Water is a lot of things. But unless it’s flowing gently out of your tap, the one thing it isn’t is predictable. Water can flood with no warning. It can burst through pipes. It can turn to ice and smack your windows at the speed of a train. Water, folks, is as dangerous a home invader as they come.
But every invader has its weak spot. You can usually catch a prowler if you invest in a little home security. Likewise, if you score the right homeowners policy, it will usually secure your wallet against water damage — with a few notable exceptions. (Texas homeowners, I’m talking about you.) Which is why we always say home insurance is home security.
In this home insurance guide, we’re going to tackle the ins and outs of water damage coverage, so you can get a better idea of the amount of protection you need for your home. Specifically, we’ll be covering:
- What kinds of water damage HO-3 home insurance policies cover
- What kind of water damage isn’t covered
- What to do if you’ve got water damage
- How to prevent water damage
FYI: Hail is scary. It’s even scarier when it’s moving at the speed of a freight train. According to the experts at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, scientists have clocked hail whipping out of the sky at speeds of up to 100 mph.1
What Kinds of Water Damage Homeowner Insurance Policies Cover
As a rule of thumb, we can divide water damage into two broad camps: water damage that happens out of the blue and water damage caused by human negligence.
You probably already see where this is going, but I’ll spell it out anyway. Your homeowners insurance will almost always cover the first variety — with one notable exception, floods. For the second, you’re liable. Let’s consider some typical examples.
Heavy rain and storms
No one can control rain and wind, so for most damage caused by storms, your HO-3 policy will step in and cover you — as long as it wasn’t your fault. What do I mean?
A gusty, 20-minute summer shower puts a hole in your screen porch, destroying a sofa and mangling your favorite rocker. Your insurer would almost certainly cover the screen repairs (that would fall under dwelling, or structural, coverage) as well as repairs or replacement of the damaged furniture (possessions coverage).
Not Covered X
You leave the bedroom window open and heavy rain pours in, destroying artwork on the walls, a laptop, and four silk pillows. In this case, it was your responsibility to shut your windows, so your insurer will probably deny your claim.
Did You Know: Possessions coverage comes in two varieties: actual cash value (ACV) and replacement cost value (RCV). To make this real, take the laptop from the example above. If it cost $1,500 when you bought it, ACV would pay you out its depreciated value (or around half price), so $750. RCV, on the other hand, would pay you out at its current market value of $1,500 or more.
Flooding is never covered by your HO-3 policy. Weird, right? Yes and no. Technically, floods are gradual events and don’t happen “by accident.” If that sounds like quibbling over words, maybe it is. But there’s also a grain of truth to it.
Other examples of gradual events involving water that home insurance policies normally don’t cover are: mold, slow leaks, and roofs that need fixing.
Now for the more important question. Do you need flood insurance?
To assess your risk, start at FEMA’s Flood Zones and Maps.2Even better, talk to a local insurance agent. If flooding is historically an issue where you live, you might need it. As the experts at FEMA warn, a pesky inch of water can wreak up to $25,000 of damage to your home.3 Yikes!
Important: If you’re applying for a federally backed mortgage in a federally designated flood zone, flood insurance is required.
I’ve discussed the particulars of appliance malfunction in detail in my guide to home warranties. Suffice it to say that your HO-3 policy will protect major appliances that use water in certain situations, but this can get tricky. Here are two scenarios that will show why.
Your washing machine’s pressure switch gets zapped in an electric storm so it can’t shut off the flow of water. The ensuing flood damages your solid wood cabinets. This was a total accident beyond your control. You should get a payout.
Not Covered X
You go full MacGyver and try to save some money by replacing your washing machine’s old, worn-out hose with a new and improved hose of your own devising. Your Whirlpool overflows and short-circuits your Dustbuster. Understandably, no policy will help you replace your vacuum or fix the mess in the laundry room this time.
Homeowner's Tip: Some policies (Lemonade homeowners plans, for example) offer extra equipment breakdown coverage for accidental electrical or mechanical failure, i.e., a surge fries your microwave that’s a year beyond warranty. EBC doesn’t cover wear and tear, though, i.e., the knob on your microwave cracks over time. For that, you’d need a home warranty.
Does your home insurance cover plumbing? TLDR, yes. If you want the whole story, we’ve prepared a detailed guide that answers everything about homeowners plumbing coverage.
Still, there are plenty of myths circulating online about home insurance and pipes. Let’s take a look at one of them: Namely, you’re always covered for leaking or broken pipes.
Your 40-pound Akita barrels into the toilet, knocking the base free of the wall, sending out a geyser of toilet water that floods the bathroom floor to ceiling. That’s an accident. You’re good.
Not Covered X
You decide to save some money over the winter holidays by turning the heat all the way down, but you forget to leave a trickle of water flowing in your bathroom and your frozen pipes explode. You’re going to have to reach into your pocket for this one. (The same goes for leaking pipes you knew needed fixing but you put off replacing.)
FYI: If you see signs of mold, take action immediately. Full-blown mold isn’t only bad for our lungs, it can be expensive to clean up. Because it’s such a hassle to get rid of, mold coverage is usually extra.
Damage from fire hoses
When we think of damage from fires, our minds go instantly to flames. But fires can result in extensive water damage from hoses, too.
I can’t really think of an example where your homeowners policy wouldn’t cover you here — unless the fire itself was the result of negligence.
Did You Know: If you like tender hibachi-grilled salmon (and who doesn’t?), you should take care. Between 2014-2018, the National Fire Protection Association logged 10,600 home grill fires that caused over 149 million worth of damage.4
Damage from sewers or drains
Just putting “sewer” and “home” in the same paragraph will set most homeowners on edge. This is one headache you’ll want to avoid at all costs.
The problems are two-fold. One, sewage backups aren’t all that rare. Tree roots have a well-documented appetite for entangling and rupturing sewer lines unseen. Kids are also known to stuff wipes down the toilet. Over time, this can create serious blockages. Remember the monster 330-ton “fatberg” of 2021?5 That was wipes, diapers, and sanitary pads.
Two, like flood insurance, sewer backup (you’ll also see this as “water backup”) coverage isn’t standard. You’ve got to pay extra. To complicate things further, most insurers will cover sewer lines as far as the end of your property. If the problem originates further downfield, you’re on your own.
Do you need sewer backup protection?
I’ll just say this. The best argument for adding it is that cleaning up bad drainage is very smelly, specialized work that costs a lot and can do extensive damage to your home. Which is why, right now, we’re going to talk about a few ways to avoid it.
Homeowner's Tip: Even the most expensive water backup coverage shouldn’t set you back more than $300 a year. But it can cost as little as $100, or less than the price of a fancy dinner out.
What to Do If You Have Water Damage
The one good thing about water damage is that in a lot of cases, you’ll notice it before it reaches the point of no return. Then again, anyone who’s ever had to pump a basement full of sludge that got there overnight might have a different story to tell.
Whatever type of watery mayhem you’re looking at, here’s the three-step plan of action we recommend.
- Alleviate. Unless you’re watching a tsunami touch ground on YouTube, water damage isn’t a spectator sport. Take action immediately. Did you get hit by a storm? Tape up broken windows, clean up excess water, move your stuff to dry ground. Busted pipe? Shut off the water. If it’s a job for the sump pump, you know the drill.
- Record. When you’re out of danger, document the damage with photos or a video. Make notes so you can relate a coherent narrative of events. It’s also a good idea, as you’re preparing your case, to dig up any receipts for damaged possessions. Remember, this is a claim you need to prove.
- Claim. This is the part of the process where your insurer will show its true colors. But it’s also where you can take some initiative. Most top home insurance providers accept online claims. If you’re web-savvy, go for it. Filing claims online is fast and easy. If a visit to your local agent makes you feel better, that’s fine, too. The important thing to remember is that most policies will give you a time window to file your claim. Don’t miss it.
FYI: When you’re preparing documentation for your claim, don’t forget to include any receipts for things you bought to mitigate damage (say, a tarp to cover a broken window, or even a sump pump). Your provider should reimburse you for those expenses, too.
How to Prevent Water Damage
For water damage that strikes out of the blue, you’ve got your home insurance policy. For every other type of potentially hazardous situation involving water, you’ve got to put on your homeowners hat and stay vigilant. Many times regular upkeep can stave off the really bad stuff that drains our wallets. Here’s what I mean.
- Windows and sliding doors. Modern double- or triple-glazed systems should cover you here, but if you’ve got an older house, sealing windows can prevent water from seeping in.
- Trees. I love trees on my property, but if one is digging into my sewer line, then I love my sewage-free house better. If you suspect tree roots may be interfering with your sewer lines, call in an expert and consider relocating the tree. Expensive, sure. But way better than a basement full of smelly sludge.
- Gutter guards. Gutters? Awesome. Leaf and branch-filled gutters? Useless and, over time, hazardous. Not everyone needs guards, but if you’ve got a yard full of trees, installing them is a good idea.
- Roof. Just a single broken shingle can let in a hoard of water destruction (that your insurance won’t pay for). Roof need fixing? Fix it sooner than later.
- Pipes. Have you noticed that your water pressure is bouncing up and down? Any strange bubbling or discoloration on your walls, or abnormal clicking, clacking, or clanging noises? You might have an issue with your pipes. If you can see or hear it — and you let it linger — the repair bill that comes in the mail three months later is on you.
- Main water line. The last thing you want to do be doing after your toilet has erupted like Mount Vesuvius is to be consulting architectural plans to find the main water line. Instead, find out exactly where that valve is today, so you can find it with your eyes shut tomorrow.
- Appliances. A broken washing machine drum is loud and annoying, but a worn-out hose can cause a flood. To eliminate the chance of water damage from refrigerator or washing machine hoses past their prime, follow the recommended maintenance plan.
Did You Know: Speaking of washing machine hoses, you may be surprised to learn that you should be replacing yours every three to five years.
No matter how water damage happens — by fate or through human error — it’s one of the most paralyzing disasters homeowners can face. Water damage is highly destructive and can be very expensive to reverse.
Fortunately, having a basic home insurance policy in our back pockets will protect us against the lion’s share of water damage, flooding excluded. If you’re ever in doubt about your liability, use our quick test. Did it happen by accident? You’re probably good. Did it happen because of negligence? You might be in trouble.
Of course, accidents happen. So do oversights. Even the most vigilant of us can miss a patch of paint peeling in the laundry room (mold alert). That’s why having a plan of action for dealing with water damage (see above) is so important. That way, if you ever do end up dealing with a raging toilet, you can jump to action with a cool head.
Homeowner's Tip: Accident or mistake, chances are you’ll be communicating with your insurance provider if you have water damage. There are companies that favor a human touch. (Nationwide plans come with access to 19,000 flesh-and-blood agents). Others use AI to make claims decisions on the spot with instant cash payouts. How does that work? I spent a few weeks testing Lemonade policies to find out.
Yes, in most cases, you’re covered — unless the damage happened through negligence or it was the result of a flood.
Sometimes. If a sudden pile up of snow caves your roof in overnight, yes. If your roof has been leaking for a while and you never fixed it and it caves in, no.
No, flood insurance, which is available through FEMA, is always a separate policy.
Water backup coverage protects you against water damage from clogged or overflowing sewers, drains, or sump pumps. It’s worth noting that you’re only covered for the segment of the sewer line that’s on your property.
Your HO-3 policy will cover you for any sudden accidental damage to your washing machine. It won’t cover mechanical malfunction or wear and tear, however, or any accidents that result from either.