If you own a home in California, chances are you already have some type of fire insurance. But many people don't realize that it's flood insurance -- not fire insurance -- that protects them from the mudslides that often follow the state's wind-blown autumnal blazes.
Even those whose homes are not in official flood zones, but are nearby or are in the shadow of a charred hillside, should consider a policy.
"You could be miles away from a river or water source but have a pretty significant flood risk," said Butch Kinerney, spokesman for the National Flood Insurance Program.
Flood and mudslide risks soar in areas hit hard by fires, Kinerney said. Fires denude hillsides and leave an oily residue on the ground, increasing the chance that rain will pool and flow along the surface, rather than soak in, causing floods.
Once the rain does get absorbed, the earth becomes wet and heavy. And because the plants that would normally prevent erosion have been lost to the fire, huge parts of the hillside can break away, causing mudslides that damage or destroy any buildings that lie below. Flood insurance, like earthquake insurance, is stand-alone coverage that can be sold in conjunction with a homeowner's policy. But it has separate limitations and triggers.
Under most flood insurance policies, homeowners are eligible for coverage when a rising tide of water inundates at least two properties or 2 acres of normally dry land. It doesn't matter whether the water pooled up because of a storm, a broken levy or a damaged water main. But the water does have to come from outside your home -- not inside.
So if your toilet overflows or your pipes freeze and burst, that's covered by your standard homeowner's policy. It's only when a wave of water or mud comes from the outside that you need flood insurance.
Flood policies impose separate deductibles for structure and contents coverage, even when both are damaged in the same flood. So if you have $500 deductibles on both, you'd have to be out $1,000 before the coverage would start paying.
There is no coverage for temporary living expenses, even if you're forced out of your home because of a mudslide or flood.
Also, flood policies generally do not guarantee that you'll get as much as it costs to replace your structure or contents. Instead, contents are replaced at their actual cash value. So if you lost a 5-year-old sofa, you'll get enough to buy another 5-year-old sofa, not a new one.
Flood policies don't cover landscaping or swimming pools.
Maximum flood insurance coverage is $250,000 for structure and $100,000 for contents when buying through the National Flood Insurance Program. However, some property insurers will provide excess coverage for homeowners who want it. If you live in a high-risk area, your mortgage lender is likely to require that you buy flood coverage, at least to cover the balance of your loan.
In those high-risk areas, the coverage is also costly, Kinerney said. Someone living near the beach in Florida, for example, may pay $6,000 annually for a policy. However, the average cost is about $500 a year, and those who are in low-risk zones can pay as little as $119.
Still, it makes little sense to buy any extra coverage if there's no chance you'll need it, said Robert Hunter, director of insurance with the Consumer Federation of America. The smartest thing to do is consider your personal risk.
The first step to doing that is to consider the government's assessment of your flood risk. You can view or buy an actual flood map for your area at msc.fema.gov. However, unless you're a geologist, you may have trouble understanding what you're reading. If you want a simpler version, go to www.floodsmart.gov and plug in your address.
If your area has a flood map, the site will respond by telling you whether your risk is low, moderate or high. It will also estimate your flood insurance premium and suggest agents who could sell you a policy.
However, many people will find that there's no current flood map, Hunter said. In that instance, you have to do a self-assessment of risk, evaluating your home's location and surroundings. If your home is in a valley or on a hillside, insurance is worth considering -- especially if the policy is cheap -- Hunter said.