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How to Prevent Water Damage to Your Home in Winter

Water damage is now the most common type of home insurance claim in Canada—take that, fire!—and when a pipe bursts, a roof leaks, or a basement floods, it’s a costly headache for everyone involved.

Insurance companies pay out more than $1 billion a year in water damage claims, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, while homeowners grapple with expensive repairs and inconvenient damage to their property and personal items.

You can’t control severe weather patterns, but regular maintenance before winter rolls in can protect your home from the hazards of cold weather. Here are some things you can do to reduce the risk of water damage to your home this winter.

Home water damage prevention – protect your pipes

Flooding from frozen burst pipes is the single biggest winter nuisance—and among the most expensive to fix. While your home insurance policy may cover damage caused by a sudden and unexpected city water main leak or an overflowing bathtub, it won’t cover damage caused by burst frozen pipes if you were negligent in their upkeep or if you left your house unoccupied and unheated.

Check your plumbing for corrosion and wrap insulation sleeves around pipes in unheated or outdoor areas, draining any exterior pipes and hoses to prevent ice buildup. Know where the main water shut-off valve is in your home and check it every six months to make sure it’s working.

Unexpected power outages can cause indoor temperatures to dip. So if your home will be empty and you’re feeling extra cautious, turn off the water at the source and drain the pipes. A note to snowbirds and vacationers: Some insurers will void your coverage if you leave your house empty and unmonitored for more than four consecutive days (check your policy or ask your broker for your specific time horizon). If you’re going away this winter, ask a friend or trusted neighbour to regularly check in on your home.

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Water damage from your roof and its drainage 

Accumulation of heavy snowfall can damage your home’s roof, walls and foundation—flat roofs are especially vulnerable to collapse due to buildup while sloping roofs create ideal conditions for ice dams. Icicles may be pretty, but they can potentially tear off your gutters and roof shingles and allow snowmelt to seep under your roof and into interior walls. Clearing it yourself can be dangerous; if you live in an area hit hard by snowfall, it’s worth hiring a licensed contractor to clear your roof, gutters, and downspouts of snow, ice, and debris.

Inside, insulate your attic floor but keep the attic itself cool and well ventilated so heat doesn’t rise from the house and melt the snow on the roof, creating ice dams and causing water seepage.

Walls and foundation

Inspect the exterior walls and foundation of your home for cracks and seal them up to prevent leaks. Make sure to shovel out window wells, outdoor stairwells, and clear away snow from around your home’s foundation so that when it melts, the water won’t seep in.

Along with functioning gutters and downspouts, a proper ground slope is important for directing water away from your home. The ground should slope away from your house in all directions (around six inches over the first 10 feet). But over time, soil erosion can change the grading of the land and make the ground flat or even reverse the slope, causing water to pool in the soil around your foundation and basement window wells. This can be fixed by adding topsoil to the low points or digging up and redistributing soil to even out the grading.  

Water damage in a basement 

Basements are ground zero for potential water damage. If you store a lot of stuff down there, make sure to keep it off the floor. The lifespan of a hot water tank is about 10 years, so keep yours maintained and check for corrosion that may lead to leakage or bursting. If your home doesn’t already have one, consider installing a sump pump, which prevents and controls basement flooding by sucking water out of the sump basin and draining it away from your home.

A note on home insurance coverage against water damage

It’s important to note that different types of water damage may or may not be covered by your home insurance policy. For example, sewer backups and overland water aren’t automatically included in most home insurance policies and must be purchased as additional protection (called endorsements). Read your policy carefully and consult your broker about whether you should consider buying flood insurance. Shop around for home insurance quotes if you’re not happy with the price, again, different providers offer different solutions.


Flickr: State Farm