I remember the night clearly. Or, rather, I remember how it smelled. Like a dirty chicken coop had fallen through the ceiling and landed in my office.

In a sense it had.

It was raining heavily that night and our peaked roof had sprung a leak. It was a small one, but rain isn’t very picky. The puddle in our unfinished attic quickly became a flood. And a flood in your attic, folks, has only one way to go: down.

In the end, we lucked out. We plugged the small hole, had the rest of our ceramic tiles inspected for any lurking damage (there wasn’t any), and I resurfaced and repainted the ceiling in my office. Ok, I lost a few books and it smelled awful in there for a few weeks, but that was that.

Now for the million-dollar question.

Did we get a check from our home insurance provider?

Nope.

In this guide I’m going to explain our insurer’s reasoning, and share all the ins and outs on roof leaks and when they are (and are not) covered by your policy.

FYI: Average costs for roof repair in the U.S. aren’t easy to pin down, but the ballpark is around $1,000. That figure doesn’t include collateral damage, however, like, say, areas of the house that were damaged as a result of a leak.

Home Insurance

This Is How Your Insurance Company Sees Your Leaky Roof

It’s easy to get complacent about our homes. Sure, there’s always upkeep — all the niggling chores and home projects we undertake to make our houses more livable. Put up the spice rack. Mow the lawn. Call the guy who takes care of whatever that spot on the column is. Mold?

But the big stuff? That’s what home insurance is for, right?

Actually, that’s not how your insurance company sees your relationship at all. For home insurers, there’s a fairly well-delineated line that splits phenomena into two categories. Accidents are on one side. Neglect is on the other. Big or small has nothing to do with it.

Did it happen out of the blue, and beyond your control? Probably not your fault. Did you have a hand in it? Likely your fault, and chances are, you’re shelling out.

You have to admit, it sort of makes sense. If you hadn’t run your car for years, without once changing the oil, you wouldn’t expect your auto insurance provider to foot the bill when your engines seized up and died, would you?

Reeling the conversation back to the leaky roof in my office, was it my responsibility to know about it? It was. Just like it’s my responsibility to change the oil in my car every few months.

Was there anything I could have done to prevent the leak? You bet. I’m going to give you some tips on how to prevent roof leaks in just a sec. But right now, let’s take a quick look at the question at the top of many of your minds: When is my leaky roof actually covered?

Homeowner’s Tip Most contractors are legit, hard-working folks just like you and me. But there are scam artists out there, too. If a “contractor” approaches you for a roof problem you didn’t know you had, asking for cash in hand, that’s a red flag. Never pay for roof repairs without arranging an inspection first, and always jump on the phone with your insurance agent before signing a contract.

When Roof Leaks Are Covered

In case my “true roof disaster” freaked any of you out, it isn’t all bad news when it comes to getting insurance payouts for roofs gone wrong. For a more general overview of how insurance companies treat roofs, I’d recommend starting with our complete guide to roof coverage.

In terms of leaky roofs, insurers follow the same general principles they use for all dwelling coverage. What does this mean for your roof? Here are a few classic “leaky roof accidents” where your standard home insurance policy would likely kick in.

  • Ice dams: Water collects on your roof over the winter. It freezes at the edges and then gradually back inwards, stressing your roof and eventually cracking shingles. Water leaks its way into your attic and beyond. You’re usually covered.
  • Windstorms: A heavy storm blows in and carries your well-maintained shingles into the wild blue yonder. Rain pours in and damages your ceiling and floors. Your insurance company should step in.
  • Lightning: Lightning puts a hole in the roof of your single-story home and before you know it, it’s raining in your living room. That’s truly horrible. The good news is that your HO-3 policy covers freak accidents like lightning.
  • Mold: Any of the above creates a situation where you develop a mold problem. This is one time where your home insurance provider might have your back for mold, which usually requires a separate endorsement.

Not seeing your particular leaky roof disaster on this list? These are just four random scenarios, and there may be exceptions even here. If your roof is very old or in really bad shape at the time of an accident, you probably won’t be covered for the whole amount.

In either case, whenever you make a home insurance claim, you will need to pay your deductible first, so the damage has to be enough to make it worth your while.

Bottom line? When it comes to getting payouts for your leaky roof, your roof has to meet strict requirements (it’s got to be in pretty good shape and can’t be old enough to drink). The better care you take of the roof over your head, the better chances you have of seeing a check after an accident.

Did You Know: The condition of your roof plays a major role in how insurers determine your home insurance rate. In fact, there are cases when a bum roof will render your home uninsurable.

When Roof Leaks Aren’t Covered

Most of the scenarios where an insurer would turn your roof claim down are pretty straightforward. Nearly all revolve around wear and tear. But there are a few special cases that might not be so obvious, even to seasoned homeowners.

  • Four-legged and eight-legged infestations: Oh, those pesky squirrels and termites! If you’ve got burrowing visitors and they create a situation where water is seeping into your house via your roof, be prepared to whip out your wallet, folks.
  • Earth movement: A quake shifts your home from the foundation up and puts a crack in your roof. Sorry, but unless you’ve taken out a separate earthquake policy, there isn’t a single home insurance provider that covers earthquake damage. (California homeowners, take care here. Only 13 percent of you currently have earthquake insurance.1)
  • Corrosion: Over time your shingles rust or mold. I think you know where this story is headed. Your insurer will ask, “What were you doing this whole time that your roof was disintegrating?” And that will be a rhetorical question because whatever you answer, you’ll have to foot the bill.

That’s the bad news. So, what can you do to make sure the condition of your roof never stops you from filing an insurance claim? As it turns out, a lot.

FYI: We’re suckers for home insurance perks around here. One feature we really like at Nationwide is their Better Roof Replacement, which gave us extra coverage to build back our roof if and when that was the right decision. How does it work? Read our hands-on Nationwide home insurance review for details.

How to Prevent Roof Leaks

Most roof damage is preventable, including leaks. This is very good news for homeowners because, as we saw, it isn’t cheap to repair roofs. On the other hand, prevention takes work. Here’s what you should be doing to make sure you’re never blindsided by an expensive roof repair bill.

Inspect Your Roof Regularly

The National Roofing Contractors Association recommends we inspect our roofs twice a year.2 That’s a bit excessive, but definitely shoot for once every year or two. If you suspect you might have sustained damage after a storm, it goes without saying that you should call in an expert immediately.

Keep an Eye on Your Flashing

Flashing keeps water from getting under your shingles and into your roof joints. If you notice a crack in yours, that means water might be blowing in, so call your contractor ASAP.

Clear Your Roof of Excess Snow and Ice

Even though your homeowners policy protects you from snow and ice build-up, it’s better to take care of it before it does any damage. Always call an expert because, one, snow removal can get dangerous, and, two, you might not actually need to do anything.

Seal Your Chimney

Water can seep in through cracks around the base of your chimney. Over time, the build-up will wreak structural havoc. The minute you spot a crack in the old chimney, get it sealed pronto.

Unclog Your Gutters

When your gutters are stuffed with debris, rainwater can’t drain properly and sits there rotting your roof from the outside in. Unlike roof inspections, which you might be able to put off for a year, if you’ve got trees in your yard, clean those gutters at least once a season.

Check for Condensation in the Attic

If you’ve got a moldy attic, chances are the water is coming from your roof. Call in an expert before your moldy attic mushrooms into a full-blown mold attack.

Homeowner’s Tip Professional gutter cleaning runs about 80 cents per linear foot. If you’ve got 250 feet of gutters, you’re talking around $200 for a cleaning.

Final Thoughts

No one likes paying for home maintenance. We’ve got mortgages, home insurance, health insurance, and a thousand other payments to make every month. It’s easier — and less expensive — just to wait for something to go wrong and have your insurance kick in and foot the repair bill, right?

From one homeowner to another, I’ve been down that road, and it’s the wrong approach. First, your insurance won’t kick in if it’s a matter of neglect or wear and tear. You’ll be stuck with the bill. Second, you’ll have to pay your deductible anyway, which may be even more expensive than repairing your roof.

Or maybe not. If you’ve got significant water damage from a roof leak you put off fixing, you could be out $10,000 or more.

Long story short, maintain your roof — just like you take care of your car or your lawn. Save your insurance policy for all the damage that’s out of your control and strikes out of the blue, because one day you might really need it.

Did You Know: Believe it or not, after age, weather, and neglect, one of the most common causes of roof damage is “foot traffic.” Now that’s one culprit we can eliminate without paying a cent. Don’t walk on your roof, folks.

FAQs

How much does it cost to fix a leaky roof?

It depends on your leak and how bad the interior damage is, but generally speaking, your bill will be $1,000 minimum.

When does my home insurance policy cover my roof for leaks?

You’re covered if a sudden accident causes the damage. If it’s a case of wear and tear, neglect, or fault construction, your insurance provider will probably deny your claim.

If insects cause roof damage, am I covered?

Unfortunately, no. Insurance companies consider it a homeowner’s responsibility to pest-proof their roof.

How often should I inspect my roof for leaks or damage?

Ideally, once a year, but at least once every other year.

What can I do to prevent damage from a leaky roof?

There’s a lot you can do. (See our checklist above.) But mainly you’ve got to be proactive. Keep an eye out for any burgeoning damage and call in an expert the minute you believe you’ve got a problem.