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Protecting Clients’ High-Value Homes From Winter Cold

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With wildfires ablaze in the West and temperatures still warm in most of the country, it’s hard to think ahead to the deep freezes of winter. But families would be wise to consider how to protect their homes from the winter cold now – especially if they own large, custom-built homes. With frigid temperatures extending far into the south of the U.S. in the last two winters, the vast majority of homeowners need to appreciate the possibility of significant damage from frozen pipes and ice dams. We had one high-net-worth (HNW) client as far south as Georgia whose home suffered $500,000 in damage from a frozen pipe that burst. 

Now is the time for families to plan ahead for such risks because the best ways to minimize them typically require the services of a professional contractor. We know from experience that misguided attempts to remedy problems at the last moment, such as trying to thaw a frozen pipe with a torch or chipping away at an ice dam with a hammer, can lead to disaster. Wealth advisors have an opportunity to raise this issue with their HNW clients and gain increased loyalty by helping them protect one of their most valuable assets. 

Here are steps HNW homeowners should start thinking about now. 

Frozen Pipes 

To help prevent frozen pipes, homeowners should properly insulate rooms in which pipes might be exposed to cold air, such as the garage, attic, and crawl spaces. Air leaks from the outside near pipes should be sealed to prevent drafts and keep the warm air in. Insulating the pipes, too, will provide added protection.

As a second line of defense, an automatic leak detection and water shutoff system will help minimize damage from a frozen pipe. These devices will protect against any type of plumbing or hydronic (water-based) heating system leak, and may also earn a discount on the homeowner premium. Remote water sensors can also be placed in the lowest level of the home and near water-using appliances to reduce the impact of a water leak. By preventing just one large loss, these devices can often pay for themselves, since a HNW family may have a home insurance deductible of $2,500 or more. Plus, the family avoids the inconvenience of repair work that can take months. Homeowners should also consider turning the water off for secondary homes and when they leave their primary home for vacation. 

With hydronic heating systems, especially those which may have components in outside walls or uninsulated spaces, glycol (antifreeze) can be easily added by the heating contractor to greatly reduce the freezing temperature of the system.

Two additional systems merit strong consideration: a remote temperature monitoring system and a standby power generator. Especially in the northernmost latitudes, a heating system failure can plunge the home into dangerous temperatures in a matter of hours. If the occupants are away for the day at work or a long weekend, the pipes could freeze. With a remote temperature monitoring system, the homeowner receives an alert when the temperature falls below a certain level, providing a chance to have a neighbor or caretaker check the home and recommend if a heating service needs to be called. If a severe winter storm knocks out the utility power to the home, a standby generator will automatically activate and keep the heat working.

These systems can also earn home insurance premium credits. 

Ice Damming 

Icicles hanging off a roof present a quintessential image of winter, but they also signal the danger of an ice dam. Families may not recognize the danger until water starts pouring down the inside walls, damaging interior finishes, artwork on the walls and nearby furniture. 

Ice dams form when heat from inside the home warms the surface of the roof and melts the snow on top. The water runs down the slope of the roof until it reaches the roof edge and freezes. Eventually, the ice builds up to form a dam that blocks further snowmelt, forming a pool of water that backs up beneath shingles, drips down the walls, and even creeps across ceilings. Retained moisture can also lead to mold problems.

The key to preventing ice dams is to have a professional make sure the attic has sufficient insulation.

For ventilated attic spaces, the floor of the attic should be thoroughly insulated and access doors and stairs to the attic should be tightly sealed. Lights in the ceiling directly below the attic should also be properly insulated. Vents from bathroom fans and dryers should not end in the attic. They should pass up through the roof or out through side walls, but not directly under eaves with soffit vents.

Cathedral ceilings, a popular feature in many high-value homes, pose a particular problem. With the ceiling material nailed directly to the roof joists, very little space exists for insulation and ventilation. Heating appliances in attic spaces that don’t have insulation between the roof joists can also lead to ice dam creation. In both cases, professional help is essential to properly assess the situation and implement prudent measures to minimize the risk of ice dams. 

Annual cleaning of gutters and installation of products such as gutter screens, heat trace cable, and an ice and water shield can also help minimize damage from ice dams, but none can be accomplished at the last moment, when snow begins to fall.

Planning ahead and getting proper help will maximize the probability of a safe, worry-free winter. 

Since no preventative measure is perfect, HNW families should also ensure that they have adequate insurance protection. Many HNW families choose standard insurance policies that may only cover the depreciated value of home contents that are damaged by a frozen pipe leak or ice dam. They may also be more restrictive about replacing high quality materials, such as hand crafted moldings or historically unique flooring.

By contrast, HNW insurance companies generally offer policies with replacement cost on contents and claims practices that show a greater appreciation for repairing custom-built homes with materials of like kind and quality.

Preparing one’s home for winter might seem like a big undertaking at first glance, but a conversation with HNW clients about the risks for damage will likely save them money in the long-term, as well as highlight the need for a trusted insurance provider that can cover the cost of repairs.