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3 ways El Niño may test your insurance

The approach of a storm is no time to wonder whether your policy will protect your home, car or health.

Years of mild winters on the West Coast have left many Americans with only faint memories of the hardships inclement weather can bring. But if experts' predictions come true, this winter may change that.

Earlier this fall, El Niño, the weather phenomenon characterized by unusually warm Pacific Ocean surface temperatures, reached levels not seen since 1997 - the strongest El Niño year on record. According to a December analysis by the National Weather Service, El Niño is expected to bring unusually cold temperatures and above-median precipitation to the southern portion of the U.S. this winter, and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation to the northern regions.

While El Niño may bring some relief to drought-affected Southwestern states, it may also deliver an uptick in the calamities that come with wet winter storms - some of which may affect your home, car or health.

Clouds on the horizon

Mike Eddy, an American Family insurance agent in Minden, Nevada, says the approach of a storm is a risky time to try to secure or change an insurance policy.

"We often have moratoriums in place when a specific weather event is on the horizon," says Eddy. "We won't issue new home policies or change any deductibles until the weather has subsided."

Given the relatively mild weather that some parts of the nation have experienced lately, weather-related insurance claims could bring nasty surprises to consumers in the months ahead. However, you can reduce your chances of falling victim to the season by considering insurance-related factors ahead of time.

Here are three insurance threats this El Niño-powered winter may bring, along with tips on guarding against them.

1. Batten down the hatches

The problem: Dangerous weather approaching. As Eddy notes, it's no time to shop for home insurance when a monster storm is already heading your way. The time to protect your home is before threatening weather materializes. This is true not only for homeowners - who may be required to carry home insurance because of their mortgage - but also for renters, whose possessions inside the home are just as vulnerable when a storm hits.

The solution: Be proactive with your precautions and with your policy. You may think that your home and possessions are safe when you have a homeowners or renters policy but remember that El Niño recently reached a level only seen once before in the last 50 years. That could bring unexpected circumstances - particularly when it comes to rising waters.

A standard homeowner or renters insurance policy does not cover floor damage. Without flood insurance, you can't look to an insurer to help with the costs of repairs or replacement of items damaged in the flood.

"It's sometimes advisable to look at flood insurance, even when your home isn't in a flood zone," says Eddy. "We've seen floods hit locally, and the homeowners there weren't always covered because their homes weren't in flood zones and they didn't have the coverage."

Damage from mudflows (rivers of flowing mud moving on the surface of normally dry land) is also not covered by homeowners or renters insurance. Mudflow damage may be covered by flood insurance, but since the cause of the mudflow may determine whether or not the damage is covered, it is important to understand the details and wording of your policy.

If you live in an area that is prone to landslides, mudflows, earthquakes and floods, it may be wise to look into a "Difference in Conditions" (DIC) policy. DIC policies include coverage for all of these natural events.

Eddy adds that the actions you take during a weather event can also affect your insurer's decisions to pay your home claim. That means you should take reasonable steps to prevent damage - such as turning off the water supply to frozen pipes whenever possible. If you were careless about protecting the property, your insurer may balk at paying the claim in full.

"If you leave your home vacant during harsh weather, you need to take the actions a prudent person would take to protect their home," Eddy says.

2. Hell on wheels

The threat: Driving in inclement weather. Rain, snow and wind can add a dangerous twist to your commute - especially if you live in a place that's ordinarily bathed in sunshine. These accidents can lead to costly jumps in your auto insurance rates.

The solution: Car maintenance, careful driving, and a good auto insurance policy. Ideally, your car insurance protects you from trouble, so changing your coverage specifically for a harsh winter may be neither necessary nor prudent (though if you've been considering dropping collision and comprehensive on an older car, you may want to wait until May to do so).

Still, there are steps you can take to make sure you don't test your coverage in the first place.

"Make sure you take good care of your car," says Eddy. "Get good tires for the season and carry chains. Practice good vehicle maintenance."

Insurance is scarcely the only reason you should keep your car in good working order and drive with extra vigilance during the winter. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data indicate that more than 480,000 people are injured and 6,250 are killed in weather-related auto accidents each year.

If your auto insurance policy is in need of a review to ensure against extreme weather, look especially at these items:

  • Increasing liability coverage. Since liability coverage pays if you injure others or damage someone else's property, higher auto insurance liability limits, such as $100,000 bodily injury per person/$300,000 bodily injury per accident/$50,000 property damage, will help keep your assets protected.
  • Include comprehensive and collision coverages. Collision will cover your car if you're in a weather-related accident, such as spinning out of control on ice and hitting a tree or rear-ending a car after hydroplaning on a soaked highway. Comprehensive coverage covers your car in the event of nature-related incidents, like rising water, mudslides, mudflows, landsides, tornados, or hail damage.

3. Under the weather

The problem: Illness and injury. Winter is well-known for bringing on colds and flus, not to mention the traumas that snow and ice mishaps can cause. That makes it a bad time to be stuck with a subpar health insurance policy.

The solution: Health insurance that works for you. Like auto insurance, health insurance should protect you in the best of times and the worst of times. But if you've spent the last several months struggling with a health policy, you aren't necessarily doomed to carry it throughout the El Niño winter - or at least not all of it.

Open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act began Nov. 1 and continues through Jan. 31, 2016. And the sooner you sign up, the sooner your coverage can begin. Signing up by Jan. 15 will start your coverage on Feb. 1, but you'll have to wait till March 1 if you enroll in a new program between Jan. 16 and Jan. 31.

If you wait past Jan. 31, you'll be stuck with the plan you have now for another year unless you have a qualifying life event, such as having a child or getting a divorce.

"It's important to think back to your health care experiences over the last year when open enrollment arrives," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for Insure.com. "You may have had a bad experience with your health insurance back in February, but there wasn't much you could do about it then. If that's the case, November and December are the times to act."

Stay warm … and fully covered

If El Niño brings the unusual weather it's expected to, staying inside may often top your to-do list. If you've not looked over your coverage documents in a while, that may provide a great opportunity to make sure your insurance policies still suit your needs, says Gusner.

"Insurance is one of those things that people think about once and then pretty much forget about - until they need it," she says. "But if this winter turns out to be extra cold and wet, it could be a good time to review your documents and maybe even compare quotes to make sure you still have competitive rates and an appropriate policy. That goes for your life insurance as well as your home, auto and health policies. It's a great excuse to stay inside when it's freezing outside."

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