High winds, recent snowstorms raise important insurance issues

Damage caused by high winds is typically covered by a basic homeowner's insurance policy, but it's a different story when it comes to problems triggered by melting snow or ice.

Q. We have been fortunate enough to avoid all those big snowstorms that have been making the news in the Northeast and Midwest, but our house is in an area that gets really strong wind gusts this time of year. Is damage caused by wind covered by our homeowner's insurance policy?

A. Yes, assuming you have a standard policy that's commonly referred to as an "HO-3." Wind-related damage to a house or its roof or the cost of replacing the property's contents should be reimbursed. The cost of damage caused by a tree that lands on a house and must be removed is also covered, though the payout is typically limited to $500.

Your question, though, raises some important insurance issues for the millions of Americans whose homes may become smothered by snowstorms or flooding that comes when the ice and snow begins to thaw.

If you have properly maintained your home but it gets damaged by wind, snow or ice, don't worry: You're covered. But damage caused by melting snow that seeps into a home from the ground up (rather than the roof) won't be covered unless you have paid extra for a flood-insurance policy.

High winds, heavy rain or snowstorms can overburden local sewer systems and individual sump pumps. Damage to a home that's created by these backups - ruined floor tile, soiled furniture, short-circuited appliances and the like - isn't covered by a typical homeowners' policy. It's not covered by flood insurance, either, but protection against such perils can be added for an additional fee.

Q. Is there a limit on how large of a security deposit a landlord can charge before a tenant can move in?

A. Yes, virtually all states have laws that set limits on how much can be charged. It's usually an amount that's equal to one or two months of rent, but it varies from one state to the next. Most states also permit higher deposits for tenants who, say, have a pet or a water bed.

The website operated by legal publishing giant Nolo ( has a complete list of each state's security-deposit laws. There's no charge to access the database.

Q. I hope you'll tell your readers about a banking scam I foolishly fell for last month. A man called up and said he worked for my mortgage lender and that, based on my excellent credit rating, I qualified for a no-cost, no-fee refinancing to lower my interest rate by 2 percentage points. I gave him my Social Security number and some other basic financial information that he said he needed to "get the ball rolling" over the phone, and the next day both of my checking and savings accounts had been wiped out!

A. I'm sorry about your misfortune, but hope your sad tale reminds other readers how closely they must guard even their most basic financial information and records.

The fraudster probably got the name of your lender by checking the public records at your county recorder's office. It's easier than ever, thanks in part because many counties now post the information online.

Obviously, giving your Social Security number and other personal information to a person you've never met was a bad idea. It would have been much safer to ask for the man's name and phone number, told him you'd call him back, and then immediately visit your lender's local branch office or call the customer-service number that appears on your monthly statement to determine if he (and the refinancing offer) was legitimate.

Sadly, the money stolen from your checking and savings account is gone forever. The bank isn't legally obligated to replace it unless you can somehow prove the theft stemmed from the lender's own negligence or a breakdown in its security program.

I assume you've already let the bank know about the theft and also filed a police report. You might want to officially close the accounts and replace them with new ones.

Because the scammer already has your SSN, there's a good chance he might try to take out a new loan or credit card in your name. So, it might be wise to contact the nation's three big credit bureaus - Equifax, (800) 685-1111,; Experian, (888) 397-3742,; and TransUnion, (800) 916-8800, - to put a "freeze" on your credit report.

Freezing your report prevents lenders and other companies from accessing your credit file without your permission, which can help stop identity thieves from taking out new credit in your name even if they have your Social Security number and other personal information. When you later decide to apply for a new loan or other credit yourself, you can "unfreeze" the report by providing the bureaus with a special personal identification number.

Real estate trivia: Insurers have paid out an average of $1.2 billion in snow-related claims annually over the past two decades, the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute reports, but the figure likely will double this year because of the recent heavy storms.

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

© 2014, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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