Personal Finance

There are some good reasons to check your homeowners insurance heading into spring

Key Points
  • 2019 was the fifth consecutive year during which the U.S. experienced 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.
  • The recent storm that unleashed tornadoes in central Tennessee and killed 25 people also caused more than $1 billion in damage, according to one estimate.
  • Depending on where you live, you may face a separate deductible for wind or hurricane damage.

Daniel Trumbower was working from home in Monrovia, Maryland, in early February when his wife called: A tornado warning had been issued for their town.

Initially dubious — a tornado in Monrovia? Yeah, right — he looked outside to check the sky and saw a large, heavy-duty garbage can soaring through the air. He ran to his basement, where he remained while the house above him trembled and a roaring wind engulfed it.

When he emerged several minutes later, he looked in disbelief at the destruction outside.

The road in front of Daniel Trumbower's house in Monrovia, Maryland, was blocked by a downed tree after a tornado ripped through the town in early February.
Photo provided by Daniel Trumbower

"It looked like a war zone," said Trumbower, a certified financial planner and senior wealth advisor with Halpern Financial in Ashburn, Virginia. "I had a tree fall in my neighbor's driveway, our siding was punctured, shingles were all over the place. Debris was everywhere."

Trumbower was grateful that his home suffered only external damage from the tornado — a nearby barn was leveled. He discovered, however, that his homeowners insurance didn't go as far as he thought. 

While his policy covers the cost of fully replacing his roof, that's not the case for the siding: It will only cover the cost of replacing the specific damaged spots, a type of approach that often results in a patchwork of mismatched siding.

The experience showed Trumbower that just because you have homeowners insurance, it doesn't mean your policy covers what you'd assume it does when your property suffers weather-related damage.

"I was caught totally by surprise," Trumbower said, who is still in the claims process. The estimate he received to replace all the siding? $27,000.

With weather events wreaking havoc on communities around the country — often in places unaccustomed to them — experts recommend that you review your own homeowners insurance in case Mother Nature's fury visits your neighborhood.

"You should be meeting with your agent once a year to review your coverage and make sure there are no gaps," said Mark Friedlander, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute.

In early March, parts of Nashville and central Tennessee were hit by a tornado-spawning storm that killed 25 individuals, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and commercial structures. As impacted communities continue the long process of recovering and rebuilding, the cost of destruction is estimated at more than $1 billion, according to property-data provider CoreLogic.

VIDEO1:5501:55
Start-ups look to private flood insurance, a potential $42B opportunity

And, tornado season is only getting started. States along the Gulf Coast — including Alabama, Mississippi and Florida — tend to have more activity earlier in the spring, while for states in the middle of the country, like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, it's a bit later, according to NOAA. However, tornadoes can break out just about anywhere if conditions are conducive to their formation.

And then there's water. A warmer and wetter spring is expected in the eastern half of the country, according to NOAA. After that is the Atlantic hurricane season, which starts June 1 and runs through the end of November. At the same time, though, the Southwest is expected to have a drier-than-normal spring, which increases the risk of wildfires.

Last year was the fifth consecutive year in which the U.S. experienced 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, according to NOAA.

Depending on where you live and the weather that's typical for that area, your homeowners policy may provide coverage for some of the more location-specific events, and state law often dictates what's required of policies offered in their jurisdiction. Be aware that earthquakes — which also can strike anywhere with no warning — are not covered by standard homeowners policies, even in quake-prone California (you'd have to purchase separate insurance). Nor, typically, are other types of earth movement (i.e., landslides, sinkholes).

Of course, insurance is often a balancing act with other expenses and financial obligations. Although your specific coverage should depend on your circumstances, here are some things to think about as you review your policy.

Different damage, different deductibles

While many perils are covered under the standard part of your policy, some weather-related events fall under a different part that comes with a different deductible.

If you live in a state along the East Coast or Gulf of Mexico, there's a good chance your homeowners insurance policy has a hurricane deductible. Likewise, in states more prone to wind-related events — i.e., tornadoes — you're likely to have a wind/hail deductible.

Either way, those amounts typically range from about 1% to 5% (with a minimum $500) depending on the specifics of your insurance contract. Some homeowners might opt for an even higher deductible if it's available. Generally speaking, the higher the deductible, the lower the premiums, and vice versa. 

More from Personal Finance:
Coronavirus could financially cripple many Americans
Here's what people are doing with their tax refunds
Why millennials may shrug at the stock market's troubles

It's important to note that for those percentage-based deductibles, the amount is based on your insured value, not the damage caused.

So if your home is insured for $200,000 and you have a 2% hurricane deductible, you'd be responsible for covering the first $4,000, regardless of the total cost of the damage.

This means it's wise to have a plan to cover your share in the aftermath of a disaster.

Trumbower, the financial advisor, said his experience demonstrated the importance of emergency savings.

Even though his family could remain in the house because the damage was to its exterior, they had no power. With outside temperatures in the 20s, Trumbower headed to Costco for a generator ($700.) Additionally, the cost for emergency tree removal was $3,500, yet his insurance covered just $1,000 of it.

"It shows how important it is to have that emergency money available," Trumbower said.

Flooding risk

Homeowners policies generally exclude flooding from coverage. Yet just one inch of water in your home can cause up to $25,000 worth of damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And, 1 in 4 flood insurance claims come from outside a high-risk zone.

For coverage, you'd need separate flood insurance through either the federal National Flood Insurance Program or a private insurer. Be aware, however, that there are coverage exclusions and limitations. And, flood policies take 30 days to become effective. The average yearly cost is $700, although that can vary widely.

While flooding is a common aspect of natural disasters, fewer than 15% of homeowners have flood insurance, said Friedlander, of the Insurance Information Institute.

Many homeowners have the misconception that flooding will be covered under their standard policy.
Mark Friedlander
Spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute

"Many homeowners have the misconception that flooding will be covered under their standard policy," he said.

When a homeowner faces storm-related damage that is uncovered but in a federally declared disaster zone, there might be government programs that can provide financial assistance, including FEMA grants and Small Business Administration loans. However, that help is not guaranteed, and it likely wouldn't get you quickly back on your feet.

For instance, after 2017′s Hurricane Harvey, which dumped as much as 60 inches of rain in some spots in Texas, the average FEMA grant for individuals was $7,000, while the average claim through the National Flood Insurance Program was more than $100,000.

Also that year, according to CoreLogic, serious delinquencies on home mortgages tripled in the metro areas of Houston, and Cape Coral, Florida, and quadrupled in San Juan, Puerto Rico — all of which were hard-hit by hurricanes.

The next year, in 2018, the average flood claim was about $43,000, Friedlander said.

"If you don't have flood coverage, ask yourself how you'd pay for that," he said.

If you're a renter

Even if you don't own your home, your finances are still at risk if a storm damages the house or building you live in. While the owner's insurance would cover the structure itself, you'd be responsible for your own property.

Renter's insurance is an option for covering your belongings. It also can cover the cost of living somewhere else if you can't remain in your home after a storm or any other insured event.

The national average for a policy with $40,000 coverage for personal property, a $1,000 deductible and $100,000 of liability protection is $197 a year (about $17 a month), according to an Insurance.com rate analysis.

Other odds and ends

It's also worth making sure that your coverage amount for rebuilding reflects the current cost of replacement. Construction costs may be higher than when your home was built, and local building codes may be stricter.

The bottom line is that even if you think you think the risk of extreme weather reaching you is low, it's worthwhile knowing how you'd financially handle one.

"I never thought a tornado would come through Monrovia," Trumbower said. "But it did."

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.