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Unplug the toaster! 8 ways insurance pros protect their own homes

Claims adjusters, agents and other insurance professionals get a firsthand look at all the things that can go wrong at home. They see everything from catastrophic events -- like major storms -- to more common problems, like dryer fires, burglaries and plumbing leaks.

When you see similar claims cross your desk every week, you begin to rethink your own family’s habits.

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When insurance pros go home for the day, they implement their own techniques for reducing the chance of mishaps.

Avoid water damage  

Water damage is one of the most common and costly problems affecting homes, leading to billions of dollars in losses to homeowners and renters each year, says the Insurance Information Institute. Because of their cost, such losses carry a stigma. Once your home has had a serious water loss, it can affect your insurance rates.

Fortunately, technology can give homeowners an early warning when water leaks occur. Although they don’t enjoy the popularity of smoke detectors, water detectors that sound alarms when they come in contact with water can be highly useful in alerting homeowners to leaks, says Kevin Foley, an independent insurance agent in Milltown, N.J. That’s why he has installed such devices throughout his home.

“I have one under my water heater; behind my refrigerator in case the ice cube maker becomes disconnected; and behind my washing machine, in case the machine overflows,” he says. “Anywhere you have the risk of water, I would put a water alarm. They are battery operated. The sensor sits on the floor. I have been awakened out of bed and pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and the ice cube maker was dripping water.”

Remove dryer lint

Tim Bowen, director of homeowner insurance claims at MetLife Auto & Home, pays special attention to his clothes dryer. Most people know about the need to remove material from the lint filter, but many don’t take the time to clean out the dryer vents that funnel the warm air outdoors.

For that task, Bowen uses a brush mounted on the end of a flexible metal pole. He says lint left inside your dryer vent can catch fire. Even if it doesn’t, lint in the vent can make your dryer inefficient. “If you get a little bit of blockage, you are consuming more energy,” Bowen says.

Unplug your appliances

Unplug your toaster to reduce the chance of fireA good way to avoid claims for electrical fire is to unplug appliances before leaving your home, advises Ronald R. Reitz, a public claims adjuster based in San Diego. At his own home, Reitz’s  wife has made it her mission to check all electric outlets before they leave.

“She likes to unplug everything,” Reitz says proudly. “She will unplug appliances, the toaster, the microwave, sometimes lights. She always makes sure she unplugs her hair dryer.”

Do a visual check

After a serious storm, Derek Ross, an insurance agent in Tarzana, Calif., does a visual check of his home to make sure there has been no exterior damage. When it’s safe to go outside, you should take a good look around. Is the roof intact? Are the rain gutters in place and functioning properly? Was a fence damaged? Are there fallen trees or branches?

I like to do a simple walk around my home to make sure I don’t notice any tiles on the roof that have been moved by wind or other things that have been compromised.”

Make sure your house looks occupied

Whenever you leave your home, whether it be for a weekend or a short trip to the grocery store, make sure it appears that someone is home. In addition to using lights, make sure it sounds like someone is home. The sound of a television can make an intruder think twice before entering.

“If you have lights on and noise, they will move on to the next house,” Bowen says of burglars. “The thief is going to be looking for the easiest target. They don’t want to engage the person living in the home. They want to grab contents and go.”

Remove hiding places for burglars

You may love the lush landscaping surrounding your home, but if it makes it hard for passersby and neighbors to see your windows and doors, you may have an insurance claim in the making. High hedges that make your home invisible from the sidewalk are an invitation to burglars, says Bowen. Thieves look for secluded places where they can force their way into your home without alerting your neighbors.

“Keep the shrubs low,” Bowen says. “Don’t provide cover [for burglars] around the home. “Make them think about going somewhere else. You don’t want 12-foot-high hedges. Even if your neighbors were around, they wouldn’t see anything going on.”

Record all major purchases

Everybody knows you’re supposed to keep an inventory of possessions to give to your insurer if there is a loss due to a fire, burglary or some other mishap. Ross says most people fail to keep their inventories updated. If you can’t remember what was stolen or destroyed, it won’t get replaced. After the trauma of a loss, your memory may be faulty. Every time Ross makes a major purchase, he updates his list of possessions and sends it by e-mail to himself. Just to be safe, he sends a copy to a friend.

“If my house burned down I could hop on my computer and/or iPad and shoot [the inventory] off to the insurance company to help expedite a claim,” he says.

Work with volunteer community patrols

Although a standard home insurance policy will replace items lost in a burglary, it can’t restore your lost sense of security or bring back possessions that had sentimental value. Volunteer community policing programs -- often staffed by senior retirees -- are extremely useful in preventing burglaries, says Ross.

Before he leaves for vacation, he lets his local volunteer patrol know that his home will be empty. While doing vacation checks, such patrols report suspicious circumstances to the police.

“I know they are going out of their way to check on my residence to make sure it is safe and secure,” Ross says. “It is another set of eyes that are watching over my home when I am out of town.”

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