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When it rains, it pours. When it pours, it floods.

Residents of Calgary and Toronto will vouch for this new reality of home ownership. Climate change and overburdened city sewer systems have combined to increase the risk your basement will be flooded with water and, possibly, sewage.

Beyond theft, home insurance used to be primarily about protecting against fire. Today, homeowners are more likely to experience a flood than a fire. Prepare to consider a whole new category in household maintenance – defending your home from incursion by water. Also, brace for more of the increases in home insurance premiums we've seen in recent years.

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Insurers affected by the Calgary and Toronto floods are still assessing the damage sustained by policy holders. But where there are heavy claims in the insurance biz, higher costs to customers will follow.

"Some [companies] may alter coverage, raise deductibles, et cetera, to maintain consistency on premiums but really it is too early to tell," Steve Kee, a spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, wrote in an e-mail.

As Calgary and Toronto flood victims know, the typical home insurance policy offers limited coverage related to water damage. If water floods your basement after a heavy rain or due to overland flooding from overflowing rivers or lakes, then you're likely not covered. But backups of sewer water into your home caused when city storm sewers are overwhelmed by flooding may well be covered – check your policy for details.

You should secure your house against flooding and sewer backup to protect against damage that isn't covered by insurance. Even if you have a good level of coverage for water damage, preventing incidents from happening in the first place will save you the aggravation of making a claim and the cost of paying your policy deductible. You may also save a bit on your insurance premiums.

Dan Sandink of the Institute For Catastrophic Loss Reduction said insurers are increasingly offering a reduction in the cost of sewer backup coverage to people who install what's known as a back-water, or backflow, valve.

A backwater valve allows waste water from sinks and toilets to flow out of your house while preventing a backup of sewage into your basement through your basement plumbing.

The valve must be installed close to where your home's plumbing meets the city's sewer system, which likely means digging up part of your basement floor. The total cost, according to Mr. Sandink, ranges from $1,000 to $3,000. "It gets more expensive if you have a finished basement and you have to tear up carpet and replace it."

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Mr. Sandink suggests you call your municipal government to find out if it has any advice on backwater valves, and to inquire about whether you need a permit. Also ask about subsidies – some cities make them available to people who install a backwater valve.

Other measures that can help prevent basement flooding:

Keep your eavestroughs clean and add extensions to your downspouts so that water drains two metres or more from your house.

Improve the grading of your lot: The ground should slope away from your house.

Install a sump pump: It can help water collecting in the ground outside your house from seeping in.

If you're unsure about how much sewer backup coverage you have, grab your most recent policy renewal statement or contact your insurer or broker.

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David Browne, president of broker Martin Merry & Reid Ltd., suggested a minimum of $35,000 in coverage to address replacement of carpeting, drywall and basic furniture.

Mr. Browne said many homes with elaborate basements require significantly more coverage. "You go into your investment banker friend's house and you've got the big, honking $150,000 investment in the basement – the big movie screen, the wine cellar, all sorts of accoutrements."

Expect to pay something in the area of $30 or $40 per year for $35,000 in sewer backup coverage, Mr. Browne said.

That's just a rough guideline, because insurers are increasingly pricing this type of coverage according to the flood experience of the neighbourhood where clients live.

One way or another, you will pay more as a result of stormier summers.

Water damage is often cited by insurers as a reason why home insurance premiums have soared in recent years; the Calgary and Toronto floods suggest the trend will continue.

And then there's the cost of trying to prevent flood damage your insurance won't cover. Put that at the top of your list of planned home upgrades.

More ways to keep water out of your basement

These tips come from the Handbook for reducing basement flooding, published by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and available online. The ICLR was established by the property insurance industry as a non-profit agency devoted to disaster prevention research.

  1. Avoid pouring fats and oils down your drain – they clog up sewers and plumbing and can cause backups.
  2. Keep storm sewer grates on the street near your house clear.
  3. Seal cracks in foundation walls and basement floor.
  4. Reduce home water use during heavy rainfall events to lessen stress on the city’s water system.
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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998. Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More


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