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I’ve been seeing a lot of shoveling lately. Waves of major winter storm systems bring millions of tonsof snow, blanketing streets, cities, and even entire states. With news reports and headlines calling for “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse”, followed by images of snowplows, snowblowers, and plenty of snow shovels, the piles of snow seem to be never-ending.
“So how does insurance fit in with all the snow?” you might be asking. Actually, there are two ways.
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First, all that snow (and ice) causes extraordinary amounts of property damage in the form of auto accidents, trees and power lines downed by the weight of ice and snow, frozen pipes that rupture and cause extensive water damage, ice dams create roof leaks, the weight of ice and snow can actually collapse roofs, and so much melting snow causes flooding – I actually saw a 5 foot high ice flow move down a New Jersey street.
And secondly, the heaping mounds of snow is analogous to the mountains of red tape, hoops, delays and other slush insurance companies use to drown insurance victims in their time of need.
Water (that stuff snow eventually turns into) is one of the most powerful and destructive forces on earth (think Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and glaciers). I know it seems fairly harmless when portrayed as fluffy little flakes floating down from the heavens, but in accumulations large enough, and depending on variations in temperature, snow melts into water, freezes to ice, and melts into water again.
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In the air, the thawing and freezing cycle can produce damaging hail. On roofs, this thawing and freezing can produce ice dams, allowing water to penetrate roof systems. Sometimes this damages the roof itself as well as the interior of the structure, and sometimes only damaging the interior, while leaving no trace whatsoever on the roof. This makes for an interesting “who-done-it” for insurance adjusters – after all, without proof, why should they believe the damage was caused by an ice dam, and not simply a matter of “wear and tear”? In pipes, the cycle is usually reversed – first freezing, and then thawing, which can inundate an entire home (just don’t call it “a flood” as that is not covered unless it meets the definition of “flood”, and you actually have a flood insurance policy). And outside on the ground, this thawing and freezing and thawing again cycle can lead to actual flooding, sometimes including large chunks of ice and accumulated debris rushing along in a torrent, destroying pretty much anything in it’s path.
By now you get the idea. Water can be very destructive, even when it starts out gently. And after you plow, dig, blow, and shovel your way out from the snow, you should also be prepared to shovel your way out from the ensuing insurance claim.
As I alluded to earlier, snow, ice, and water can be tricky substances. Think of all the riddles involving water in its various properties:
- Power enough to smash ships and crush roofs. Yet it still must fear the sun. (Ice)
- This old one runs forever, but never moves at all. No lungs nor throat, but still a mighty roaring call. (waterfall)
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Because water can take on 3 physical properties (solid, liquid, and gas) in relatively short order, it can appear to be here one day, and gone the next. So unless you have photos of it, it’s very existence can be difficult to prove (especially if the one you are trying to prove it to is not inclined to believe you to begin with).
As you might imagine, some insurance adjusters might use the elusiveness of water to minimize your claim of damages. Hailstones beating down on your roof like 10 million marbles (or golf balls) are almost always gone long before an adjuster ever sets foot on your roof. Depending on the size of the hail, the damage can be anything from excessive loss of roofing granules (tiny bits of “rock”) which protect the water-shedding shingle matting, to bruising of the shingle matting, to actual holes in the shingles. Naturally, the less obvious the damage, the more an adjuster may resist paying.
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In the case of frozen pipe claims, many policies have exclusionary clauses requiring property owners to maintain sufficient heat at all times, or to drain the entire plumbing system. For some adjusters, the simple fact that you suffered a frozen pipe is evidence enough that you failed to perform your duties.
And as indicated above, in the case of ice dams, adjusters can claim there is no evidence to prove there ever was an ice dam (since it melted away). They could also claim the roof workmanship or maintenance was faulty. Think about it, exclusions weren’t put into insurance policies to be ignored. They are there to be used. And some like using them more than others. Even if they agree to pay for the inside water damage, they may not agree to pay for damage done to the roofing system when ice built up and crept ever-higher under shingles, causing creases, removing granules, or loosening nails.
Just be ready to dig yourself out from under a drift of insurance legalese, skeptical adjusters, and carrier-dependent engineers. Or, you may want to consider hiring an experienced consumer advocate. Like a dependable snow shovel, we can plow the way for your return to normalcy.
Mark Goldwich is president of Gold Star Adjusters, a group of public insurance adjusters dedicated to helping citizens get the maximum settlement for any insurance claim.