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Your insurance, after the storm

Posted by Rona Fischman October 31, 2012 02:06 PM

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Thank you toAttorney Richard Vetstein for his reliable information about real estate legal matters. Today, he covers everything you need to know about Massachusetts homeowner's insurance, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Although Massachusetts was spared a direct hit by Hurricane Sandy, there are widespread reports of flooding and property damage. Whether the damage to your home from Hurricane Sandy is covered by your homeowner's insurance policy depends on the source of the damage. Typically, damage caused by wind, downed trees and power outages are covered. However, flooding caused by rain or surface water is typically not covered. I will explain each below.

Wind damage/downed trees
The standard Massachusetts homeowners insurance policy typically covers damage caused by wind - including broken windows, torn roofs and any interior damage from trees or limbs falling into the home. (If a tree falls onto a car, many comprehensive auto policies will cover the damage.)
Some policies, however, require that homeowners pay a hefty deductible before homeowners' insurance policies kick in for wind damage - often 1% to 5% of the total amount the home is insured for.

Power outages
The hurricane has left hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts customers without power. Homeowners' insurance policies typically cover any property damage caused by electrical outages due to a hurricane. Some policies will even reimburse you for spoiled food.

Flooding and water damage

Flooding - defined by insurers as any water that rises from the ground or from the sky, including tidal waves - is typically not covered by Massachusetts homeowner's insurance policies. If your home has flooded due to coastal ocean storm surge, rising streams, ponds or wetlands or from surface water, your homeowner's policy will unfortunately likely not cover the damage.

To get reimbursed for hurricane flooding damage, homeowners would have already secured federal flood insurance. The average flood premium is about $600 annually, but rates go up to nearly $6,000 for the highest-risk coastal properties, according to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Homeowners who live in flood zones usually have flood insurance already: Many lenders won’t provide these home buyers with a mortgage unless they’ve signed up for flood coverage. These homeowners can rest (relatively) easy; if their home floods, flood insurance will pay for that damage. Those unlucky homeowners in the interior parts of the state aren’t so lucky.

Hurricane damage to condominiums raise special concerns. The coverages are typically the same as outlined above, however, there is usually a question as to whether the master condominium insurance policy or the HO-6 homeowner policy will be the primary policy in play. That depends on whether the damage originates from a common area or inside a unit and the particular provisions of the master deed and by-laws.

Serious damage
If a home becomes so damaged that it’s uninhabitable, most standard homeowner policies will pay for a family’s living expenses — including lodging and food — while the house is being repaired.

Making an insurance claim
As with any insurance damage claim, my advice has always been document, document, document. Take photos and video of the damage. Keep all receipts for fans, blowers, wet vacs, sump pumps, repairs, new windows, etc. Be prepared to wait for the insurance companies to process the thousands of claims arising from Hurricane Sandy.

Liability for fallen or downed trees
Given all the trees and branches which fell across New England, the pressing question of the day is, clearly, who is responsible if my neighbor’s tree or tree branch fell on my house, car, shed, patio, grill, etc. during the storm?

Under Massachusetts law, an owner of a healthy tree which falls during a hurricane or storm is generally not liable for any damage because the law considers this an “act of nature” for which no one is legally liable. Thus, if your neighbor’s tree has fallen on your house or car, you will have to make a claim under your and/or your neighbor’s homeowner’s insurance policy for the damage.

On the other hand, if the neighbor’s tree was diseased or decayed, was known to be at risk of falling and the neighbor ignored it, there could be negligence and liability. Either way, if you have homeowner’s insurance, the insurance companies will sort out fault and blame.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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