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Winter Vacations and Unoccupied Homes: Losses Waiting to Happen

Here are four potential issues that can occur during the colder months and how agents can help clients be better prepared.
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winter vacations and unoccupied homes: losses waiting to happen

When many of your clients go on vacation or weekend getaways this winter, how will they protect their unoccupied homes?

That question is probably not at the top of your clients' minds. More than 1 in 3 homebuyers in 2021 were first-time buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors, and while that amount dropped to slightly more than 1 in 4 in 2022, there are still many insureds who are inexperienced in homeownership.

Even long-time homeowners may not know how losses can occur in an unoccupied home. Only 49% of homeowners who planned to vacation in 2022 intended to use a home security system, according to a study commissioned by Selective Insurance and conducted by Harris Poll, and just 1 in 5 said they would turn off the water supply.

Low awareness and adoption of home security measures are good reasons to discuss home safety and security with your clients, preferably well before the holiday travel season. These conversations allow you to help clients protect their most significant asset—their homes—while building long-term relationships with them.

Here are some potential issues that can occur during the colder months and how you can help your clients be better prepared and prevent certain types of losses:

1) Water damage. Water damage is the most common, and often the costliest, loss in unoccupied homes. Water loss claims usually stem from burst pipes due to freezing. To help prevent this issue, homeowners should not let the home thermostat dip below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Talk to your clients about having their heating system regularly inspected because a breakdown could let temperatures drop and lead to a pipe burst. Homeowners should also ensure all pipes are adequately insulated, especially those closer to exterior walls. Also, if insureds expect to be away for a short period, it's a good idea to let faucets drip slightly.

If a client is planning a long trip, fully draining the pipes and turning off the main water shutoff valve is the key to preventing water damage. External faucets, hoses and sprinklers should also be drained and turned off. Also, advise your clients to invest in loss mitigation tools, such as an automatic water shutoff device equipped with an automatic water shutoff valve. These devices monitor average water usage patterns and contain an automatic turn-off feature if an abnormal flow is detected.

Water damage during cold weather can also occur because of cracks in foundations and chimneys. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles widen cracks and may give water entry into the home.

2) Roof damage. Ice dams are another common hazard in all homes. When an attic is poorly insulated and not adequately ventilated, snow and ice on the roof melts faster and accumulates in and above the gutters, where the snowmelt freezes. Ice dams can tear gutters, loosen shingles and allow water intrusion inside the home.

To prevent ice dams, homeowners should adequately insulate their attics and clean gutters regularly. Any tree limbs above the home should be trimmed so that limbs weighed down by snow and ice don't fall and block gutters.

3) Home security. Encourage your clients to install a centrally monitored home security system. If they don't have a security system, they should arrange to have someone check on their home. They should also lock their valuables away and schedule their expensive jewelry and other valuable items on their insurance to protect their purchases properly.

4) Home renovations. In your conversations with clients, inquire about any potential plan to have home renovations done while they are away. If they do have plans, recommend that the work be performed by a licensed contractor and have the home regularly inspected by a person they trust.

Learning about planned renovations will also tell you whether the client's coverage will need updating so that they are appropriately insured to value in the event of a loss.

Questions to Ask Clients

Here are 10 sample questions you can ask your clients in the months before winter travel:

  • Do you have a centrally monitored alarm system for your home?
  • Are all doors and windows locked and alarmed?
  • Are all pipes located closest to the exterior walls, including those in the basement, attic and garage, adequately insulated?
  • Have you drained all exterior faucets and turned off the main water supply?
  • Did you set your home thermostat at 55 degrees Fahrenheit?
  • When was the last time you had your furnace inspected?
  • Have your gutters appropriately been cleaned?
  • Are your valuable items locked in a safe that can be accessed only by you or a family member?
  • Do you have a house sitter or someone to check on your home periodically while you are away?
  • Will someone pick up your mail and packages daily?
  • Will your home be repaired or renovated while you are away?
  • Have you considered any additional preventative measure devices, such as a water leak detection system, to help prevent larger losses?

Tailor your communications to each individual's preference—for instance, emails, printed mail or phone calls. Ask them if they are concerned about any items or issues. Let them know that most losses can be prevented by taking a few precautionary measures, like the ones described above. Follow up on your initial conversation with a reminder after three to four weeks.

Homes unoccupied for even brief periods can have catastrophic losses. Discussions with clients about home safety and security help position you as a trusted expert whose recommendations increase their peace of mind and save them money.

Amanda Zanotti is assistant vice president, personal lines, at Selective Insurance.

Monday, November 28, 2022