespan, it won't last that long unless you take care of it. Annual roof maintenance and inspections after storms are vital, and the roofing manufacturer may not honor your warranty without them.

Insulate pipes – snow and cold weather can cause pipes to freeze and burst. Disconnect outdoor hoses, drain faucets, and insulate them with protective covers. Wrap unprotected pipes with pipe insulators and locate the main water shut-off valve in case of emergency.

Move snow away from the home – snow often drifts into window wells and doorways and against your home. Take a few minutes to shovel it away from the structure to help prevent flooding.

Secure your pool and hot tub – above- and below-ground pools and hot tubs require attention when it snows. The weight can damage the cover and sometimes the pool. Remove snow from the drain of in-ground pools to prevent cracking.

Clear traffic areas quickly – don’t wait until the snow stops. If you see a thick accumulation on your sidewalks, stairs, and balconies, remove it to reduce risk (find out whether your liability insurance covers you for injuries that take place on the sidewalk).

Clear exhaust and intake vents – snow can clog exhaust and fresh air intake vents, impede appliance operation, or allow unhealthy fumes into your home.

Shake trees and shrubs – costly outdoor trees and shrubs can break from the weight of snow. Don a pair of gloves, head outside, and give them a good shake to dislodge the snow.

Keep a record of the work done and any receipts involved. It will help you when you need to make a claim, if only because it will demonstrate that you're a conscientious homeowner.

Filing a Claim

If you have adequate coverage, maintained your home, and kept good records, the claims process should be relatively simple. Most insurers will even allow you to report your claim online, making the process smooth and easy.

File your claim as soon as possible and list every form of damage. Once you do, the insurer will check your coverage, assign a representative, and send an insurance adjuster to your house to access the damage. The insurance company will then request estimates and repairs can begin (find out How to File a Claim That Gets Paid Sooner).

Having a home inventory can speed up the settlement process for your possessions since it includes the information insurers need such as an item list, estimated values, and receipts (when available). Otherwise, you will need to collect this information after the fact.

Of course, this is a best case scenario. If the damage is so extensive that you cannot live in your home, you’ll need funds for alternative lodgings, food, clothing, and other essentials. If you have Additional Living Expense (ALE) coverage, the insurance company can assist you. It can take many months to repair, rebuild, or replace your home and possessions if you experienced a major loss.

Getting a Fair Settlement

Don’t solely rely on the insurance adjuster’s assessment of structural damage. Do your own assessment and document it carefully. Come to an agreement on the scope of the work with the insurer and then ask for two independent estimates from reputable, licensed contractors of your own choosing. The insurance company solicits estimates too, based on the agreed scope of your loss (see Public Adjusters: Your Insurance Superheroes, or Unnecessary Expense? to find out how to get help with your claim).

It Pays to Prepare

Much of what happens after your loss depends on your preparedness beforehand. Review your insurance coverage regularly, understand what you’re buying, and do a home inventory. A skilled agent or broker can tailor your coverage to your needs so you’re not left out in the cold after snow damage.