Watch Your Wallet: How to Steer Clear of Holiday Hazards

two christmas candles focus on...
ShutterstockCandles, trees and a fire in the hearth are among the potential dangers that can lead to insurance claims.

By Arthur Murray

Everyone loves the holidays -- the smells, the turkey, the time with friends and family, and come Christmas, the gifts. Here's a present for you and your family: the gift of avoiding holiday-related insurance claims. From Thanksgiving through New Year's, insurance concerns are usually an afterthought. But many enjoyable aspects of the season also can pose dangers. Consider the following elements -- and their potential for trouble.

Hunger pains

Who doesn't love holiday food? Turkey with all the trimmings, Christmas ham and New Year's Day black-eyed peas and greens are a big part of the season's fun.

So what's the problem? Cooking is the leading cause of residential fires in the U.S., according to the National Fire Protection Association. And the average home fire claim costs $34,306, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

What's the worst that could happen? Check out some common ways holiday cooking can go dreadfully wrong (and we're not even talking about fruitcake):

Thanksgiving turkey. The unassuming turkey poses one of the largest fire threats, whether you're roasting it in the oven or deep-frying it outside. Because of the length of time it must stay in the oven, you can sometimes forget to pay close attention. And the combination of a big bird and hot oil can be a recipe for disaster. For safety, follow tips for frying the bird.
Pies and pastries. The combination of sugar, high temperatures and lengthy cooking times should produce sweet treats, not sweaty fires.
Anything, unattended. The sheer volume of dishes included in typical holiday feasts can mean the cook becomes distracted.
Overdoing the eggnog. Cooking while impaired is a blaze waiting to happen.

Household fire hazards

Cooking isn't the only holiday fire threat. Here are some problems associated with turning up the heat and decking the halls.

Fireplace. Clean your chimney before lighting the first fire of the season. Otherwise, the buildup from past years could cause a chimney fire. Plus, you want it to be clear for Santa.
Space heaters. Keep them on level surfaces, and never leave the room with one running. Keep flammable items clear of your unit.
Candles. Keep them away from curtains or other flammable objects. Again, never leave them unattended.
Christmas trees. That beautiful green tree can turn into a dry piece of kindling. Water it often.
Christmas lights. Don't overload outlets. Throw away any frayed strands.

The weather outside is frightful

Thanksgiving and Christmas both are heavy travel periods. That means the roads and skies -- and even the trains and buses -- will be packed. Be patient, and give yourself plenty of time to get where you're going.

And it's a busy season, but be careful not to drive when you're exhausted. Drowsy driving is nearly as bad as drunken driving. And drunken driving puts you, your passengers and everyone else on the road at risk.

Be prepared for car trouble or inclement weather when you're on the road. Keep an emergency kit in your car, complete with blankets, flashlights, nonperishable food and drink, medications, batteries and other supplies.

Don't spread too much holiday cheer

If you're throwing a party, remember that you could be held responsible if someone has too much to drink and endangers themselves or others. Social host responsibility laws vary by state. Talk to your insurance agent about the rules where you live and determine whether you have enough liability coverage.

One way to monitor party guests is to require them to hand over their keys as the price of admission. That way you can check them when they leave. Serve nonalcoholic beverages and food to help mute the effects of drinking. Set a last call at least an hour before the party ends. And never serve alcohol to minors.

Keep an eye out for the real Grinches

Thieves can prey on you at least two ways during the holidays: in person and over the Internet.

Keep a close eye on your credit cards -- and your statements. Cyber criminals step up their efforts during the holidays, according to Tenable, an online security company based in Columbia, Md. Particularly vulnerable are public Wi-Fi networks. Experts advise against using them for purchases.

Of course, your gifts remain vulnerable to less sophisticated burglars when the presents are wrapped and under the tree. If you've bought jewelry or some other high-value item, you should make sure it's protected under your home insurance contents coverage.

Remember, that coverage sometimes limits how much a policy will pay out for high-value items. Check with your insurance provider to see whether you should schedule an endorsement for such items.

Also remember to add your new valuables to your home inventory -- a list of possessions in your home. It will help if you need to file a claim for theft or loss from fire or another covered peril.

Follow these tips and you'll reduce the chances of filing a claim during this holiday season. That means you'll avoid trouble and have a (mostly) stress-free time celebrating with family and friends.

Arthur Murray writes for Home, an online insurance resource for homeowners and drivers across the country. The blog provides tips and advice on a range of financial topics to help homeowners and homebuyers make educated decisions about insurance.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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