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Winter Storms Are Coming. What Does Your Home Insurance Cover?

Most storm damage is covered by home insurance. Here's how to find out what your insurance policy covers.

A home with icicles hanging from its eaves.
It would be great if the worst thing to happen to your house after a winter storm was that its icicles weren't as resplendent as these.
fotolinchen/Getty Images

This story is part of Home Tips, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.

Winter's here and it's brought some bad weather. Whether it's tons of snow, subzero temperatures or knife-sharp winds, it will likely call\ for a bit of preparation. You can seal up gaps around your windows, protect your pipesset your thermostat to a money-saving schedule and learn how to safely use a space heater. You might stock up on supplies to safely outlast any power outages. If you have pets, you should prepare to get them through a storm, too.

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Your home is there to keep you safe and warm in weather like this, but it doesn't always get through unscathed. When your home does take on damages -- from a falling tree limb or a burst pipe, for example -- it's time to call on your home insurance. Insurance can be confusing and intimidating and, if you're trying to do so in the aftermath of a storm, the last thing you want to do. Take some time now to decipher your home insurance policy so you won't have to do it when it's least convenient.

If you're looking for ways to save money on heating and electricity through the winter, consider using your ceiling fan to move warm air to you and unplugging appliances. It turns out small changes can make a big difference.

Reading your home insurance policy

If you pay for home insurance, you should have received a declarations page among your policy documents. On it you'll find what's covered in your policy under the categories dwelling, other structures, personal property, loss of use, liability and medical coverage. Each of these categories, while fairly self-evident, could use a bit more explanation. While the explanations below are in broad strokes, it's always the best practice to confirm independently what your policy does and does not cover.

Dwelling

Coverage of your dwelling covers damage to your house. A strong wind rips shingles off your roof? That's under your dwelling coverage. A cold snap freezes a poorly insulated pipe, which floods your basement when it thaws? That's under dwelling too. A speeding car slips on an icy road and does damage to your deck? Dwelling coverage.

If you're thinking about damage to your house, it's likely covered under your dwelling coverage.

Other structures

This is like dwelling coverage for, well, other structures: a garage, a pool house or a fence.

Personal property

Personal property coverage covers the stuff you own that might be damaged by a claimable incident. If a frozen pipe floods your basement and destroys a pool table, those items are covered here.

Loss of use

If damage to your house is so severe that you can't live there for a while, loss of use coverage will help cover your expenses of finding a new, temporary place.

Exclusions

Homeowners policies often include some exclusions. Common inclusions cover floods, mold, maintenance issues or earthquakes. Winter storm related damages should be covered, though it's best to confirm in your policy.

A house with its porch light on in a blizzard.

Your home insurance will help you repair damage from a winter storm.

Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

What damage your policy covers

Damage from hazards like winter storms should be covered by your homeowners policy, though there are exclusions, mentioned above. High winds, cold temperatures and heavy snow should be covered, as should be ice- and snow-covered trees falling and doing damage to your roof. 

While most damage should be covered, how it's covered might vary. 

When you file a claim for a covered damage, your insurance company will typically pay you the replacement cost or the actual cash value

If your insurance company pays you the actual cash value, it'll pay you what your belongings are worth, minus any depreciation like wear and tear. This will be a smaller amount than what you would get if you were paid the replacement cost. Replacement cost is just what it sounds like: the cost to replace what was damaged or lost with a new, similar item. If an ice storm breaks a window and damages a couch, the replacement cost is how much it costs to buy a new one of similar quality. If it comes to rebuilding your house, replacement cost is what it will take to rebuild it to a similar quality today.

How to avoid winter storm damage

While you certainly don't want to deal with a damaged house without home insurance, it's certainly better to avoid it all together. While homeowners can't control the weather, there are things they can do to lower the odds it does damage.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners suggests protecting your home before a winter storm arrives. Protecting your home includes pruning trees and branches, clearing gutters and properly insulating your house.

Pruning trees and branches can keep them from damaging your roof if they break during an ice or snow storm. Clearing gutters helps them do their job of carrying water away from your house and your roof. If an ice dam forms and blocks your gutters, water will back up onto your roof. If it thaws and freezes there, it can work its way under the shingles and damage your roof. 

Making sure your attic has proper insulation and that your attic is properly ventilated will help with this too. Insulating your pipes, especially in colder parts of your home, can help avoid damage from burst pipes.

While you can't guarantee a winter storm won't damage your house, taking these steps will help avoid it. You can also take steps to avoid high energy bills throughout the winter. You can lower your thermostat while staying comfortable, employ your ceiling fan and weatherstrip your windows and doors.