home Insurance Article

How Pests Affect Homeowners Insurance Policies

We’ve all heard the occasional bump and scuttle in the night, but what happens when that noise doesn’t stop and only multiplies? As gross as it might sound, infestations are more common than you may think, and your insurance company probably won’t be too willing to help with the cleanup. Consider the bed bug epidemic the U.S. experienced a couple of years ago. According to PestWorld.org, one out of five Americans has either had a bed bug infestation or knows someone who found bed bugs in a hotel room or their own home. Now consider the fact that bed bugs can lay anywhere from one to five eggs every day, survive for months without eating, and are prevalent in all 50 states. That’s an infestation waiting to happen, stalking its “prey.” pestcontrol1

One of the hardest-hit areas during the bed bug panic was New York City. In 2010, the Soho Hollister had to shut its doors due to the tiny blood-sucking pests. One employee found a live bed bug and the shell of another hanging off her clothes, and other employees accused the company of ignoring the initial complaints. One family living in the Upper East Side, one of the richest areas in NYC, also fell victim to the bed bug infestation and spent more than $70K trying to eliminate the bugs. Eventually, the family was forced to move and trash all their belongings in the process.

When Your Insurance Company Places You in Quarantine

So you’ve made a few unsuccessful attempts at getting rid of an infestation, but the population has only grown — quickly at that. You need some more muscle and money to help cover the extermination costs, which continue growing while the population of your new roommates does too. Sounds like it’s time to pick up the phone and call your homeowners insurance company.

Not so fast. Infestations are not a covered disaster under homeowners insurance, and the responsibility for cleanup falls under normal house maintenance. For example, a Farmer’s Insurance Group homeowners insurance policy’s exclusion reads like most, listing the following animals and insects in the exclusion  — “bats, rats, mice and other rodents, bees, termites and moths, vermin, birds, fish, reptiles, insects and spiders.” Whether you have bed bugs or rats, getting rid of them is your problem and your problem alone.

So why don’t homeowners insurance companies cover infestations and in some unfortunate cases, deny claims for property damage done by your guests? One issue is that it’s hard to determine how much damage an infestation can cause, and a great deal of it has to deal with an individual’s lifestyle too. (Basically, procrastinators and those who cross their fingers and think the bugs will leave when the weather gets warm, beware. Even if your entire house burns down from Stuart Little chewing electrical wires, your claim may not be covered if it’s proven that you essentially let the problem continue and failed to do whatever you could to maintain the home’s un-infested status.)

“They will say that it’s a maintenance problem and that the exclusion applies,” said Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders.

For the average homeowner who catches an infestation before it’s multiplied and/or early enough, such exclusions would never be a problem. However, many people don’t learn about the exclusion until it’s too late and when there’s a lot of money on the line. Homeowners who have just caught an infestation usually don’t immediately think of their homeowners insurance — it’s those who learn the costs of extermination are going to be astronomical who call their insurers. $200 spent on mouse traps immediately? That’s under the deductible amount of most homeowners insurance policies. $10K for pest control and extermination? Time to call the insurer. However, most insurers would think the homeowner with the $10K claim likely missed an important step in trying to eradicate the pests, or just outright wasn’t performing preventable maintenance. Otherwise, how did that bill get that large? Insurers know that most of the time when somebody has a large “extermination claim,” that it wasn’t a pest problem that just popped up yesterday, and assume there was time for growth — for the infestation and the expense.

“The vermin exclusion — animal or pest — would be a problem if you were claiming that it will cost $10K to have your house sprayed for bed bugs and were asking your insurer to pay for that,” explained Bach.

Human behavior isn’t the only unmanageable variable making infestation insurance coverage difficult. Although bed bugs get into the fabric of your belongings, mice and termites may do damage to your home’s structure. That’s two opposite ends of the spectrum, not to mention different pests, and different factors regarding behaviors, patterns, and other things like lifespan. These make it difficult for insurers to arrive at policy terms and sufficient values that homeowners would thereby deserve. With damage values varying wildly, it’s hard for insurance companies to place estimates on what it would cost to protect your home and belongings.

Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for Insurance Information Institute (III), said, “It would be really hard to calculate the possibility of a bedbug getting into someone’s luggage at an airport and infesting a house.”

Even standard commercial policies have exclusions related to bed bugs and other vermin. But what about your guests? No, not those guests — the ones you actually invited over that aren’t chewing on your stucco (or I hope they aren’t at least). What if someone tries to sue you because they were bit while at your house, and then claimed they transferred the critters to their own place?

In that scenario, it’s likely your liability coverage would pay out, which doesn’t have a pest exclusion. That may not sound very helpful while your mattress is being eaten alive, but it could be worse.

The Snake House

How much worse? It can get bad — ‘80s-horror- movie-bad. Kevin-Bacon-in-Tremors-bad.

Okay, well maybe Kevin Bacon wasn’t so bad in Tremors — it was the ‘80s, and every actor is allowed one straight-to-VHS horror movie. But it can definitely get bad when it comes to scary creatures trying to eat their way into your heart.

When Ben and Amber Sessions moved into their five bedroom house in rural Idaho, it seemed like they had just stolen the house at a price less than $180K. They would later find out why it was such a bargain. When signing the initial paperwork, the couple acknowledged that garter snakes were present — what backyard hasn’t entertained a garter snake or two? However, they didn’t know how many lived there before the couple. To put it mildly, the grass wasn’t green on the underside of the multitude of snakes’ bellies that were slithering around the Sessions’ backyard — and all over their home.

Sadly for the Sessions, who were new home buyers, the grass started looking greener just about everywhere else except their home. Snakes were everywhere. They were living in the siding, inside the walls, and eventually the water even began to smell like snake musk. If that invoked images of every trick up a horror movie director’s sleeve, it wouldn’t be surprising, as that’s exactly how Ben Sessions described it.

“It was like living in one of those horror movies.”

At one point, Ben killed 42 snakes in one day and soon after that, the family had no choice but to claim bankruptcy to get out of the mortgage. Because they signed paperwork claiming they knew about the snake problem, they had no recourse. A few brave real estate agents tried to sell the house again, but after appearing on Animal Planet’s new show Infested, the home was taken off the market.

Common Infestations

While the Sessions’ story is a nightmare tale, it’s not that common for snake infestations to happen on that kind of scale. Below are some of the most common uninvited guests and how long they like to wear out their welcome.

  • Mice & Rats: These pests invade an estimated 21 million U.S. home every year, especially during winter when they start looking for shelter and food. Once inside your home, it’s not just the property damage they can cause that you should be worried about — they’re known disease carriers. Black plague anyone? Also, rodents are supposedly responsible for up to 25% of house fires, but luckily, that’s covered by your home insurance.
  • Termites: Also known as “silent destroyers,” these bugs cause more than $5 billion in property damage annually, and the worst part is, you never know it’s happening. That’s why prevention is key when it comes to these little guys, which requires reducing water and humidity around your house and maintaining gaps between wood portions of your home and soil.
  • Cockroaches: While these pests don’t cause structural damage, they’re often a sign of unsanitary conditions. They can also contaminate food, and it’s been discovered that nearly one in five children are sensitive to cockroach allergens, which can cause asthma-like symptoms. Children in low-income housing are especially prone to this since infestations are more prevalent in larger scales.

Other pests you may find in your home include silverfish, fleas, and bees. The likelihood of an infestation depends on the type of house, your location in the country, and the time of year. Residents of South Florida are now dealing with a new kind of infestation, Giant African Snails. Due to the climate and the fact that they don’t have natural predators, these slimy invaders are eating stucco right off homes. They too are carriers of some serious health threats — they carry a parasitic lungworm which can cause meningitis in some people. That’s precisely why the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said these little slimeballs need to be cleaned up fast, no small job since just one lays about 1,200 eggs a year. EscarNO-t.

Since insurance doesn’t cover infestations and the inevitable large cleanup to follow, prevention is the best way to protect yourself. Keep your home clutter free, clean, and dry. Ensure access points are sealed, and invest in yearly exterminations. If you start seeing more critters appearing, show no mercy. It’s them or your house — quite literally if it’s a giant snail enjoying the “all you can eat stucco buffet” of your house.

Follow Desiree on Twitter @DesireeBaughman.

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