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posted: 6/7/2013 4:17 AM

Homeowner growls about neighbor after getting a dog bite

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Dog bites account for more than one-third of the money insurers pay out each year in liability claims. Smart pet owners try to settle claims over a misbehaving pooch quickly.

Q. My neighbor's dog got out of his yard and attacked my cat, which was sunning himself on my front porch. I sustained several injuries as I tried to pull the dog off ($2,260 in emergency room bills), and my cat needed two separate surgeries that cost me a total of $1,700. My neighbor won't pay for any of the bills because he claims that "dogs get loose all the time," and because the attack happened on my property rather than his. What are my rights in this situation?

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A. Laws that concern a homeowner's dog-bite liability vary from one state to the next. But the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute (www.iii.org) in New York says homeowners are nearly always liable if "the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury," and if "a state statute makes the owner liable, whether or not the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury" or if the "injury was caused by unreasonable carelessness on the part of the owner."

Likely, your neighbor is responsible for paying the medical bills for both you and your cat. The fact that the attack occurred on your property rather than his is irrelevant: Homeowners generally are required to keep their pets under control at all times.

Hopefully, the company that insures your neighbor's home will pay for your expenses. It's fairly routine for insurers to pay for such attacks as well as a relatively modest additional fee for "pain and suffering." You also might be reimbursed for any lost wages you suffered if the attack prevented you from going to work.

If your neighbor won't give you the name of his insurance agent, your own insurer might be able to look it up. Your agent also should be able to provide additional information, such as what types of forms you'll need to file, and possibly even give you an estimate of what you might receive for your "pain and suffering" caused by the attack.

Should the neighbor or his insurer refuse to pay, you can take him to inexpensive small claims court if you merely want to be reimbursed for the medical expenses for you and your cat. But if you also seek a pain-and-suffering award or money for lost wages, you'll need to call the court itself or hire a lawyer. That's because some states don't allow a small claims judge to issue such awards, or strictly limit the amount that a plaintiff can collect.

Frankly, your neighbor's refusal to honor your relatively modest request for repayment of your medical and vet charges is pretty foolish. The average payout in dog-bite cases last year was $29,752, the Insurance Information Institute says -- more than seven times the size of the reimbursement you are seeking.

Q. We are planning to purchase our first home. Is it better to close the transaction and get the keys toward the start of the month or near the end?

A. It's generally best to select a closing date that's closer toward the end of the month rather than the beginning. That's because lenders typically charge buyers prepaid interest from the actual closing date through the end of the month, and then give them another four or six weeks before the next payment is due.

By choosing a closing date nearer to the end of the month, you won't have to come up with so much cash to pay the prepaid interest -- an important consideration if you want to keep your upfront closing costs as low as possible. To be safe, though, don't pick a date any later than the 20th or 25th: You want to leave yourself with some extra time in case closing is delayed a few days by paperwork snafus or other minor problems.

Q. We are buying an older home. An inspector has already said the home is free from termites and other pests, but we're worried that problems could develop as more time goes by. Is it possible to buy insurance against termite damage?

A. No. Termite and related pest control is considered a "maintenance issue," so mainline insurers won't cover damage that wood-destroying insects can cause -- even if you would be willing to pay extra for it.

Still, there are a couple of ways to protect yourself. One is to sign up for a "termite plan," which are offered by most large pest-inspection companies. A typical plan calls for an initial inspection and treatment, then follow-up visits and needed treatment on a yearly basis. If a problem develops, the company will re-treat your home at no additional cost until the little buggers are gone.

The alternative is to purchase a "termite bond," which also are offered by many pest-control companies. A standard agreement usually requires that you sign up for an annual service plan, but the company also agrees to pay for some or all of the repairs if damage is discovered while the bond is still in effect.

Shop carefully if you decide to obtain a termite bond, and read the entire contract's fine print. Many of the plans will cover only certain types of structural damage, or exclude coverage for destruction caused by specific species.

Real estate trivia: If you spent just 10 minutes inside each of the 520 stores at Minnesota's famous Mall of America, you'd be at the 4.2-million-square-foot shopping center for 86 straight hours.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2013, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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