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As Texas thaws out, here are some factors and scenarios to consider when making insurance claims

Debris blocks part of Cromwell Cirlce Drive as a winter storm descends on Austin where residents are dealing with loss of power, debris from fallen branches and trees, and iced over roads on Feb. 1, 2023.
Michael Minasi
Debris blocks part of Cromwell Cirlce Drive as a winter storm descends on Austin where residents are dealing with loss of power, debris from fallen branches and trees, and iced over roads on Feb. 1, 2023.

For many Texans, the slog to recover from the first winter storm of 2023 has only just started.

There are the cars and trucks crushed by falling limbs, homes damaged by frozen branches and trees that snapped under the weight of the ice. Some can’t get out of their driveways or neighborhoods due to these obstacles.

There are lot of questions about how to pay for the mess left behind and how to deal with potential insurance claims. Many policies will vary in specific terms of what’s covered and what’s not.

Richard Johnson, director of communications and public affairs for the Insurance Council of Texas, joined Texas Standard to parse through some of the particularities.

Home and automobile damage

Johnson said that, unlike the 2021 freeze, we’re unlikely to see many burst pipes. Rather, the damage seems to have come mainly from falling trees – so auto claims and perhaps roof claims are more of the order. He mentions “ice dams” as something property owners might need to look out for.

“So as the water melts on your roof and then refreezes, it can actually work its way back up underneath your shingles and cause roof damage that way,” Johnson said.

For additional structures on your property, Johnson suggests consulting your policy and working with your agent.

“So if there’s damage done to the actual home, your structure, you may have some language in your policy as well that’s like ‘additional buildings,’” Johnson said. “So it might be considered like your fence or a shed or maybe you have a detached garage and your policy may cover damage done to that as well.”

Johnson also stressed that homeowner’s insurance would cover removal of a tree if it has fallen and is perhaps blocking a driveway, but would not likely cover tree removal if there was no damage done.

For automobiles, Johnson says a car’s comprehensive coverage should cover any damage done by a tree.

When should I document the damage?

Documenting the damage – whether it be through photos or video – is an essential part of filing a claim, but some might wonder whether any repairs made before doing so might jeopardize a claim. Johnson says best practice is to take a before and after, but to make sure repairs are done that might prevent further damage from being done.

“So let’s say a tree fell through and broke a window, you might want to tarp that up or put a board over it,” Johnson said. “So if it does rain before you can get somebody out to look at it, that rain doesn’t cause further damage. So that’s really the point there.”

Johnson also said many insurance companies now have an app or website where you can upload photos as an easy way to start a claim.

What about renters?

For renters, Johnson stressed that auto insurance is what would cover damage to a car from a fallen tree. Renters insurance comes in when it deals with personal belongings inside of a home.

“You know, there might be some theft things that happened inside your car that it may cover,” Johnson said. “But really, renters insurance is the personal belongings. And the damage to the actual structure, that would be your landlord’s or the property owner’s insurance or responsibility.”

A fallen tree is seen at East Riverside during the winter storm in Austin, Texas on Feb. 1, 2023.
Renee Dominguez
A fallen tree is seen at East Riverside during the winter storm in Austin, Texas on Feb. 1, 2023.

My neighbor’s tree fell into my property. Who’s liable?

Johnson says it would go under the policy of whoever’s house the tree hit. However, there are some caveats.

“If the tree was not taken care of well – if it wasn’t maintained, if it was rotting, things like that – they would investigate, take a look at, and it might be the property owner in which the tree came from’s responsibility,” Johnson said. “But for the most part, if a tree falls on your home, then you’re responsible to file that claim with your insurance company.”

My food has gone bad because of power outages. Is that covered?

As thousands of Texans remained without power Friday, questions loomed also as to whether there was coverage for the loss of food sitting in refrigerators and freezers.

“It depends on the policy, and typically they would be covered,” Johnson said. “There might be limits to it. You know, maybe it’s for $500 or something like that per event. And usually there’s not even a deductible to meet with that – it’s just kind of a straight estimate of how much food you think it was in your refrigerator or freezer.

So, again, check your policy to see if there’s any language about that, or talk to your insurance agent or insurance company.”

What’s covered under my 1% deductible?

Many in Texas have a 1% deductible on their homes, but parsing what is covered under that 1% might be a whole other headache – especially as home values continue to rise.

Johnson says some things may have a separate deductible, such as in North Texas where there are starting to be separate deductibles for roofs. Fences and outlying buildings may have their own, as well. But he stresses it really just depends on your policy.

“But kind of overall, it is that 1%, unless there’s some sort of kind of specialty deductible that may be lower or different than your regular deductible,” Johnson said.

Will asking my insurance company about what’s covered cause my rates to go up?

Some might question whether to file a claim, or even inquire about one, out of fear this might cause their rates to go up. But Johnson stresses that rates and premiums aren’t really based on a singular activity like inquiries. He says insurance is more of a “team sport.”

“It’s really what’s going on in totality in your area,” he said. “You know, a lot of people kind of think, ‘boy I haven’t had a claim in 20 years, and why are my rates going up?’ And that’s because of everything that’s going on around us in the environment, meaning cars are more expensive – collisions, you know, driving now, the frequency and severity of accidents is increased and the cost to repair and replace cars has increased.

So don’t look at things as a singular event of why your rates are going to go up, because it is based on so many different factors that, you know, one claim isn’t going to impact you too, too much.”

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.