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Keeping your basement above water Add to ...

Every spring when the heavy rains come, Carole Blackburn's unfinished basement is transformed from a handy storage space into an indoor wading pool.

"The rain we had last week, it sent the water seeping in and we had little puddles everywhere," said the 38-year-old Toronto mother of two. "Some years, we have to brush it down the drain with a broom."

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Ms. Blackburn and her husband believe the low-ceilinged basement of the 60-year-old Scarborough Bluffs bungalow they bought eight years ago lacks proper foundation walls and weeping tiles, which leads to the constant water problems.

They'd love to use the space as a family room but don't have the $50,000 it would cost to underpin the house and put in a functioning finished basement.

So each year the couple absorbs the small various costs of the inevitable spring havoc, such as removing wet mouldy carpet and buying an industrial style plastic covering for the floor. They have never filed a claim for water damages with their insurance company. "I don't think we ever thought it was worth it, in terms of our premiums," she said.

Ms. Blackburn and her family are certainly not alone in their watery house woes. Water damage, caused by everything from leaky roofs, sewer backups, burst pipes, faulty foundations and cracks in basement walls, has soared to become a leading home insurance claim over the last decade.

This year's wet spring weather has kept insurers hopping. "Precipitation is high and we have had a lot of wind, so it has been a particularly busy spring season for the insurance industry," said Wayne Ross, vice-president of property claims for insurer Aviva Canada.

Water damage has displaced fire at the top of the list and now accounts for 40 per cent of all home insurance claims at Aviva, up from 20 per cent 10 years ago. The severity of the damage has also jumped, with the average cost of a water damage claim for Aviva topping $14,000 as of last year, up from $5,423 in 2000.

Mr. Ross attributes the increase to stronger and more frequent storms, combined with increased urbanization and aging sewer infrastructure. "We have doubled, tripled and quadrupled the number of people living in urban areas and the systems were not made to handle that. So you have these disasters waiting to happen."

If you are living in one the rain-ravaged communities in Manitoba or Quebec, however, you are out of luck. Because insurance is based on risk and not repeated annual events, flooding from rivers or lakes is generally not covered by home insurance policies. "If you live in Manitoba in an area where it floods a lot, that is not seen as accidental," Mr. Ross said

Another factor in higher water claims is the high cost of housing and increased focus on renovations, which means more people are finishing their basements, investing in the very area where leaks are most likely to strike. "What was once a place to put old hockey equipment and a jar of grandma's preserves is now full of big-screen TVs and other electronics," said Tony Irwin, a spokesman for Allstate Insurance Co. of Canada.

Insurance claims stemming from basement flooding now total $140-million a year, according to a multiyear national average estimate from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. That total represents 30,000 to 40,000 incidents a year.

As was the case with Ms. Blackburn, many incidents of basement flooding are never reported to insurance companies. Jamie Shipley, a senior adviser in the CMHC research and information transfer department, says that many people avoid claims because they don't want to pay the deductible and are afraid their rates will rise. "You risk paying higher premiums so it might not be worth it."

Mr. Shipley believes that in order to file, the water damage would have to be significant enough to warrant the potentially increased insurance payments.

But recurring basement flooding is more than a seasonal or short-term financial hassle. It can leave your house permanently damaged and decrease your property value, CMHC research shows. In addition, chronically wet houses are a perfect environment for mould and have been linked to increased respiratory problems.

Mr. Shipley's advice is for home owners to educate themselves as to what kind of water damage insurance they currently have, and for how much, as well as what steps they can take to protect themselves.

Some water damage is preventable by taking simple steps such as installing a basement backwater valve or extending downspouts so that water flows away from your house instead of pooling next to the basement walls and windows.

Ms. Blackburn, meanwhile, has no plans to fix the watery mess in her basement. "It is aggravating but we have learned to never put anything valuable down there and to store everything else up high."

In the near future, she and her husband are hoping to sell the house. "Until then we will keep doing this spring dance where it floods and we clean it up. Until we can get rid of it, we will just have to deal."



Simple steps you can take to protect yourself against water damage:



· Clean debris from eavestroughs regularly



· Ensure downspouts extend at least 1.8 metres or six feet from your basement wall



· Build up the ground around your house so that water drains away instead of toward it



· Install a flood-proofing device, such as a sump pump or back-flow valve



· Buy basement furniture with legs and store valuables high up, so they are not damaged by any accumulating flood water



· Keep snow away from your basement windows and doors



· Install a vapour barrier under your roof shingles



· Make sure your insurance policy includes sewer back-up protection



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