Insurance Protection for All That Surrounds You
By Paul Pukis
September 30, 2013
Protecting All That Surrounds You
I don't know about you, but every time I look around my own home or walk into someone else's I mentally cringe and think: Could be better. It's not the furnishings, decorations or cleanliness that bother me. It's the safety hazards and security risks. Once you tune into this stuff, you spot the flaws in every corner. Is your home insurance up to the challenge?
Trouble is, we're all so busy leading our supercharged lives that either we don't notice the warning signs or we just don't do anything about them. Or we push them back on the honey-do list with a mental "I'll get around to it" note. But we never do.
In a moment, I'm going to explain some simple ways to make your family, yourself and your home safer. But I just want to give you some numbers that show how deadly serious this business is.
So, where to start in making your home a safer place to live? Well, the first thing is to avoid getting overwhelmed by the task. You can't do it all at once. So you have to work out your priorities. And that may depend on where you live, who lives with you, and what's already been done to protect you.
For instance, if you live in a low crime area and have a young family, maybe kid-proofing your home is going to be ahead of installing a burglar alarm. Or if you have older or disabled folk in your household, solving their needs may be top of the list.
Spend a little while thinking this through, weighing what needs to be done against your available time and budget. You may decide to do things in a different order to the way I present them here. But whatever you do, it's an idea first to take a walk around your house, inside and out, and jot down some notes about what needs to be done under the following headings:
- Security – what you need to do to make your home safe from intruders. Which are the most vulnerable places? Doors? Windows? Basements?
- Fire and fume hazards – are there particularly risky places? Are there smokers (both human and stoves) in the house? Where's the ventilation? What about the clothes dryer vent?
- Possible accident spots – such as floor coverings, staircases, clutter (like in a teen's bedroom!), doors that open the "wrong" way, loose or worn fittings.
- Storage – from medications and laundry supplies, thru weapons, to emergency supplies like flashlights. How safe? How accessible?
- Safety and switch-off points. Check locations and accessibility of alarms and utility shut-offs. Do you know where they are and how to enable/disable them? Are they fully functional?
- Get the picture? You'll learn a lot more about these in the next few pages – and how to make them safe.
So, let's get started.
How to Protect Your Home and Save Money
As far as I'm concerned, home safety boils down to two things – protecting your home and possessions, and taking care of yourself and your family. Let's start with the building and contents.
Things that won't cost you a cent
You don't have to turn your home into a fortress or spend a lot of money to make your place a heck-of-a-lot tougher for thieves to penetrate. In fact, there are a few things that won't cost a cent. I'm thinking here about keeping your doors and windows locked whenever possible, the garage door shut, letting trustworthy neighbors know and canceling newspaper and mail deliveries when you're going away, and fixing those shaky old fences.
Don't hide an emergency door key outside – thieves know all the "secret" places you believe they'll never think of, including that little bunny-rabbit figurine with the hidden compartment underneath. And be wary about trusting a youngster with an entry key. Give it to a relative or neighbor. Don't even keep your main key with items that identify your address, and never leave it in your car.
While we're on the subject of cars, you do always close your windows (leaving breathing space for pets if you have them) and lock the doors when you leave it, don't you? And, of course, you never leave your engine running while you dash across to the ATM? A friend of mine has never seen his cherished sports coupe since he did that a few years back.
Low budget route to peace of mind
Here's a comforting thought. When you spend just a small amount of money to improve your home security, you substantially reduce the risk of being burglarized. Even better, you may be able to cut your insurance premium by up to 20% – different insurers have different rules, so you'll need to investigate this.
You can buy a window lock for less than a dollar, a door safety chain for a couple of bucks, and a peephole that lets you view visitors before opening the door for just a little more. They're all simple to install but, if it's beyond your ability, find a friend, neighbor or relative who can help.
If your door locks and latches are old, or if you lost a key, replace them, making sure the new ones have a deadbolt at least one inch long. If your door has glass that a thief could break to reach through to the handle inside, consider a double deadbolt that has a key lock on each side – BUT always leave the key in the inside lock when you're at home, otherwise you won't be able to escape in an emergency.
Beyond this, we're talking home security alarms and detectors, but again it doesn't need to cost you a fortune. As I write this, I just did a quick check online and found systems at one big Internet retailer starting from as little as $25. It was wireless too – easy to install, with no messy wiring to do.
However, I'm not necessarily saying this is the way to go. It depends on your neighborhood crime risk, your personal vulnerability (for instance if you live alone) and your budget. You generally get what you pay for and this is an area where you might want to consult a professional – both about your needs and to do the installation. But if you do this, make sure you get two or, preferably, three competitive bids.
More sophisticated systems might include audible external alarms, external lighting directed at your home, cameras, internal motion sensors and even direct links to the security company that alerts them if your home is broken into. You can get more information on these options, including local experts from the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association at alarm.org.
Watch out for smooth talkers
You can have all the security systems in the world in place but they're of limited value if you let a burglar in through your front door. These characters come in all sorts of guises – like phony utility workers or someone asking for a glass of water or to use your bathroom or phone – but they all have a convincing story to tell.
They may even distract you inside or outside your home while an accomplice gets to work, or open a door or window so they can return later. The solution is not to let anyone into your house (nor go outside with them) unless you're 110% sure of who they are. Check their credentials and, if necessary, phone their supposed employers before letting them in. And use a door chain to prevent them forcing entry.
Protect yourself from fire and fumes
Wouldn't it be just great if we could build totally fireproof homes? I mean, building materials, furnishings and clothing that just didn't burn. Technically, I suppose it's possible but it'd cost you a small fortune. And since most of us can't go that route, let me tell you about the four things I've done in my home – bearing in mind, the most important thing in any home fire is the safety and survival of the occupants.
1. Installed fire/smoke alarms (a few dollars each) in all main rooms and hallways, and I check batteries regularly. If you already have them and they're more than 10 years old, I recommend you replace them.
2. Bought a fire escape ladder that I keep on an easily-accessible shelf on the landing, in case fire traps anyone upstairs. If you buy one, make sure everyone knows how to use it!
3. Placed a fire extinguisher in an entry-way closet. This only works if you take the time to learn how to use it (and what sort of fires it works on), regularly replace it, and use it only to tackle small fires – and then only AFTER calling 911.
4. Developed a simple fire safety and escape plan that I discussed with my family. The number one rule: Get out of the house and stay out. My plan included talking to my kids about fire dangers and appropriate behavior. See the next chapter for more on this
You can pick up some more useful tips on fire safety at home at firesafety.gov.
By the way, you may find that your local fire department offers free home checks and even free or cheap alarms.
You should also install at least one carbon monoxide alarm in your home (preferably near the bedrooms), which will pick up on fumes from furnaces, fires, other appliances and vehicles that reach a danger level in your home.
Weather-proofing your home
Would-be burglars and wayward flames are the most obvious threats to the security of your home. But there are others. Take the weather for instance. It never ceases to surprise us – or the meteorologists! – does it?
But there are a few simple steps you can take to minimize weather impact on your home and family. Lagging exposed pipes is probably the first thing that comes to mind – and not just outside either. One home I owned was plumbed for laundry appliances in the garage. I never used the system but completely overlooked the fact that it was still full of water – until the thaw after a particularly cold spell!
On the other hand, when the weather is hot and dry, it's your body more than your home that you have to think about – keeping well-hydrated and staying cool. Don't forget to take care of maintenance of your air conditioning and ventilation systems and to follow any advisories on brush clearance in a fire-risk area.
If you live in a storm, tornado, flood, or hurricane prone area, your basic safety rules include monitoring weather warnings, securing all vulnerable areas, including doors and windows, and knowing what to do if the worst happens. We take a closer look at preparing to deal with natural disasters in the next chapter.
Safes – every home should have one
A good safe is your final line of defense if someone does break into your home or if fire threatens to destroy valuables and important documents. In my opinion, every home should have one and it should be bolted to the floor – preferably a concrete floor or a joist.
It makes sense to keep really important stuff that you don't need regularly in a bank safety deposit box, but, for jewelry you wear frequently or documents you consult regularly, a small safe will meet your needs.
And, of course, it should go without saying that if you keep weapons or other potentially dangerous items at home, they should always be under lock and key.
Keeping Your Family Healthy & Safe At Home
Watch out for that wet floor. Whoops! Too late. Mind you don't bang your head. Ouch! Don't eat that. Oh no! I guess we've all been there, done that. And we have the scars to prove it! You let your guard down for a minute and disaster walks through the door. And some places – we've all been there too – are just asking for trouble.
There's just no way you can guarantee total safety in a home. But there's a whole lot you can do to eliminate the vast majority of the risks. Did you spot anything on that home and yard tour I advised a few pages back? I'd be surprised if you didn't. Most of our problems are down to carelessness and thoughtlessness and there are a few basic rules I can give you right now about dealing with them.
Basic home safety tips that could save a life
- Falls are the most common cause of accidents in the home, a substantial proportion of them serious or even fatal. You can cut the risk of these and maybe save a life by:
- Ensuring carpets are properly fixed to the floor (use floor-gripper tape for loose rugs on slippery surfaces, and ensure fitted carpets are fastened down).
- Removing clutter, especially in busy "traffic" areas.
- Marking temporary hazards – like a ladder that people don't expect to encounter – with a piece of brightly colored cloth and removing it as soon as you're done.
- Keeping floors dry or out of bounds when wet. You can buy specially absorbent rugs for particularly dangerous areas like the kitchen, laundry and bathroom.
- Installing handrails in bathrooms or wherever there are steps (including the yard) – especially important if you have older folk living with or visiting you.
- Repairing and leveling walkways in the yard.
- Installing low-wattage lighting along driveways and paths that are used at night.
Fires and fumes, which I talked about a few pages back, are another key area of home safety. In addition to the measures I recommended then, it's also important to make sure all rooms are properly ventilated, heating appliances are also inspected and serviced annually, air ducts and filters are regularly cleaned, and lint filters on clothes dryers are cleared out after each usage. Blocked lint filters and dryer vents are a major cause of fumes and fires.
Finally, I want to warn about keeping dangerous stuff out of reach. I'm talking here not only about your medications – prescription and over-the-counter stuff – and weapons that I talked about before. There are also other dangers you may not immediately recognize, like poisonous house plants, cleaning products and cosmetics and heavy or fragile objects that could cause mayhem if they fall or are broken.This is especially important if you have young people or pets around your home. You can get a list of poisons from both the American Association of Poison Control Centers and the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.
Child-proof and pet-proof your home
I was visiting some elderly friends of mine a while back and noticed how many power outlets were uncovered at ground level. They were proudly showing me pictures of their year-old great-grandson. They were excited because the youngster and his parents would be visiting the following weekend.
"You know," I said, "he's going to be crawling around everywhere. You need to get those outlets covered. And while you're at it, make sure he can't even get to them and pull out the plugs that are connected.
"Oh, and maybe you need a plan for how you're going to stop him crawling up your stairs."
The point is, you don't need to be an active parent to have to childproof your home. And, in fact, many of the same things you'd do to keep kids safe in your house or apartment also would apply to pets.
I already mentioned keeping poisons, weapons and ornaments out of reach. But there are plenty of other things you should do to protect little ones and furry friends. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission lists 12 devices you can use to protect youngsters. If you're on the Internet, you can download their guide (see the contacts and links pages at the back of this book), but here, in summary, is the list:
1. Safety locks and catches on cabinets and draws wherever they're accessible.
2. Safety gates across doorways and stairs.
3. Doorknob covers and door locks to prevent access to out-of-bounds rooms.
4. Anti-scald devices on faucets and shower heads.
5. Smoke alarms (see above for more on these)
6. Window guards and safety netting to help prevent falls from windows, balconies, decks & landings.
7. Corner and edge bumpers to cushion sharp edges on furniture and fireplaces.
8. Outlet covers and outlet plates (as I told my senior friends).
9. Carbon monoxide alarm (again, see above).
10. A tassel on each separate window blind cord, and inner mini-blind cord-stops to prevent strangulation.
11. Anchors to avoid furniture and appliance tip-overs.
12. Layers of protection around pools and spas – a barrier completely surrounding the area, including a 4-foot tall fence and a self-closing, self-latching gate.
When I had a young family, I also made a point to educate my older kids about re-securing or removing any potentially dangerous items or gateways after they used them.
Don't forget too the basic child safety rules about never leaving them unattended in or near any water, whether it's the tub or a pool (even a paddling pool).
This is by no means an exhaustive list either. You can get lots more information online. The independent Consumer Reports organization also publishes its own Guide to Childproofing & Safety. You can buy or order it online or at a bookstore.
Taking care of the silver
By "silver" I mean our much-respected senior citizens. Maybe you're one yourself. Or perhaps you have an older relative living or visiting with you. These days, many seniors seem as young in mind and body as younger folk. And they work hard at staying that way.
But this can make it easy to overlook the vulnerability of the less able – like the couple I was talking about earlier, one of whom suffers badly from arthritis and the other can be (like many of us at times!) very forgetful.
When it comes to their personal safety, the key issues are fall-prevention, which I discussed earlier, and remembering to take medications, which can be solved by using a multi-compartment storage container labeled with the names of each day and refilled at the end of the week.
I also advised my friends to think about subscribing to a home alert system, where one of them can wear an alarm linked to a care-alert service if they are home alone when something goes wrong, and unable to get to the phone. They did this and I know it brought them great peace of mind.
Whether we're seniors or not, I think we all have a duty to keep an eye out for those who are more vulnerable than ourselves, checking on them when we see them – and when we don't.
Hygiene for health
A great thing about meeting people from other cultures is to share in some of their wisdom. One of my clients is Lebanese. He always looks so smart whenever we meet and, when I come to think of it, I've never known him to be sick in the 20-some years we've been acquainted.
I mentioned this to him one time and he quoted back to me what he said was a well-known Lebanese proverb: Hygiene is two thirds of health. Amen to that. And that being so, I'm rounding off this chapter by putting your home and personal hygiene under the microscope. Will I like what I see? That depends on how seriously you take the subject!
Although personal cleanliness is absolutely essential to your well-being, there are, in fact, just two basic rules that account for most of your hygiene related health, and that of others you live with – regularly washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.
Dirty hands and uncovered snouts are undoubtedly the main transmitters of germs and viruses in the home. You should always wash your hands in hot, soapy water after a bathroom visit, before handling food, before and after cleaning up a young child and after you've been out – whether it's a trip to the grocery store or a gardening session in the yard.
Actually, there's quite an art to washing your hands properly. The Centers for Disease Control offer very useful guidance on their website cdc.gov. Just search for "handwashing".
Plus, of course, if you cough or sneeze into your hands, you need to wash them then. But for preference, always carry a handkerchief or facial tissues with you. Please don't sneeze onto your sleeve!
These simple rules are important to pass on to youngsters, who always seem to forget the basics – like brushing their teeth. Which reminds me, oral hygiene – brushing, rinsing, and flossing – is as important to me as keeping my hands clean.
That's not just for the benefit of those within "breath range" but also because the human mouth is where all the food bacteria and germs meet daily for a party!
The other side of the hygiene story lurks in your bathroom and kitchen. Keeping a clean bathroom is easy, with bleach and other household cleaning products (remembering my earlier advice about storing them out of reach). The more that room is used, the more you use them.
The kitchen is a different story. All sorts of creatures, masquerading under the posh title of "micro-organisms" lurk on counter-tops and dishes, in the dishwasher, toaster, stove and refrigerator, and just about anywhere else where food has been.
The problem is that you can't just splash toxic cleaning products about, where they might come into contact with food, though there are a number of products on the market that can kill bacteria without harming you.
But I thought I'd just run you through my own checklist of kitchen hygiene tips. Again, it's not exhaustive but it does have you covered for most dangers.
- When you're preparing food, if you have long hair, tie it back or cover it. Remove jewelry.
- Wash and thoroughly rinse your hands before doing any kitchen work (including cooking); dry them on a paper towel.
- Clean all cooking utensils and work surfaces with an antibacterial agent (read the instructions) before and after using them. If you wash and dry dishes by hand, leave them in a drying rack rather than wiping with a tea-towel.
- Use several cutting boards, scrubbing them and using hot water after you're done. Certainly, use a separate board for meat. Plastic boards can go in the dishwasher and should be regularly replaced.
- Know and apply the minimum temperatures for cooking foods.
- Same goes for refrigerator, freezer and open-air storage times of different foods. Store meat and vegetables separately. Return unused food to the fridge or freezer as quickly as possible.
- Always wash fruit and vegetables before preparing or cooking them.
- If you use a spoon or fork to taste food as you cook, don't use it again until it's been thoroughly cleaned. Use another one instead.
- Hot-wash and frequently replace scrubbing brushes and sponges.
- Food: If it doesn't look right or smell right, then it probably isn't. Toss it!
Where I suggest finding relevant information about temperatures and storage, if this information is not on the label (or there's no label) you'll find it, and other useful information, on the Government's foodsafety.gov site.
Oh, and one final thing. Please keep kids and animals out of the kitchen. When they are there, they're at risk, and so is your kitchen hygiene. And don't wash pet dishes along with your own stuff!
Insuring house and health risks
As I said at the outset, there's no way you can avoid every possible safety and health risk that crops up in your home. That's why we have insurance. It's an absolutely essential part of healthy and safe lifestyle.
In the final chapter of this book, I'll be talking in more details about how best to cover your insurance needs in key risk areas. But just let me say for now that if you have an insurance-related question to the points I've outlined in this chapter, please don't hesitate to contact your insurance agent.