Avoidable accidents can be costly lessons

Times Staff Writer

Pam Copeland kicks herself when she even thinks about it. She was cooking bacon to season lima beans for Easter dinner, just as she had dozens of times. She left the bacon to fry and stepped into the garage to say something to her husband. When she came back a few minutes later, she was confronted with a raging grease fire licking the cabinets.

"I just froze," she said. "I just looked at the flames, thinking, 'This can't be happening.' "

Her homeowner's insurance covered the bulk of the $3,000 loss, but Copeland, an insurance agent from Folsom, Calif., had to pay the $500 deductible and endure the inconvenience of replacing damaged carpets and refinishing cabinets.

"I should have known better than to leave the stove untended," she said. "But in all my years of cooking, I've never set anything else on fire. . . . I guess that's why they call them accidents."

When people talk about homeowners' claims, they often envision major disasters such as the Southern California wildfires, where there was little that homeowners in the path of destruction could do. But in reality, many losses are like Copeland's, insurers say: preventable.

"We have 50,000 to 60,000 homeowners' claims each year in California," said Bill Sirola, a spokesman for State Farm. "The wildfires accounted for only about 2,500 of the total."

As Copeland can attest, it's great to have adequate insurance, but it's even better not to have a loss at all. That's particularly true as homeowners boost their deductibles -- the portion of the loss they pay before insurance kicks in -- as a way of lowering their premiums.

Watching the stove might be an obvious way to prevent a loss, but insurers say there are dozens of lesser-known loss-prevention measures. Here are some simple things you can do.


Water damage accounts for $11 billion in claims each year, making it one of the most common causes of losses, said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute in Washington. Many of those claims are rooted in minor maintenance gaffes such as frayed washer hoses, faulty toilet valves, leaky water heaters, broken supply hoses and corroded pipes. The failure of a $3 hose can cause thousands of dollars in damage.

Kevin E. Barber, vice president of the Institute for Business and Home Safety in Tampa, said the average cost of damage caused by a broken washing machine hose is $6,000. Water damage claims from leaky toilets -- most of which can be fixed with about $10 in materials -- range from $2,000 to $10,000, he added.

Homeowners should:

* Check the hoses going into the washing machine every six months. Look for signs of fraying or rust around the coupling, suggested Geannie Brubaker, a technical specialist for Chubb & Son insurance. If you see anything suspect, replace the hose.

* Turn off the washing machine supply valves when you go on vacation.

* Never leave the washing machine on when you go out.

* Inspect the pipes under the sink for condensation or corrosion

* Stains on ceilings or walls can be a sign of leaky plumbing behind the walls; have the source identified right away.

* Call a plumber immediately if there's rust in the tap water or if you detect cracked or warped flooring.

* Be on the lookout for big changes in your water bill. A significant hike can be the first indication of a costly leak.

* Inspect your water heater at least once a year. The typical unit lasts 10 to 12 years, experts say. If you see signs of corrosion or leaks, call a plumber.

* If you live in a cold climate, it may make sense to double-check the insulation around pipes, Brubaker said. Chubb sends inspectors with infrared cameras through homes it insures, she noted. The cameras detect hot and cold spots in the walls, which can mean that an area is lacking insulation. In cold climates, poorly insulated pipes can burst, causing massive losses.

* Find the water shut-off valve outside the house and mark it so the water can be shut off quickly in an emergency.


Fire claims amount to about $16 billion annually, Worters said. A portion of that is from wildfires, but far more common are kitchen fires, said Candysse Miller, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Network in Los Angeles.

Remember to:

* Watch your pots. "A watched kettle never boils, but an untended one sets the kitchen on fire," Miller said. Be particularly careful with dishes that include oil or grease.

* Have baking soda or a fire extinguisher handy, just in case.

* Place your barbecue in a well-ventilated area -- not under the eaves of the house.

* Clean the lint screens in the clothes dryer frequently and have the exhaust pipe cleaned out professionally once a year.

* Change the batteries in smoke alarms every six months.

* Clear your yard of dead brush.

* Stack firewood away from your home -- not against it.

* Locate and mark your gas shut-off valve.

High winds

Wind and hail claims account for $30 billion in losses annually. Those who live in hurricane-prone zones are urged to take many steps, including equipping their homes with storm shutters and strengthening doors and windows.

In areas where winds rarely hit gale force, the cost-effective fixes are simple ones.

* Monitor the trees near your home and keep them trimmed of dead limbs to avoid having them crash through a wall or ceiling in a storm.

* Inspect your roof after high winds to ensure that you haven't lost tiles or flashing that could make your home prone to leaks.


Big earthquakes are too rare to produce annual loss statistics. However, when they do strike, they can be devastating.

The main tips to reduce quake damage involve strapping heavy items so they don't break -- or fall on anyone -- and securing, as best you can, impossible-to-replace valuables, like Grandma's china collection and the wedding crystal.

* Strap heavy items such as television sets, stereo speakers and water heaters to the wall.

* Secure bookshelves to walls with brackets.

* Use museum putty to keep valuable glassware in place on shelves.

For more tips on ways to disaster-proof your home, go to www.disastersafety.org.


For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction Insurance: An article in Business on Sunday about maintaining your home to reduce insurance claims said annual water damage claims totaled $11 billion, fire claims $16 billion and wind and hail claims $30 billion. In fact, for every $100 of premiums paid, insurers pay out $11 on water losses, $16 for fire losses and $30 for wind and hail claims. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction Insurance: A Jan. 13 article in the Business section about maintaining your home to reduce insurance claims said annual water-damage claims totaled $11 billion, fire claims $16 billion and wind and hail claims $30 billion. In fact, for every $100 of premiums paid, insurers pay out $11 on water losses, $16 for fire losses and $30 for wind and hail claims.
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