Personal Finance

How winter snowstorms wipe out your budget


How winter snowstorms wipe out your budget

A damaged home in Marshfield, Massachusetts, January 27, 2015.
John Tlumacki | The Boston Globe | Getty Images

Winter wonderland? Yeah right. Snow loses its appeal, fast, when its unexpected side effects generate outsize bills.

The East Coast is bracing for its first major snowstorm of 2016, with 15 states expected to have snowfall between now and Sunday. Thursday morning, more than 73 million Americans were under a blizzard watch, winter storm watch, winter storm warning or winter weather advisory for the coming event, according to The Weather Channel, which, like CNBC, is owned by Comcast's NBCUniversal.

"It will be a historic storm," said Paul Walsh, vice president of weather analytics at The Weather Channel.

Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are likely to be hardest hit, receiving up to 2 feet of snow. But hurricane-like wind conditions could also generate power outages and damage along the coast of Delaware and New Jersey as well as on Long Island, Walsh said.

Damages add up, fast. Last winter, storms caused $3.2 billion in insured losses, up from $2.3 billion in the previous period, according to insurance group Munich Re. More than half of those 2014-15 winter losses — $1.8 billion — stemmed from record-setting storms in February 2015.

Consumers see both short- and long-term financial effects from a snowy winter. These eight unexpected winter bills can result in out-of-pocket costs exceeding $1,000 — as well as bump up insurance premiums over the long haul.

—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Published 18 February 2015
Updated 21 January 2016

Icy sidewalks

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Talk about a slippery slope — falls of all kinds (not just on icy surfaces) sent 11.3 million people to the hospital in 2011, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common injuries? Sprains and strains, which a 2013 National Institutes of Health study found cost a median $1,051 when treated at the emergency room.

A visitor's slip on your property could be costly, too, resulting in an expensive liability claim against your homeowners' insurance policy, said Loretta Worters, a vice president with the Insurance Information Institute. It's not just humans who can injure themselves. Veterinarian visits related to limping or lameness jump 18 percent higher during the fourth quarter, said Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services for Petplan.

"Make any repairs needed for your steps or handrails," said Worters. "They can almost become lethal when covered with snow and ice." Turn gutter spouts so they don't drain on to walkways. After a storm, be diligent about clearing snow and ice from sidewalks, driveways and outside stairs.

Roof ice dams

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Icicles hanging from the eaves may be pretty, but they're also a sign of an expensive problem called ice dams. This happens when warmth from your house melts the underlying layer of snow, said Martin Frappolli, senior director of knowledge resources at The Institutes, an insurance education group. That accumulates at the eaves and refreezes, blocking drains. "When all that ice and snow eventually melts, it's going to find its way into your home," he said. Most often it flows into the roof, where it'll drip down through ceilings and walls.

That kind of water damage is typically covered by homeowners' insurance policies, but you'll still be on the hook for the deductible, often $1,000 or more. Repairs can also be extensive and there's a risk of mold. "You're going to be terrifically inconvenienced," said Frappolli.

While it may be too late this year, "in preparing your home for the winter, check your roof, check your roof, check your roof," he said. Clear gutters of leaves and other debris so ice melt has a clear exit. Over the life span of your roof, periodically hire a professional to check for damage such as loosened tiles, which can make it easier for water to work its way in. Adding insulation to the attic can also help reduce heat loss.

Use roof rakes to remove snow from the roof after each storm — or hire a professional to do so, said Worters. Not only does that reduce the chance of a roof collapse, but it also means less snow that can trickle inside as it melts.

Chimney fires

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Byproducts of wood fires can build up over time in the chimney, and that residue, known as creosote, is combustible. In 2012, the most recent year for which data were released, there were an estimated 21,200 residential fires involving a fireplace, chimney or chimney connector, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Those fires resulted in 20 deaths and caused $93.6 million in damages.

Read MoreTo burn less money, consider heating with wood

Even if you only use your fireplace occasionally, be sure to hire a contractor annually to clean and maintain the chimney, said Worters.

Accidental antifreeze poisonings

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This sweet-tasting chemical additive can be attractive to both kids and pets, with deadly results. Poison control centers report roughly 5,000 cases a year; the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center received 328 in 2014. Cases are reported year-round since antifreeze is often something kept on hand, but there's often a small spike in December in conjunction with use, said PetPlan's Benson. The average pet claim to treat antifreeze poisoning: $1,134.

Dogs are more likely to ingest antifreeze accidentally, often by playing with or chewing on an unsecured container, said Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director for the APCC. Outdoor cats are also at risk. "Maybe the only source of water that isn't frozen has antifreeze in it," she said. Ingestion can lead to seizures and kidney failure.

Read MoreFido's sweet tooth makes for a scary holiday bill

Consumers should carefully weigh which antifreeze they purchase. Some formulas contain bittering agents that make the liquid less palatable, and others use propylene glycol rather than the more common ethylene glycol. "Just that difference of a carbon atom makes one toxic and the other not," said Benson. Then store the antifreeze out of reach of curious pets and kids.

High home heating bills

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The first home heating bill of the winter can often be a shock. Last winter, depending on the fuel you used and where you lived, the average cost to heat a home for the winter was as much as $2,254, according to the Energy Information Administration.

There's good news on that front: A warmer winter in many areas and cheaper fuel could push down costs for many consumers. The EIA's January forecast expects average winter expenses to drop 17.1 percent for homes using natural gas, 41.2 percent for home heating oil, 5.9 percent for electricity and 24 or 30.9 percent for propane depending on where you live (Northeast or Midwest, respectively).

But a drafty house or inefficient heating system could result in a bigger-than-expected bill, said Frappolli. Consider a home-energy audit (often available for free, through your utility provider) to help identify potential problems. Basic maintenance, such as cleaning the HVAC filters and weather-stripping windows and doors, will also help keep bills low, he said.

Frozen pipes

Mike Kemp | Getty Images

"In the winter, the big problem is anything to do with freezing water," said Worters. Water expands as it freezes. When that happens in a pipe, that pipe can burst, letting water escape into the surrounding wall or area. It's another disaster typically covered under your homeowners' insurance, but like water damage from ice dams, a burst pipe can require extensive repairs.

To prevent damage, keep your home's temperature at 55 degrees, minimum, even if you're on vacation. "There's a certain threshold that you shouldn't let the temperature go below," said Frappolli. Make sure any exposed pipes (say, in the attic or basement) are adequately insulated. Shut off the water leading to outside sources like the garden hose.

Some practical knowledge can help here, too. Know where your pipes are and how to shut off the water, said Worters. That way, if the pipes do freeze, you can limit the damage.

Auto damage

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Buckle up. Winter road conditions lead to plenty of accidents. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, from 2004 to 2013, snow and sleet played a part in 210,341 crashes annually, or 4 percent of all accidents. Icy pavement was responsible for another 151,944 accidents (3 percent) and slushy pavement, 174,446 (4 percent). Each of the three winter weather conditions accounts for 2 percent of crash fatalities.

Accidents aren't drivers' only worry. The salt used to make roads drivable can be corrosive, and often the damage is to your car's undercarriage and other areas that aren't covered by the warranty—leaving you to pay for repairs out of pocket, said Matt De Lorenzo, managing editor for Kelley Blue Book. "You don't see body panels rusting off of cars like you did 30 years ago," he said. Drivers who park in garages have it worse, because the snow-and-salt combo will melt into more damaging salt water rather than remain frozen as it does for outside parkers. The best remedy: Regular car washes that include a spray or steam under the car to remove salt residue.

The choice to dig out your car or leave it buried can trigger bills either way. "Maintenance issues" like scratches from your ice scraper aren't covered by insurance, said Worters. You'll pay for those repairs out of pocket. But if a snowplow dents your car, or there's damage from snow accumulation (say, a cracked windshield or buckling roof), that's typically covered.

Fallen tree limbs

Downed trees sever power lines and pin down cars in Tacoma, Maryland.
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Forget the proverbial tree falling in the forest. A better question: Who pays if one falls on your property?

"Tree damage can be really serious," said Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for review site Angie's List. Whether the tree belongs to you or a neighbor, if it falls on your home or car, it's your insurance that kicks in and you paying the deductible. (A possible exception: If you've previously expressed concern to the neighbor about the state of that tree, the insurer may put them on the hook for the bill, she said.)

If the fallen tree doesn't damage any property, then there's no insurance claim to file. But removing it can be expensive, depending on the size and type of the tree, said Reed. In 2015, the average price paid by Angie's List members for tree removal was $1,250.

Call a qualified tree removal service. "You don't want to hire some random guy who's coming down the street with a chainsaw," she said. Such storm chasers looking to make a quick buck aren't unusual, but they often aren't insured—which makes you responsible for any injuries sustained or property damaged in the course of removal. Others are outright scammers, she said, who take your cash and leave without doing the job.