Winter storms are inevitable, but the millions of dollars in home damages don't have to be.
Each year, winter storms wreak $1.1 billion in insured damages, according to the New York-based Insurance Information Institute.
Fortunately, the two largest problems — frozen pipes and gutters — can be prevented with routine home maintenance, according to State Farm Insurance Cos. and Country Insurance & Financial Services.
"If people don't clean leaves out of their gutters, water will freeze and damage the roof and then water can leak through the roof," said State Farm spokeswoman Missy Lundberg. "Once pipes freeze, they can burst and it just creates a domino effect."
For example, if frozen pipes burst, more than 250 gallons of water each day can flow from a [-inch crack in a pipe, destroying furniture, floors, walls, carpet, appliances and personal items, according to State Farm.
The average homeowner claim from this type of water damage and freezing costs more than $4,000, the Insurance Information Institute said.
Clogged gutters are easily preventable — remove the leaves and install a gutter guard to keep dirt and debris out, Lundberg said.
To prevent pipe freezing, keep the thermostat at 55 degrees at all times, even when on extended trips from home, she said. Also, allow a small trickle of hot water to flow through sinks at night and open cabinet doors below sinks to bring more heat to the pipes.
Also, insulate pipes in crawl spaces and attics with insulation tape or other insulation commonly found at home-improvement stores, said Rachel Schlipmann, Country Insurance's education specialist.
Also, "wrap frozen pipes in a rag soaked in hot water," she said. "Never use an open flame to thaw them out. But first of all, contact a professional."
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Older homes with pipes running along the outer walls are at the most risk, Lundberg said, and pipes are most vulnerable when the temperature drops below 20 degrees.
Of course, winter storms cause many other problems — fallen trees, power outages and even fire.
Like State Farm, Country's top winter claim is frozen pipes. Second are roof collapses under the weight of snow and ice — a common problem cause by clogged gutters, while third is damage from supplemental heaters and fourth is smoke damage from people not properly venting fireplaces.
Never leave space heaters or fireplaces unattended, Schlipmann said, and keep space heaters away from flammable objects.
The Insurance Information Institute also suggests people cut dead limbs off trees to prevent the wind from blowing them onto the home.
Finally, know your insurance policy. Standard policies cover winter-related disasters like frozen pipes, wind gusts, fallen trees and damage caused by the weight of ice or snow, according to the Insurance Information Institute. But policies vary.
Pipes are covered no matter how they freeze, Lundberg said, so if a fallen tree caused a power outage that took out the heat of a home and caused pipes to freeze, State Farm would cover it.
For other claims, though, only sudden, accidental damages are covered, Lundberg said.
If an old, partially rotted porch caved under the weight of snow, for instance, State Farm likely would not pay for it because the problem was the cause of long-term wear, not the direct effect of a recent snowstorm.