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If a Tree Falls on Your House, What Do You Do?

Homes Falling Trees_Gast.JPG

 (AP)

When a tree came down on the roof of Peter R. Rosenblatt's Washington, D.C., home during a snowstorm this winter, he knew the drill. He'd been through the same thing a few months earlier.

"We called in the insurance company and the roofer and the arborist," he said.

Last year, severe storms caused more than $12 million in U.S. property damage. Although there are no specific statistics on how much of that was caused by falling trees, they are a frequent source of damage to homes, power lines and more.

Old and diseased trees are especially vulnerable to high winds and flooding, but even the healthiest trees can come crashing down.

When that happens, says Eric Liskey, deputy garden editor for Better Homes and Gardens, "it sounds like guns going off the way the wood cracks."

The first thing to do is to make sure everyone is OK. "If you feel unsafe, you pretty much need to just leave the property," Liskey said.

If wires are down, call the police and the power company. Then, call the insurance company.

Take pictures or video of the damage, if you can.

"You and 500 people are trying to get help," Liskey said. "The officials involved get to it as quickly as they can. There isn't a whole lot to do other than wait it out."

When a tree comes down in a storm and hits a house, garage, deck or fence, the damage is probably covered under a homeowners' policy, less the deductible. Under the additional coverage section of many policies, the cost of removing the tree would be covered at a rate of $500 per tree, $1,000 per incident.

"This is where, when something goes wrong, I want my insurance to work for me," said Mary Ann Cook, who designs course materials for the Institutes, which provides professional development for the risk-management and property-casualty insurance industry.

The insurance company can help you find contractors who will quickly cover the roof to prevent further water damage or board up any broken windows. "Remediation services can get out there pronto," Cook said.

One such company is Select Restoration of Frasier, Mich. Owner Bryan Nowicki says the company, which offers 24-hour service, starts with temporary repairs, including putting a tarp on the roof, shoring up any parts of the house that have structural damage and cleaning up water inside. It also helps homeowners with insurance claims.

Your insurance company can help you make sure the company you call for quick repairs is reputable.

"In an emergency situation, you don't have time to search contractor licenses or Better Business Bureau reports," Nowicki said. "It's the luck of the draw. There are a lot of scam artists who come out when a storm happens."

A reputable remediation or restoration company, he said, won't ask for any money out of pocket. Everything will be filed through the insurance company.

A common misconception about insurance coverage is who is responsible if your tree comes down on your neighbor's house during a storm. It's the neighbor, under standard homeowners policies.

"If a tree falls during a covered peril, it does not matter where that tree came from," Cook said.

"My neighbor can't make me submit a claim under my homeowner's policy," he said. But there may be other issues, such as who pays the deductible or who pays the cost should it be less than the deductible. "It's a matter of getting together over the fence — if it's still standing — and working it out," she said.

"Sometimes neighbors are good to each other," said Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, a trade association of the property-casualty industry.

When a big limb from her tree fell and damaged a neighbor's gutters and fence during a snowstorm, Virginia Jarrett decided to try to keep peace in her Washington neighborhood. "I'm not responsible, but I'm taking responsibility," she said.

Jarrett, who is retired and lives on a fixed income, said it is costing a significant amount of money to do the repairs. "Life goes on and I'll absorb it," she said.

There are times when a tree comes down in a storm and doesn't hit anything. In that case, the cost of removing the tree is the homeowner's responsibility, unless it blocks a driveway or other traffic access, in which case at least some of the removal cost would be covered under many policies, Cook said

What about a tree that comes down on a bright sunny day merely because it is dead? "That gets to the idea of failure to maintain," Cook said. The cost of damage to your home would be covered but not removal of the tree.

So what can homeowners do before a storm?

"I think it's important to remove any trees that pose an imminent threat to your house," Rosenblatt said. Dead wood also should be removed from otherwise healthy trees.

And homeowners might want to call the insurance company before a storm and ask, "Who do I call and who do I trust in a situation like this?" Nowicki said. "A lot of insurance companies do have a preferred vendor list of contractors who are prescreened."

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