The Hidden Perils of Watering the Lawn
Watering the lawn is something home owners do every day. It seems harmless enough. In fact, many people do it on autopilot, setting up sprinkler systems and timers to water automatically. But in rare cases, watering your lawn can cause major financial headaches.
We talked with Paul Martin, CPCU, a self-described insurance nerd, agent educator, and owner of PZ Martin Education Strategies. We asked him to tell us about the potential damage watering could cause to a foundation, a basement, or the property of others, and how your homeowners insuance is likely to handle it.
Property Damage Issues
The first danger of watering your lawn incorrectly is damage to your own home. All it takes is a broken sprinkler head spraying continually against the house, or a hard rain right after you've over-watered. Before you know it, the ground around your house is sopping wet, and there may even be water in the basement.
This is arguably the most important component of your home. If your foundation goes bad, the rest of the house goes with it. So how can watering affect the foundation?
"Could be you're watering the grass, and the runoff isn't soaking into the ground," Paul says. "So you have water that collects against the foundation every day. The ground swells and contracts. That can cause the foundation to move or even crack." He goes on to explain that if the foundation isn't exactly well-built, the cracks and movement can turn into broken pipes and leaks, which lead to even more water damage. "Also, there are weep holes in brick walls," says Paul, "And if the water gets above the foundation line, it can get in through those holes and soak into your walls and flooring."
On the other end of the spectrum is under-watering. "Dryness can have the same effect," says Paul. That's why residents of dry climates have to be careful to water their foundations regularly. (For local watering recommendations, check with your homeowners association, or a nearby home improvement store.)
So does homeowners insurance cover water damage from sprinkler run-off against the foundation? According to Paul, "You do have minor coverage for that kind of thing, but you have to be careful that you prevent it from happening again." Otherwise you may risk losing your coverage.
So what happens if all that excess watering leads to a trickle in your basement? This can happen easily if you forget to turn off the sprinkler system after a heavy downpour. The water builds up around the windows, doors and vents to your basement, and causes minor flooding, and even mold.
Will insurance cover damage to your basement if you flood it with your sprinklers? Probably not, according to our expert. "Basements are usually not covered by homeowners policies." In this case, it's good to have a rainy day fund, and clean up the moisture as quickly as possible to prevent mold from setting in.
The secondary danger of watering your lawn is damage to neighboring property. According to online law encyclopedia Nolo.com, most states have very old regulations in place to settle disputes about how runoff from your property affects the lawns, gardens and homes of your closest neighbors. In addition to that, you need to consider danger to passersby, including runoff from your driveway onto the sidewalk or street.
The Sidewalk and Street
"Sometimes I'll be driving downtown," says Paul. "And I'll see huge puddles in the street from somebody's sprinkler system spraying out like geysers. All these cars are swerving to avoid it, and bicyclists are turning out into traffic." The danger in this case is that someone gets into a traffic accident, or a bicyclist or pedestrian gets hit by a moving vehicle, all because of your broken sprinkler or over-watering.
Could that create a liability issue? "Absolutely," says Paul. You could be held liable for negligence, because you allowed your watering system to create unsafe driving conditions. According to Nolo, there would have to be strong evidence that the damage was due to your action or inaction, and not just the rain or the lay of the land. But if a judge finds that your watering practices are to blame, and that the accident could have been prevented by simple maintenance or planning, you could be sued for medical expenses, repairs, lost wages and legal fees.
Would your homeowners insurance cover that? In most cases, yes, says Paul. However, your insurance company would probably require you to fix the problem if you wanted to continue coverage.
The Neighbor's Yard
"This happens a lot when houses are close together," Paul tells us. "One person gets overzealous, making sure his lawn is green and thick, and pretty soon there's a huge mud puddle in the middle of the neighbor's lawn or garden." Your excess watering can erode the neighbor's driveway, garden paths, vegetable beds and lawn, and cause mosquitoes and mud to collect in your neighbor's yard.
According to Nolo, some states have laws that say the responsibility for preventing your runoff from entering the neighbor's property rests on the neighbor. But in the majority of U.S. states, you have to take reasonable precautions to keep your water to yourself, or risk a legal claim against you.
Will your homeowners policy cover a claim against you for damaging your neighbor's lawn and garden? "You do have some coverage for that," says Paul. But expect to be ordered by both the judge and your company to take care of the issue.
Pay Up or File a Claim?
If you do happen to have a watering mishap, should you file an insurance claim? After all, clients who pose more risk face higher fees and possible loss of coverage. Paul weighs in, "It depends. It's really more of a nagging neighbor issue, so if you can take care of it yourself and make your neighbor happy, that's better." However, if the problem turns into a lawsuit, or major foundation repair, you may need to go ahead and file a claim. That's why you have coverage.
These days, overwatering prevention is easier than ever. You can get water sensors that attach to your sprinkler system and cancel watering sessions on rainy days, or when the ground is oversaturated from a heavy watering the day before. Gadgets like these can save you a lot of worry and headaches.
Get Help from a Local Agent
If you're concerned about the problems your sprinkler system could cause, or you're facing issues with the neighbor's over-eager watering, a local independent agent in the Trusted Choice® network can help. Local agents are familiar with the watering issues and regulations in your hometown. Because they don't work for one insurance company, they can give you unbiased advice about whether you need to file a claim. They can even advocate for you if you have trouble dealing with your insurance company over water damage.
Don't forget that natural flooding is not covered by homeowners insurance. Rain runoff, flash flooding from rivers and creeks, and snow melt are all examples of natural flooding that can damage your home. To cover these types of flooding, you need a flood insurance policy through the National Flood Insurance Program. An independent agent can help you get set up with a flood policy, if your neighborhood participates in the program.
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