What Could
Go Wrong

Anything and everything, according to risk consultants.

Photography: Yoshihiro Makino

Illustrations: Zach Roszczewski

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Most of us walk through life blind to the hazards around every corner. Little things, like an uneven sidewalk or an unsteady bookshelf, don’t usually register as potential catastrophes. And it’s probably good they don’t, or we might never leave the house.

But what if it were your job to predict the worst—to search your environment for anything that could go wrong? That’s the role of a risk consultant. Here, move through three distinct locations as a risk consultant would, systematically sniffing out disasters before they happen.

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Part 1: Vacation Homes

Parts 2 & 3

As you enjoy a morning cup of coffee on the deck of your cabin in the woods, the frustrations of daily life slip away. The scene is peaceful, and you take a deep breath, inhaling the scent of spruce. It’s relaxing. But don’t mistake it for carefree.

Vacation homes come with a set of hazards that make them extremely vulnerable from an insurance perspective. They tend to be located in disaster-prone areas (think: beaches, dense forests, ski slopes) and so are exposed to extreme weather, plus they are often left vacant, all but inviting theft and vandalism. Vacation properties have also become hotels of sorts, as more people use home rental services when they travel. But safety regulations haven’t caught up with the trend, leaving property owners exposed.

Whether you’re renting your property or using it for yourself, risks abound—and they can be hard for a layperson to spot. Here’s a look at how an expert risk consultant seeks them out.

Vacation Homes

Exterior

Parts 2 & 3

The moment a risk consultant pulls into your driveway, her eyes have already scanned the entire property, zeroing in on the construction materials and structure of your home, along with any threats from the surrounding environment.

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Vacation Homes

Exterior

Parts 2 & 3

Sag in a roof could mean hidden decay, and the attic will require a walk-through to ensure there’s no damage from, say, squirrels. (Roofs more than 15 or 20 years old need to be inspected, no matter how they look from the outside.) She’ll also notice nearby or overhead power lines that could short and fall, causing damage or fire.

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Vacation Homes

Exterior

Parts 2 & 3

Leaning trees and weak branches exposed to wind and rain can fall and cause damage.

Leaning trees and weak branches exposed to wind and rain can fall and cause damage.

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Vacation Homes

Exterior

Parts 2 & 3

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Vacation Homes

Exterior

Parts 2 & 3

Wood shingles can collect moss and are highly susceptible to rot.

Wood shingles can collect moss and are highly susceptible to rot.

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Vacation Homes

Exterior

Parts 2 & 3

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Vacation Homes

Home Office

Parts 2 & 3

Because vacation homes are often left unattended for long periods of time, they’re particularly vulnerable to theft and vandalism. About one in 235 insured homes files a theft claim every year, each one averaging about $4,000, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

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Vacation Homes

Master Bedroom

Parts 2 & 3

It goes without saying that the valuables in your home—furs, silverware, etc.—should be insured. And if you know you’re going to be away for a while, it’s smart to set light timers in your home or ask a neighbor to come by occasionally to create the impression that someone’s there.

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Vacation Homes

Master Bedroom

Parts 2 & 3

Fine art attracts burglars, especially if it’s in view of a window.

Fine art attracts burglars, especially if it’s in view of a window.

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Vacation Homes

Master Bedroom

Parts 2 & 3

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Vacation Homes

Master Bedroom

Parts 2 & 3

The same goes for other valuables
—money, jewelry, electronics.

The same goes for other valuables
—money, jewelry, electronics.

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Vacation Homes

Master Bedroom

Parts 2 & 3

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Vacation Homes

Living Room

Parts 2 & 3

The freestanding wood-burning stove in your living room is charming, but at the end of the day it’s a barely contained, roaring fire in what is likely a home built partially with wood. Electrical and heating systems can also pose threats, especially in older homes, which could have aluminum wiring—a potential fire hazard—or an old circuit board rather than breakers. Using an infrared camera around water pipes can detect problems that might be hidden in the walls, such as gaps in the insulation, which can lead to frozen pipes.

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Vacation Homes

Kitchen

Parts 2 & 3

In 2015, water damage was responsible for about half of all property damage in the United States, according to a Chubb insurance survey—but most homeowners don’t appreciate the level of risk.

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Vacation Homes

Basement

Parts 2 & 3

Installing a sump pump in your basement is a good idea if your home is in a flat or low-lying area where the soil readily traps water. So is shutting off water lines. Another precautionary measure: installing a water-detection system or an automatic shut-off device that can notify you of any water issues on your smartphone.

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Vacation Homes

Basement

Parts 2 & 3

Keeping your home at a constant temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit helps ensure your pipes don’t freeze.

Keeping your home at a constant temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit helps ensure your pipes don’t freeze.

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Vacation Homes

Back Entrance + Foundation

Parts 2 & 3

Is your floor warped? That could mean moisture or mold issues. Water can build up under a house if the crawl space isn’t sealed; if the ground beneath your house is lined, that can help prevent seepage, as can installing a dehumidifier. What about cracks in the walls of your basement? That could signal a below-ground water-pressure issue, among other things.

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Vacation Homes

Back Entrance + Foundation

Parts 2 & 3

Wood homes not separated from the ground by a concrete barrier are vulnerable to termites.

Wood homes not separated from the ground by a concrete barrier are vulnerable to termites.

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Vacation Homes

Outside Stairs

Parts 2 & 3

Renting out your property as a vacation home to others exposes you to a slew of new and different liabilities that a risk consultant will look for. Are your stairs up to code? Is a table with sharp edges too close to the bed? Are there rugs without skid pads beneath? Do you have railings on all platforms higher than 30 inches?

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Vacation Homes

Deck

Parts 2 & 3

Raised decks are sometimes built shoddily and can collapse. Trampolines and swimming pools, known to risk consultants as “attractive nuisances,” are particularly hazardous to children. Personal homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover risks when a property is rented out—which is more and more common these days—because in that case the home is a considered a business. But you can amend your policy to include special coverage provisions for a rental property.

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Vacation Homes

Deck

Parts 2 & 3

Railings, among other things, should be inspected before renting your home.

When you rent out your property, there are a variety of risks around the house that need attention. Decks and railings require inspection.

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This is how a trained risk consultant sees your vacation home. Learn more from Chubb risk expert Annmarie Camp.

Q&A with Annmarie Camp,

Evp Of Chubb Personal Risk Services

What’s the biggest hazard vacation homeowners overlook?

The fact that something can happen without you knowing it. If you had a water leak in the house where you live year-round or a squirrel or raccoon in your attic, you’d notice it quickly. In your second home, it's what's happening that you're unaware of: a burst pipe that floods your basement and rots your foundation because it went unaddressed for weeks, or a shattered window that stayed open, welcoming in the vermin of the surrounding forest.

How has technology changed risk assessing over the past few decades?

Technology has really changed the game. Risk consultants now carry thermographic cameras to detect hot spots, indicating faulty wiring, and cold spots, where water might be dripping from a pipe—all without having to break open the wall. The rise of smart homes has also been big for risk prevention. Water-detection systems alert you to flooding, apps let you know if a light’s been left on or if a door is ajar.… The list goes on.

What can homeowners do to prevent damage?

There are lots of little things that make a huge difference, like looking behind your washing machine to see if the hoses look healthy, turning off the main water valve when you go away, and making sure there aren’t any particularly precarious-looking tree branches hanging over your roof. Aside from that, just doing general maintenance of your home is so critical, and it saves you so much money in the long run. It's the simple phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” that really rings true in the risk-assessing business.

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