As New Englanders, we're used to harsh winters. We know to take it easy while driving and to shovel out the driveway after a big snowstorm. But when you're a homeowner, winter weather can pose some of the most significant challenges - challenges that can lead to substantial property damage.

In fact, winter storm losses in the United States average about $1.2 billion each year.

"Winter weather is unpredictable, and preparation is key," said Matt Desaulnier, president of Connecticut-based Gerardi Insurance. "While home insurance is there to protect what's likely your biggest asset, there are steps you can take to help lessen the chance you'll have to make a claim."

Some of the most common sources of winter-related property damage include:

  • Cold temperatures
  • Heavy snowfall
  • Ice buildups
  • Frozen pipes
  • Water leaks
  • Roof damage

Roof Collapse

Heavy snowfall, ice, and freezing rain can wreak havoc on your home’s roof. In some cases, roofs can’t withstand the heavy loads brought on by extreme weather, causing them to collapse altogether. In addition, as snow and ice melt, water damage can occur if your home’s roof isn’t structurally sound.

Signs that your roof may need attention include:

  • New water leaks that appear to come from the roof or attic area
  • Exterior doors that become difficult to open or close as a result of heavy loads on the roof
  • New cracks in drywall and plaster
  • Sagging roofs

To avoid a heavy load on your roof, you can:

  • Use a roof rake to remove snow
  • Work with a contractor to install electric heating cables on your roof. This allows ice to melt and safely drain.
  • Use chemical de-icers to improve drainage. However, you may want to consult a roofer to make sure you won't damage the roof.

Ice Dams

The tell-tale sign of ice dams is icicles hanging from the eaves of your home. 

Ice dams can be the result of uneven heat loss from your home, which causes the roof to warm above freezing and melt accumulated snow. When the snow melts and then re-freezes before reaching the roof’s edge, an ice dam forms, causing water to collect behind it. This pool of water can cause extensive damage to the roof, attic, ceilings, walls, and contents of your home.

You can prevent the formation of ice dams by following these tips:

  • Clear snow from your roof with a roof rake
  • Keep the attic well-ventilated and insulated
  • Seal leaks to prevent warm air leakage
  • Clean leaves and debris from gutters before the first snow
  • Consider hiring an energy specialist to evaluate your home
  • Consider re-roofing and installing a secondary moisture barrier and an ice shield.

Frozen Pipes

One of the messiest and most costly home repairs is fixing a burst, frozen pipe. Water expands as it freezes and puts significant pressure on the metal or plastic pipes that hold it. If you fail to take the proper precautions, your pipes can easily fail during a cold winter.

Pipes that run along exterior walls in the home with minimal insulation also tend to freeze more easily. Water from a burst pipe can cause damage to carpeting, short out electrical appliances, and ruin furniture.

To prevent frozen pipes:

  • Keep the heat in your house at a minimum of 50° F, even if you're on vacation.
  • Keep interior doors open, allowing heat to spread throughout the house
  • Seal any cracks and holes around pipes
  • Wrap pipes in heat tape
  • Keep the garage door closed if you have a water supply in that space
  • During stretches of extreme cold, allow faucets to drip slightly
  • Disconnect outdoor hoses and shut off outdoor water sources

If you turn on a faucet and no water or only a trickle comes out, your pipes may be frozen. Turn off the main water valve and keep the faucet on. Apply heat to the pipe by using an electric heating pad, hairdryer, or portable space heater, or by wrapping the pipe in towels soaked in hot water. You should apply heat until you regain water pressure. If this does not solve the problem, contact a licensed plumber to inspect your pipes.

Avoid Liability Concerns

In addition to home damage, winter weather also creates a big liability concern. To prevent injuries, you should:

  • Make sure your walkway and stairs are free of snow and ice to prevent the possibility of slip and falls.
  • Inspect stairs and make sure handrails are sturdy and the area is well-lit
  • Trim your trees to prevent limbs from snapping under the weight of snow and ice, potentially injuring a person or damaging property.

"Weather-related risks can affect your home unexpectedly, often leading to major property damage, costly repairs, and liability concerns," Desaulnier said. "While you can’t always predict when a pipe will burst or heavy snow

will affect the integrity of your roof, the proper insurance can go a long way toward protecting your finances. To make sure you're properly covered, it’s important to work with a qualified insurance broker."

For more valuable information on buying, selling, and maintaining a home, check out the Kazantzis Real Estate blog.