Massachusetts homeowner’s insurance coverage

Dry Rot Example

Water Damage Originating From Exterior Of Home = Claim Denied

In one of the more important homeowner’s insurance cases decided in recent memory, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) considered what is covered under a standard Massachusetts homeowner’s insurance policy when rain, snow melt and runoff create water damage and dry rot to the inside of a home. The case is Boazova v. Safety Insurance Co., SJC-10908 (May 29, 2012).

The Court ruled there was no coverage under the homeowner’s insurance policy where significant hidden water seepage through foundation cracks caused a kitchen floor to turn into a “spongy and mushy” mess. Under the exclusion for damage caused by “surface water,” the court held, there is no coverage for loss covered by rain, flood waters or runoff originating from outside the home, rather than inside the home, like a burst pipe. This interpretation of the Mass. standard homeowner’s policy is not what most insured expect from their insurance coverage, but unfortunately it puts to rest what most homeowners who have suffered a water damage claim know already:  a water damage claim will likely be denied if the source of water is from the natural accumulation of rain, snow melt or ice seeping into the ground, through a roof, or through the foundation.

Severe Wood Rot Discovered

While undertaking a kitchen renovation project, Ms. Boazova, an Arlington homeowner, discovered severe deterioration of the wooden sill plate that rested on top of the concrete foundation at the base of the home’s rear wall, as well as of the adjoining floor joists and wall studs. The kitchen floor and sub-floor was moist, spongy and falling apart. The homeowner’s expert engineer opined that because the concrete patio was poured directly against the house, water and moisture migrated down from the sill plate, below grade to the foundation, causing the water damage. There was no dispute that the origin of the water infiltration and seepage was from outside elements such as rain, sleet and snow melt. The insurance company denied coverage based on the policy’s exclusion for damage caused by “surface water,” and the homeowner sued.

No Coverage For Damage Caused By “Surface Water”

This case is the first in recent memory where the SJC has considered the interplay between the new Limited Fungi, Wet or Dry Rot, or Bacteria Coverage indorsement, the “hidden seepage” provision and the “anti-concurrent cause” exclusion for “surface water damage” in the standard Massachusetts homeowner’s insurance policy. Making sense of the Massachusetts standard homeowner’s policy coverages and exclusions is a bit like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Even the SJC justices had some difficulty, albeit they ultimately sided with the insurance company:

“Although the language of the policy and the indorsement is challenging to even the most careful reader because of the way it connects various coverages, exclusions and exceptions, we conclude that Boazova’s claimed loss — the deterioration and rotting of the wooden sill plat, adjoining floor joists, and wall studs — is excluded from coverage by unambiguous provisions in the policy.”

Take-Away: Exterior Surface Water Cause = Claim Denied

The key point is the Court’s conclusion that the surface water exclusion carried the day. Describing “surface water” as “waters from rain, melting snow, springs or seepage, or floods that lie or flow on the surface of the earth and naturally spread over the ground but to not form a part of a natural watercourse or lake,” the judges ruled that there was no coverage because the property damage was a direct result of rain and snow melt migrating down the foundation into the bellow grade kitchen floor. This covers just about every conceivable flooding scenario.

As far as what homeowner’s can take-away from this decision, well unfortunately they should keep an emergency capital reserve fund ready because any claims made for water damage arising out of exterior conditions will likely be denied. The only type of “flooding” claims which will be covered would be burst pipes and possibly overrun interior sump pumps or perimeter drain systems which cause flooding — and even those will likely involve a battle with the insurance company.


Richard D. Vetstein, Esq. is an experienced Massachusetts real estate and homeowner’s insurance coverage attorney. For more information, please contact him at 508-620-5352 or [email protected].


ice-dam.jpgHaving spent the entire weekend in a feeble attempt to shovel the snow and bludgeon the one foot thick ice dams off my roof, I’ve bit the bullet and hired a professional. No use risking life and limb, and doing a third rate job. I also have a nice one inch crack along my family room ceiling, no doubt caused by the huge ice damn above it.

My Facebook stream is filled with pleas from homeowners about ice dams and related winter snow and ice damage. I’m also hearing stories about price gouging on roof snow and ice removal. (According to Sudbury Realtor Gabrielle Daniels Brennan, you should be paying only between $300-$800, max.)

So, time to call in the professionals, and dust off my trusty Massachusetts homeowner’s insurance policy to see what’s covered and what’s not.

Ice Dam Insurance Coverage

Very few insurance policies cover ice dam or snow removal from your roof or anywhere else on your property for that matter. However, interior or exterior damage caused by an ice dam on your roof is typically covered. As with any insurance claim, call the claims department immediately and take photos of the damage.

Ice Dam Treatment & Prevention

In the short term, there are a couple things you can try.

  1. Try to remove snow from the roof but only if it can be done safely. A roof rake or push broom can be used but may cause damage to the shingles. If it’s not possible to remove the snow safely, call a professional like I did.
  2. Chisel grooves into the dam to allow the water behind it to drain off. This is a good emergency measure, especially if rain or a sudden thaw is coming. Be careful not to damage those shingles!
  3. Fill an old pair of your wife’s pantyhose with calcium chloride snow melt and lay it across the dam. I’m not kidding! I did this over the weekend and it seemed to work. It will help to melt the dam and also keep that area of the roof clear. DO NOT USE ROCK SALT! It will stain the roof and siding. It is best for small dams or prevention. It’s also a good idea to scrape the snow off the roof first.

To prevent ice dams in the longer term, keeping warm air from escaping into the attic is the first course of action. In addition to helping resolve ice dam issues, it will result in a more comfortable and less expensive to heat home.

Frozen Pipes Insurance Coverage

Not all companies pay to have frozen pipes thawed by professionals. Some will though. Most policies cover pipe replacement and water damage. The coverage may not apply if you turned the furnace off for the winter without winterizing the house and its contents.

Frozen Pipe Prevention

Frozen water in pipes can cause water pressure buildup between the ice blockage and the closed faucet at the end of a pipe which leads to pipes bursting at their weakest point. Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are particularly vulnerable to freezing in extremely cold weather. Holes in outside walls for TV, cable or telephone lines allow cold air to enter the house.

To keep water in the pipes from freezing, take the following precautions:

Fit exposed pipes with insulation sleeves or wrapping to slow the heat transfer. The more insulation the better.

Seal cracks and holes in outside walls and foundations near water pipes with caulking.

Keep cabinet doors open during cold spells to allow warm air to circulate around pipes, particularly in the kitchen and bathroom.

Keep a slow trickle of water flowing through faucets connected to pipes that run through and unheated or unprotected space. Drain the water system especially if your house will be unattended during cold periods.

Interruption of Services

If you lose power during a storm, an all-risk homeowner’s policy usually pays for spoiled food, repairs to damage caused by loss of power, and appliances damaged by the outage. Many policies also will pay for shelter when you lose power for extended periods during the winter. If you lose heat and fail to take steps to prevent pipes from freezing, your policy may not cover the resulting damage.

Additional Resources

Nadine Heaps, Purple Ink Insurance. Nadine is an experienced homeowner’s insurance agent who can answer your questions on coverages.

I’ll Be (Ice) Dammed, The Massachusetts Mortgage Blog by David Gaffin