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If you uncover snow-related damage to your home as you are digging out from the Blizzard of '03 keep in mind the insurance industry's approach to paying water-related damages.

Snow, after all, is but frozen water and insurers have canceled policies, curtailed coverage and raised rates to beat back the growing numbers of claims paid for water- and moisture-related damage. Insurers also encourage policy holders to do what they can to avoid the need for such claims.

Likely to be remembered as the Presidents' Day Blizzard of 2003, lots of the frozen stuff fell throughout the Northeast in one of the worst snow storms in decades earlier this week.

If you are a repeat "offender" with previous moisture-related claims or didn't previously take steps to prevent or minimize snow damage and damage that could result when snow melts, you could lose your policy, get dinged with higher premiums or discover the snow-related damage simply isn't covered.

"Mold is an issue right now. If you didn't clean up that puddle of water for three months and it creates mold, it gets tricky. The industry prefers that you take care of your home as much as possible," says Alejandra Soto, a spokesperson, for the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.

Standard homeowners policies typically cover losses related to bursting pipes, ice dams, wind damage, wind driven moisture damage, damage or collapse caused by the weight of ice or snow and backed-up sewers and drains.

Flood damage is typically excluded from most standard policies. Flood coverage requires special federal flood insurance.

"It depends. Flooding that comes from the ground up is excluded. Flooding that comes from the top down -- say, during a hurricane water comes through the windows or door or from a burst pipe -- that would be covered," said Soto.

Legal suits stemming from falling icicles or slips or falls on your property are also covered, but if you didn't remove snow or ice from your property within a reasonable period -- in some cases, including the sidewalk in front of your home -- you could be liable for negligence. Check with your local jurisdiction to determine if there are mandates that require you to remove snow and ice within a given period. Also check your insurance policy to see how it handles coverage for suits arising out of your negligence.

"If somebody sues you, you can use your homeowners policy to cover that suit. If you have followed the law and somebody is still suing, if the policy says it covers something, it does," said Soto.

Insurers, however, do consider negligence when it comes to maintaining your property in a way to help prevent damage or injuries.

"You want to maintain your home throughout the snow storm. Pile snow away from your home, keep the gutters clean as it is melting. Pipes that are exposed should be insulated to prevent them from freezing and thawing and breaking. This is not because we don't want to pay out, but because it saves you from a lot of headaches and worrying about 'what-ifs'," said Soto.

To prevent snow storm-related damage, the institute also recommends that you:

  • Watch for snow accumulation on the downwind side of a higher-level roof, where blowing snow collects. Consult with a professional for safe snow removal that won't damage your roof.
  • Be wary of snow or rain that freezes in gutters causing an "ice dam" that later can damage ceilings and roofing structure as melting ice spreads under roof shingles. Keep your gutters clean of leaves and debris to help prevent ice dams.
  • Remove tree and plant branches that become heavy with snow. Remove icicles hanging from gutters and over walkways.
  • Keep an eye on nearby sewers and drains. As snow melts, water can back-up sewers and clog drains with debris, resulting in flooding, that may not be covered by insurance. Notify local offices about clogged drains and sewers.
  • Keep your home warm. The temperature in the home should be at least 65 degrees to prevent the pipes from freezing.
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