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9 hidden dangers in your house

house dangers
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How do you define your home? Is it your castle, your sanctuary, your secure refuge from an uncertain world? Homeowner insurance companies certainly hope so, but too often they find that dwellings hide accidents--and costly policy claims--that are waiting to happen.

Keeping your home safe requires vigilance. If you take a careful inventory of your dwelling, including all living and storage areas, you're very likely to discover potential hazards. Sometimes you may need to call in a specialist to correct the situation, but most of the time you can handle the job yourself. Remember, if you keep policy claims off your record, it can pay off with reduced rates the next time you seek insurance quotes. Here are nine places where dangers may be hiding in and around your home:

1. Keeping your roof and attic free of hazards

You may as well start at the top. It's easy to forget about your roof until a problem arises. However, water from undetected leaks can seep into your home for months before the damage becomes noticeable. By that time, you may need to deal with costly mold problems and the repair company you hire may need to replace drywall and other building materials. It's much better for you--or a specialist--to give your roof periodic inspections. Be sure to take adequate safety precautions if you decide to climb onto your roof and don't hesitate to hire a professional if you have any doubts about your ability to do this safely. If you have an attic, make sure you give it an annual once-over, preferably on a rainy day.

As you check over your attic, don't forget to keep an eye out for signs of pests, such as rodents and insects. No one wants to go through the hassle of vacating their home to allow exterminators to do their job. Try to catch such problems early.

2. Securing your home from intruders

Unsecured doors and windows are an invitation to burglars. According to the Electronic Security Association trade group, most break-ins occur during the day when no one is home. The crimes are committed most often by males under age 25 who seek expensive items that can be easily sold, such as jewelry, guns, laptop computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. Seventy percent of burglars use some amount of force to enter a dwelling, but their favorite way to enter a home is through an open door or window.

If you install an electronic alarm system, "that will bring attention to the home," when there is an intruder, says Tim Bowen, director for homeowner claims at MetLife Auto & Home. The sound of the alarm will frighten away many burglars, but the best device is one that also alerts a staffed communications center so you can be notified by cell phone and the police can be summoned.

3. Cleaning up the laundry room

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that in 1998 clothes dryers were associated with 15,600 fires. They led to 20 deaths and 370 injuries. Fires often happen when lint builds up in the dryer or inside the exhaust duct.

The CPSC says you should be very careful when drying clothes that have been soiled with volatile chemicals such as gasoline, cooking oils, cleaning agents, or finishing oils and stains. It's best to air dry those items.

"You can accumulate a lot of debris" within dryer ducts, warns Peter Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California (IINC). "Anywhere there is heat, it can light up."

Make sure that you regularly clean the lint trap built into your dryer, along with the duct that carries the warm, moist air outside, adds Bowen. "Many of the hardware stores sell a brush so you can clean out the pipe that vents out the warm air. That will make the dryer more efficient as well if you can improve the airflow. That means you are going to consume less energy. It is not necessarily something you need to bring in an expert to do."

4. Don't forget the basement

If you have a basement, make sure that it gets a thorough check. Get rid of old flammable liquids and aerosol cans that no longer are in use, to reduce the potential for a fire. If you have an oil furnace, make sure it's inspected yearly. One of the most unpleasant surprises you can get is an oil furnace "puff back." It's not unusual for dirty furnaces to belch out soot that can ruin your carpeting and furniture.

Typically, furnaces that have clogged jets experience an oil buildup. It may go unnoticed for a long time, but one day you may hear a bang as soot is forced through heating ducts and into living areas. In such cases, you likely will need a professional cleaning company.

5. What's cooking?

The kitchen typically is the most dangerous room in your house. According to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), the stove and cooking accidents are leading causes of home fires and related injuries. Being aware of this danger is half the battle. Always cook with great care.

Never place anything flammable near the burners, says Moraga. "You want to make sure you don't have any combustible items around your stove or oven."

Bowen cautions you to never use water to douse a fire if you are cooking with oil or grease. Always keep a chemical fire extinguisher nearby. A grease fire can spread very quickly to kitchen cabinets.

6. Maintaining a safe fireplace and chimney

According to the nonprofit Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), you can best avoid a chimney fire by using dry, seasoned wood. Smaller and hotter fires burn more completely and produce less smoke. Avoid burning cardboard boxes, paper, trash or Christmas trees. If you use a wood stove, a stovepipe thermometer can help monitor flue temperatures.

The U.S. Fire Administration suggests that you have your chimney or wood stove inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist. Clear away debris and flammable decorations from the fireplace hearth. Always use metal mesh screens with fireplaces that don't have glass doors. Never use flammable liquids to start a fire.

While you're focused on fire issues, don't forget to install smoke alarms on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas.

7. The hazards outside your home

Jim Whittle, assistant general counsel and chief claims counsel for the American Insurance Association (AIA) trade group, says trees and the objects you keep outside your home can pose significant hazards.

"Make sure tree limbs are properly trimmed so they can't fall and hit the home," he says. Installing storm shutters in coastal areas that experience high winds is a good preventative step to take to protect your windows, he adds.

Be sure to put away lawn furniture if a severe storm is coming. "If you have 100 mph winds, it will lift that stuff right up and slam into your windows," he says.

If you live in wildfire country, be sure to keep the brush and landscaping near your dwelling trimmed. In California, homeowners are urged to maintain a defensible space for 100 feet surrounding dwellings. A reduction of flammable vegetation greatly increases the chance of your home surviving a wildfire. It also improves safety for firefighters.

If you have a swimming pool or spa outside your home, be sure to make sure they are not accessible to children who could fall in and drown. Every year, about 300 children under age 5 die in swimming pool accidents, says the CPSC. Check with your home insurance company to make sure you are properly covered.

8. What about the plumbing?

Water losses are among the most costly insurance claims, creating major headaches for homeowners and driving up home insurance prices. Moraga says you should check your plumbing regularly for leaks. To do a visual inspection of possible plumbing leaks, "go under each of your sinks and look at the pipes," says Moraga. "Often there are slow leaks under the cupboards. Check the hoses that go into your washing machine. Many refrigerators now have automatic ice makers, so there is a water hose that goes into your refrigerator, and that can leak."

Don't forget about inspecting water heaters that are tucked out of sight in a garage or basement. Some newer homes have water heaters on their second floors, greatly increasing the potential for structural damage if a leak occurs.

Often water damage occurs while residents are on vacation. Moraga advises you to shut off the water to your home completely if you are going to be away for an extended time.

9. Cleaning out your garage

For many homeowners the garage has become the ultimate "junk room" and a graveyard for unwanted possessions. Ceramic piggy banks, velvet paintings of Elvis and broken tricycles all find homes garages so cluttered that adding "just one more thing" doesn't seem to matter.

In regions of the country where basements are uncommon, many homeowners park their cars on the street to increase the storage space in their garage. All of this junk makes garages likely places for fires, especially when flammable chemicals are present.

To reduce the potential for accidents, be careful about how you store tools in your garage, advises Bowen. "A lot of people keep things that are sharp. You want to make sure they are out of the reach of kids."

If a neighbor's child were injured in your garage, it could trigger a liability insurance claim. Remember that reducing the potential for claims will give you a better chance of finding affordable insurance rates in the future.

 

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