It’s every homeowner’s worst nightmare, right after termites, burglary, tornados, and Gordon Ramsay showing up in the kitchen with a butcher knife.
I’m talking about a busted pipe — and all the damage that comes with it. Festering puddles. Peeling walls. No running water. Yikes!
The fact is, your plumbing shouldn’t worry you. Unless you’ve been delaying a serious issue that’s been building for months or you have a serious mold problem, your home insurance policy should come to the rescue if you experience sudden water damage or a plumbing malfunction.
Relieved? Good. But there are still a few nuances to plumbing protection that you’ll want to become the family expert on as you navigate the complicated but rewarding waters of home ownership.
- How to tell plumbing negligence from a legitimate claim
- How to diagnose a leak
- What you should do if you spot a leak
That’s exactly what we’re here to talk about in this homeowners plumbing guide.
Did You Know: Between 2015 and 2019, water damage accounted for about 25 percent of all homeowners insurance claims, per the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. 1
Damage from Leaking Pipes: Am I Protected?
Short answer: yes. Most reputable home insurance providers should fully protect you from any unexpected water damage that results from a plumbing malfunction such as a sudden leak or a burst pipe. They protect you in three important ways.
Dwelling coverage eats up the lion’s share of our home insurance policies. It’s also what covers our roofs, floors, and walls in the event of accidental water damage. That’s a good thing, too, because damage from busted pipes can be expensive and very tricky to repair.
If you’re wondering about your boiler — good question. Homeowners insurance usually covers water boilers, too, as long as it conks out unexpectedly and not of old age. In the insurance business, you’re covered for wear and tear only if you have a home warranty.
As anyone who’s lived through it knows, a burst pipe can destroy plenty more than walls and floorboards. Water, so relaxing in the bathtub, can break through drywall like gangbusters and take out TVs, couches, and dining room tables if there’s enough pressure or you’re not around when it happens.
Fortunately, your home insurance policy should cover all your stuff. Just be forewarned: If it’s expensive stuff, like your Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card (not worth as much as you’d think, but worth a bit) or your collection of fine mink coats, then you very likely will have to take out extra insurance to get those items replaced.
(Note to vacation home owners: You may need a separate policy for vacant homes to protect your things from rogue plumbing.)
FYI: One of my favorite home insurance policies for valuables coverage is Lemonade. It’s cheap and covers the kind of valuables I happen to own (i.e., not a lot of jewelry and coins). Check out my Lemonade homeowners review for an in-depth look at how it works.
I hope this never happens to you, but I know it happens. Pipe malfunctions can cause the kind of damage where you can’t live safely or comfortably at home for a spell. You may be without running water for a few days, for instance, or your bedroom may not be inhabitable. That’s when your loss-of-use coverage (a.k.a., additional living expenses) would kick in. Your policy may have a flat cap or your provider may reimburse you for a percentage of your dwelling coverage.
In either case, keep travel, lodging, and restaurant receipts. And remember: Insurance companies usually pay out the difference between your normal day-to-day expenses and the amount you’re paying in your time of need. So Ramada Inn? OK. Waldorf Astoria? Uh-uh.
Homeowner's Tip: All HO-3 home insurance policies come with coverage for “other structures” on your property, even your swimming pool — built-in or portable. Just don’t expect your insurance company to cover frozen water. That’s on you to drain at the end of the summer.
When Is My Plumbing Not Protected?
There are two big categories of water damage that are never protected by standard HO-3 policies: floods and backed-up drains (inside and outside the house).
Floods aren’t covered because they’re too common (they happen everywhere, not just in Florida and Louisiana), and they’re technically gradual events, not accidents. But don’t worry — we’re not talking about floods caused by pipes. You’re covered for those.
Now that we have that out of the way, what other kinds of plumbing-related damage is on you?
FYI: Flood insurance is available from FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, either through FEMA directly or via your insurance provider.2
Water Damage Caused by Negligence (or Lack of Awareness)
Here are two very common scenarios.
You have an inkling something’s wrong behind your walls (more on this in a second) — a phantom drip, low water pressure, some bubbling or discoloration — but you put it off. Who wants to deal with a drip behind the wall? It’s much easier just to pretend it’s not there or leave it for a rainy day.
Don’t. Always call the plumber as soon as you suspect there’s a problem — unless you want to pick up the repair bills yourself — because your insurance provider won’t cover you in this case.
The second scenario is less negligence than lack of awareness, which is why I’m drawing your attention to it.
If you’re visiting your grandma in Florida over Christmas and you turn off your heat before you leave home without taking precautions — such as leaving the faucets trickling — your pipes could freeze and even explode. That, unfortunately, is on you too.
Did You Know: Do you live in the Sunshine State? Check out our guide to the best Florida home insurance options for some ideas on how to get the most out of your higher insurance premium.
Your Drains Are Blocked or Flooded (and cause damage) Because the Sewer Is Blocked
If your sewer line gets clogged or flooded and it damages your home, then you’ll need extra insurance. The rationale is along the same lines as insurance companies’ understanding of flooding. It’s less force majeure than malfunction. In any case, if there’s any culpability for sewer issues originating beyond your property, then that falls on the municipality.
What should you do?
Consider water backup coverage. It’s almost always extra, but you can find reasonable options to protect your portion of the sewer line, such as Lemonade. You might also take a gander at Nationwide coverage, which includes a number of premium goodies for lower-than-average costs. State Farm home insurance policies also offer a lot of protection at a reasonable price, especially when you bundle your auto insurance.
You’ve Got Mold
No, that isn’t the name of a new Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie. It’s an ugly, silent rotting phenomenon that affects a fair share of homes nationwide. Because it’s so common — and so costly to take care of — mold coverage is extra too.
How can you tell a serious mold problem from a bit of surface rot? Call a specialist, especially if you live in “mold country” (i.e. Florida and California). Check out our California homeowners guide for some suggestions on the best insurance plans for combating mildew in the Golden State.
Homeowner's Tip: Have you seen signs of mold under the sink, in your cabinets, or on the walls? Take action immediately. Ventilate, clean regularly, and try your best to keep humidity (mold’s best friend) down.
7 Signs You Have a Water Leak in the House
Negligence and ignorance aren’t excuses in your insurance provider’s book. As a homeowner, I understand why a lot of our readers may find that frustrating. “I saw the walls turning funny colors but I didn’t put two and two together.”
As a home insurance expert, however, I can sympathize with the providers. Our default mode as homeowners is usually: “I’ll take care of it on the weekend.” The problem is, we often don’t.
Learning to identify signs of pending plumbing doom will keep you out of trouble nine times out of 10. Here are the most common red flags:
- Your water pressure yo-yos. If five people are taking showers at once, you should expect lower pressure. But if it’s just you and your pressure is dropping, call a plumber.
- Your water is stinky and the color of a bike chain left out in the rain. That’s a sign your pipes are rusty. Rust takes time to form, and insurance companies are good at proving negligence. They’ll stick you with the bill every time.
- You hear odd noises in the walls. Any noise in your walls is probably not good news, so always check it out.
- You’ve got mold. Again, not Ryan/Hanks, but mold — real mold. Big problem. Take care of it immediately.
- You see puddles under the sink. This is relatively good news, as long as you don’t have to dig into the wall to fix the leak. But you should still call an expert.
- Your water bill is inexplicably high. This is a sign that you have a phantom menace somewhere in the plumbing. A big bill is usually proof of a problem, but it can sound a little inconclusive. “I have a leak in the pipes. Look at my high bill.” Still, a standard checkup ($100) is way cheaper than a new wall, so swallow your pride and make the phone call.
- Your walls or ceiling are discolored or bubbling. Not good, folks. Don’t wait for the dam to burst. Have it checked out the minute you see it forming. Otherwise, you’re technically negligent.
FYI: Less than 2 percent of homeowners reported water damage in the latest NAIC statistics. When they did, however, the average claim was over $11,000 — almost three times more than claims involving theft.3
I Have a Water Leak: What Can I Do?
So you have a bona fide leak that hopefully wasn’t the result of months of negligence. Now what? You need an action plan. Here it is, in three steps:
- Mitigate. Turn off the water. If you can’t see the problem, then you may have to cut water to the whole house. Get your furniture and possessions (especially electrical appliances) out of harm’s way and dry off what you can. Open the window and attempt to air out the trouble spot. If there’s a lot of water and you have a sump pump, then put it to work.
- Document. Insurance adjusters will not be moved by tears, threats, or glowing verbal descriptions. They’ll want proof: time-stamped photos and video. Once you have the situation under control, document the damage.
- File. As soon as you have your evidence in hand, file your claim. Some providers are equipped to handle video claims. Liberty Mutual policies allow it, as does Lemonade. The sooner you initiate your claim, the quicker your provider will pay it out.
Did You Know: Overflowing bathtubs that wreak havoc on floors and ceilings aren’t very common, but they happen — especially if you’re renting. (A good reason to consider renters insurance, by the way.) Some insurance policies will cover you for this type of accident, unless it’s a drain issue, in which case coverage may be limited.
It’s always nice to learn from our mistakes. But when it comes to leaking pipes, it’s better not to make mistakes. They can be very costly and very inconvenient to clean up.
If you’ve been putting off investigating that weird-looking stain on the dining room wall, then channel your inner Bob Vila or — even better — jump on the horn with your plumber. You know what to look for now. You know what plumbing issues your homeowners policy covers and what it doesn’t. You even know what to do if you have a leak.
All of which hopefully means that when the NAIC releases its next batch of statistics, you won’t be among the 25 percent of Americans who ended up with $11,000 worth of water damage.
No, HO-3 policies never cover flooding, no matter how comprehensive they are. You’ll have to arrange flood insurance either with your provider or directly with FEMA.
Sudden leaks and plumbing malfunctions such as burst pipes, yes. Long-term problems you allowed to fester, no.
Most of the time, yes, as long as it’s not a question of wear and tear. Your provider covers only accidents, not negligence or age.
There are a few telltale signs. The main ones are smelly or funny-tasting water, low water pressure, and strange sounds in the walls. If you notice your walls turning funny colors, then that could mean you have a leak too.
Turn off the water and clean up as much as you can. Document the damage, if any, and file your claim.
According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the average claim is around $11,000.