We all love classic holiday comedies in which characters tumble down staircases, battle wildlife intruders and fight tooth and nail against burglars. But in the real world, holiday disasters can leave homes in ruins and families in mourning.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, one in 32 holiday tree fires result in fatalities. Between 2013 and 2017, holiday tree fires caused around $10 million in property damage each year. During the same period, fire departments across the country responded to nearly 800 fires per year caused by holiday decorations other than trees.
But tree and decoration fires don’t account for all holiday tragedies. Cooking fires increase during the holidays and so do traffic accidents and fireworks-related injuries.
Holiday perils may lead some homeowners to avoid the fun and frivolity of the holiday season altogether. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Understanding your homeowners insurance coverage and learning how to protect your family and home from holiday-related dangers can set your mind at ease, leaving you to only worry about preventing family squabbles and overeating.
What types of holiday incidents are covered under home insurance?
Chances are, your current home insurance policy has you well covered going into the holiday season. Most standard homeowners policies include:
- Dwelling coverage protects your home’s primary living space and attached structures such as garages and carports. Typically, home policies cover damages caused by explosions, fire, lightning, sleet or snow, theft and vandalism.
- Personal property insurance covers your homes contents, including appliances, clothing, electronics and furniture.
- Personal liability coverage helps pay for bodily injuries or property damage sustained by someone outside your household while on your property. Liability coverage can also pay for damages or injuries caused by your child or pet. Personal liability coverage applies to incidents in which the homeowner is at fault for injuries or property damage.
- Additional living expenses coverage helps pay your living expenses if a covered calamity such as a fire requires you to temporary move to another house or apartment.
Many homeowners also purchase medical payments insurance. Unlike personal liability insurance, medical payments coverage pays the immediate medical expenses of a guest who sustains an injury on your property, regardless of who is at fault.
In most cases, your standard homeowners policy will cover most holiday-related mishaps. However, depending on the value of gifts you plan to buy and the number of guests you plan to entertain, you might need to increase some types of coverages. Some of the most common types of holiday-related claims include:
- Theft – If thieves steal your snowman yard ornament or smash the lights that adorn your house, your personal property insurance should cover the loss. Likewise, if someone breaks into your home and makes off with your holiday gifts, your standard policy should have you covered. However, personal property insurance may not provide adequate coverage for expensive items. For example, if you plan to give your wife an expensive diamond necklace this holiday season, you might want to purchase a separate jewelry policy.
- Injuries and property damage – Fun-filled gatherings and festive adornments make the holidays enjoyable, but the unusual activities of the season can lead to events that leave you legally liable for injuries or property damage. A rowdy reveler could take a tumble down your stairs during a party, an errant bottle rocket could set your neighbor’s yard ablaze or your feisty French bulldog could attack a caroler. Personal liability coverage typically starts at around $100,000, which can cover many holiday mishaps. But if you plan to install elaborate decorations or throw holiday parties for more than a handful of guests, talk to your insurance agent to find out if you have enough liability insurance.
- Fires – House fires are the most commonly discussed holiday calamities. Holiday trees can ignite, decorative house lights can set roofs of fire and cooking accidents can set kitchens ablaze. If you have sufficient dwelling insurance to rebuild your home, you probably do not need to increase coverage for potential holiday perils.
- Credit card theft – Most standard homeowners policies include around $500 in coverage to pay for items purchased with a stolen credit card.
How can I protect my home during the holidays?
Purchasing enough dwelling, liability, medical expenses and personal property insurance may set your mind at ease, but taking certain precautions can help you avoid disasters and holiday-related claims. Holiday activities such as decorating and preparing meals come with risks, so proceed wisely to avoid a holiday nightmare.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 25% of holiday tree fires are caused by electrical issues. If your family prefers a live tree, follow these precautions to keep your home safe:
- Buy a fresh tree with green needles that do not fall off when you touch them.
- Before inserting the tree into its stand, cut off two inches of the trunk to ensure good water penetration.
- Place the tree at least three feet away from heat sources or open flames, including candles, fireplaces, floor and table lamps, heating vents and radiators.
- Do not place the tree in a space that blocks an exit or creates a trip hazard.
- Refill the tree stand’s water reservoir every day.
- Never decorate a tree with lit candles.
- Discard the tree after it becomes dry and needles start to fall on the floor. Many communities have tree disposal programs, so check with your local sanitation department.
Manufacturers and retailers often advertise artificial trees as being safer than live trees, but that’s not always true. In fact, pre-lit artificial trees pose the same fire risk as live trees, according to Underwriters Laboratory’s research. A marketing claim that an artificial tree is flame resistant is not enough to ensure its safety. When purchasing a pre-lit artificial tree, look for the UL 2358 certification, the highest safety rating. When placing and decorating your tree, follow the same precautions recommended for live trees, except for watering and disposal requirements.
Indoor and outdoor holiday lights can pose many risks, but following a few safety tips can help you avoid problems:
- Only use lights certified by Underwriters Laboratories. Look for the “UL” symbol when shopping for holiday lights.
- Never use lights designed for outdoor use on an indoor tree.
- Before placing lights on the tree, look for broken bulbs, loose bulbs and frayed or exposed wires. If a strand displays any of these issues, throw it away and purchase new lights.
- Do not overload power strips, and only use strips equipped with circuit breakers or surge protection.
- Turn off lights when you go to bed or leave home, even if you’re only leaving for a few minutes.
- Never use extension cords designed for indoor use for outdoor lighting or holiday displays.
- Use low-heat LED strip lights on trees and shrubs.
- Do not stretch extension cords across dry grass or through water puddles.
- Never decorate dry, dead trees or shrubs with lights.
Trees are not the only holiday fire risk. Holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving have the highest number of fires during cooking because of the increased cooking times and distractions. You must also take special precautions when preparing holiday meals:
- Make sure kids stay at least three feet away from stoves and ovens. Or, make your kitchen a kids-free zone during holiday meal preparation.
- Don’t cook your holiday turkey or ham overnight, while you are asleep or while you’re away from home. Always remain in or near your kitchen while cooking.
- Plug cooking appliances directly into an outlet, and avoid connecting them to an extension cord.
- Never use a deep-fat turkey fryer indoors, even in a garage. Place the turkey fryer on concrete that is at least three feet from dry grass or shrubs. Better yet, purchase an oil-less turkey fryer for safer cooking.
- Do not place flammable materials such as bags, cooking oil and grease containers, food packaging, oven mitts, towels and wooden utensils near stove burners. Likewise, do not wear baggy clothes when cooking to prevent contact with stoves. If you have long hair, tie it in a ponytail or bun and use a head cover.
- Place completed dishes on back burners to avoid accidental burns.
- Clean grease from stovetops and countertops to avoid flare ups.
- Avoid serving excessive amounts of alcohol. While Grandpa might be the life of the party after a few drinks, inebriated partygoers could sustain an injury or cause a damaging accident to your home.
- Make sure intoxicated party guests have a designated driver or go home by taxi or rideshare. According to the National Safety Council, nearly 1,100 people in 2017 died in traffic accidents on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, one-third of which were attributed to alcohol impairment
Using battery-operated candles, kinaras and menorahs is the best way to avoid burns and fires during the holiday season. However, if you choose to use real candles, follow these tips to keep your family and home safe:
- Only use durable candle holders made from glass or metal.
- Never leave candles unattended. Extinguish candles before going to bed, when you leave home and even when you leave the room for more than a couple of minutes.
- Keep candles out of reach of kids and pets. According to the New York City Fire Department, children five to nine years old account for the majority of New York City fatalities caused by candle fires.
- Never place candles less than three feet away from flammable materials such as beds, carpeting, curtains, holiday trees, sofas and tablecloths.
- Don’t let candles burn to their base. Extinguish them when they reach two inches from the holder.
- Avoid wearing baggy clothing around candles and secure long hair in a ponytail, bun or head covering.
- Secure matches and lighters out of reach of children and at least four feet from open flames.
- Don’t use candles for outdoor decoration.
A fireplace enhances the ambiance of any home, especially during the holiday season. They provide warmth on cold winter nights and serve as the centerpiece for festive gatherings. To prevent fireplace mishaps during the holidays, follow regular safety recommendations, along with a few extra precautions:
- Hire a licensed specialist to inspect and clean your fireplace and chimney before the cold winter months arrive.
- Keep fireplaces clean by promptly removing ash and coals after each use.
- Store combustible materials such as newspaper, kindling and wood three to four feet away from the fireplace.
- Always open the flue before starting a fire and avoid closing it until the fire has completely burned out.
- Never use a flammable liquid to start a fire. Use only matches or lighters.
- Prevent embers from escaping the fireplace by placing a metal mesh or glass screen in front of it. Attached glass doors provide the best protection.
- Always use dry wood in your fireplace because wet wood can cause a chimney fire if creosote buildup occurs.
- Do not use your fireplace to dispose of items such as boxes or wrapping paper, because some materials produce toxic fumes when burned.
- Never burn a holiday tree in a fireplace.
- Always extinguish a fire before going to bed or leaving home.
- Store fireplace ash in a metal can, at least 10 feet from your house and store dry firewood at least 30 feet from your house.
- Remove tree branches that grow over your chimney and keep the roof around your chimney free from leaf and pine needle debris.
- Fit your chimney with a chimney cap to prevent embers from escaping and keep animals and leaves out.
- Install carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in your home. Many insurance companies offer discounts for installing these safety devices.
- Do not allow small children or pets within three or four feet of your fireplace, especially when the screen is removed or glass doors are open.
Typically, gas furnaces do not require special consideration during the holiday season. However, to protect your family and house during the cold months, you can take additional steps:
- Have your furnace inspected and cleaned before winter arrives by a technician that has earned North American Technician Excellence certification.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home to warn you in the event of a dangerous gas buildup.
- Never operate your furnace with a dirty burner or filter.
- Make sure your furnace’s door panel remains closed during use to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Never store combustible materials near your furnace, including boxes, gasoline cans and newspapers.
Our family pets often don’t understand dangers, so it’s up to us to keep them safe during the holidays. You can keep your pet safe and healthy by following these simple tips:
- Prevent pets from accessing electrical cords. Pets such as cats, dogs and rabbits often see an electrical cord as a toy to chew, especially cords on light strands and extension cords. When possible, run cords under furniture or cover them to prevent your pet from suffering a serious electrocution injury.
- Avoid giving pets table scraps during the holiday season unless you know the food is safe for your pet’s species.
- Research holiday plants before bringing them into your home. Plants such as mistletoe and poinsettias are toxic for some pet species.
Most homeowners don’t need to beef up their insurance coverage during the holiday season. If you plan to decorate your home with lavish ornaments, entertain large groups or purchase expensive gifts for your loved ones, you might need to discuss additional liability or personal property coverage with your insurance agent.
As the holiday season draws near, the most important consideration is keeping your family and home safe from thieves and catastrophes. By following a few simple decorating, cooking and entertaining safety guidelines, you can rest assured that your holiday plans won’t turn into a movie-worthy disaster.
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