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How to Survive a Financial Emergency on the Homefront

You may be able to avoid some costly fixes in the first place

examples of possible financial emergencies such as bad weather bug infestation pet bills and ac breaking

Leon Elder

En español | In the midst of a disaster, you're rarely equipped to track down the best and least expensive solution to your problem. So before your next bit of bad luck in and around the house, learn how to cut the costs of common crises.

The wind blew my tree over!

$1,000+ removing 80-foot tree

Standard homeowners insurance covers damage to the contents and structure of your house or garage; you just have to pay the deductible. Comprehensive auto insurance usually covers damages to a crushed car.

The cost of cutting and removing the tree, up to certain limits, should be covered if it hits an insured structure; otherwise you're likely on your own. A simple job can start at $200, says Nancy Herwig, executive director of the mid-Atlantic chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. “But most trees near homes need a lot more time, so it could be in the thousands,” she says.

Get the best deal

A landscaper can remove a tree that has already fallen and is not near your home. But for complex jobs, consider an arborist, says Caitlyn Pollihan, CEO of the International Society of Arboriculture: “An ISA-certified arborist can perform the job safely while reducing further risk of damage.” Ask for references, proof of insurance, and certifications or licenses. “There is no undoing bad tree work,” Herwig says.

My dog bit my neighbor, and she's suing!

$50,245, average insurance payout for dog bite claims in 2020

Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability and legal expenses (the insurer generally hires the lawyer) up to the policy's liability limit, which is often $100,000 to $300,000.

Get the best deal

If you need a lawyer, look for a specialist in representing dog owners. “You need a civil defense attorney who understands the laws and facts surrounding dog bites,” says Jeremy Cohen of Boston Dog Lawyers.

Do it yourself

You may be able to head off a lawsuit by offering to pay your neighbor's medical expenses. “If your dog is 100 percent at fault and the victim is another dog, it is always a good gesture to offer to pay the reasonable veterinary bills,” Cohen says. If the victim is a person and the bite is not serious, offering to pay medical bills may also help, he adds. “Where injuries are serious, it is advisable to seek legal counsel, instead of trying to resolve the matter on your own.”

Before it happens

See if your insurance covers your type of dog; shop around if it doesn't. Some of the breeds not always covered: Alaskan malamute, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, pit bull and rottweiler. Maintain ample liability coverage. “Going up from $300,000 to $500,000 can cost just $50 to $80 extra per year,” says Derek Ross of Kulchin Ross, an independent insurance agency in Tarzana, California.

cartoon of a man in a wetsuit submerged in his flooded house with household items floating around him

Leon Elder

A Storm Has Flooded My Basement!

$150 to $400, sump pump

A water-damage restoration specialist can charge anywhere from $500 to $10,000 to dry out your basement, based on how deep and dirty the water is. Standard homeowners insurance usually doesn’t cover flooding from a storm.

Get the Best Deal

Speed is crucial for minimizing lasting damage. If your home isn’t completely dry within 24 to 48 hours, assume you will have mold growth, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Toss anything you can’t clean and dry out quickly, such as carpeting and upholstery. Don’t lose precious hours trying to beat your first estimate, especially if all your neighbors are calling around, too. See if a large water restoration company has a franchise in your area, and ask your insurance agent to recommend local companies specializing in water-damage cleanup. If you have flood insurance or sewer backup coverage, your insurer may send out a water restoration specialist right away.

Do it yourself

Even if help is on the way, move possessions to dry ground. Use a sump pump, a wet-dry vacuum cleaner or hand bailing to remove standing water. Open all doors and windows. When electricity is safe to use, run dehumidifiers and use fans to vent the moist air.

Before it happens

You may be able to get flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (floodsmart.gov); the average annual cost is $700. You may also be able to add a sewer backup rider to your home insurance policy for $40 to $160 per year. Another option: Install a device that detects leaks, priced from about $50 to $500. The low-end versions alert your smartphone if there is a leak. More expensive ones automatically shut off the water, too.


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My sinks won't drain!

$1,250 average, partial sewer line replacement

If you can't clear out a clog with a plunger or a plastic drain clog remover (a cheap mini-snake sold at hardware stores), it could cost $100 to $300 for a plumber to snake a drain. You'll pay more for a blocked or cracked sewer line running from your home to the sewer main: about $350 on average to snake the sewer pipe and work out the blockage, and up to about $3,400 to replace the whole thing, says Myles Meehan of HomeServe, which offers home-repair service plans.

Get the best deal

Contact a few plumbers for estimates. Get recommendations from neighbors. Ask for the price to clear out a clog, as well as hourly rates if they find larger problems.

Do it yourself

You can get a half-day rental of a drain-clearing snake from a big-box hardware store for less than $75. Small units are for indoor plumbing; large ones can handle a sewer line.

cartoon of two people looking sadly at their air conditioning vent which has died

Leon Elder

My air-conditioning has died!

$2,000+ AC unit for typical home

A replacement central air-conditioning unit can run you $1,500 to $8,000, and the life span is usually at least 10 years, according to HomeAdvisor.

Get the best deal

First, try some basic troubleshooting. If you don't already work with someone, ask friends and neighbors for a trusted contractor, or check out local recommendations through the Better Business Bureau, Nextdoor, Angi (formerly Angie's List) or other resources. Check the website of your system's manufacturer for specialists in your area.

You may qualify for federal or state tax breaks or rebates to help cover the cost of a new HVAC system that meets energy-efficiency standards. Type your ZIP code into the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency to find out about incentives available in your area. See EnergyStar.gov for tax breaks.

Do it yourself

Your HVAC manufacturer's website may list steps to take before you call in a specialist. For example, Trane recommends first checking to see if the circuit breaker has been tripped, and turning the thermostat off for one to three hours to see if it resets itself. Your air filters may need to be cleaned or replaced, especially if the air coming out is not cool.

Before it happens

Have your air-conditioning system checked out each year before the weather changes; this generally costs from $70 to $150. “Proper maintenance is important,” says Gary McCoy, a Lowe's store manager in Charlotte, North Carolina. Replace air filters every three months or so, he advises.

If the problem is low refrigerant, make sure the HVAC tech repairs the leak. “If your air conditioner is running properly, you shouldn't have to replace the refrigerant,” says Mark Woodruff, a senior product manager at Trane Residential. “Don't let an HVAC tech just fill your refrigerant and leave. You'll have to pay to refill it again soon.”

cartoon of human sized budbug family having a party in a bedroom

Leon Elder

My home is infested with bedbugs!

$200+ per room for bedbug removal

Most people will pay between $600 and $1,500 for professional extermination in a small home, says Jeff White, the host of BedBug TV. The average cost in the U.S. is $200 to $400 per room, according to research by HomeAdvisor.

Get the best deal

Opt for a company that uses multiple methods to deal with the problem (not just pesticides), because bedbugs are resistant to many treatments. You also want a warranty of 90 days or more, advises Rick Cooper, a bedbug expert at Terminix.

Do it yourself

Sorry, but you're probably best off relying on the professionals. Trying to fix the problem yourself with foggers or other chemicals could make the problem worse, says White: “It pushes the bugs into really unpredictable places because they're trying to get away from the pesticide."

Before it happens

Invest in two mattress encasements — one for your mattress and one for your box spring — that are specially designed to keep out bedbugs; they start at around $30 apiece. Avoid bringing discarded furniture from the street into your home. Consider purchasing bedbug monitors, says Cooper, because only about 50 percent of older people will develop the itchy rash that indicates an infestation. Those monitors, which run about $20 to $30 for each bed or sofa, will trap bugs and detect infestations more than 80 percent of the time, says White.

Kimberly Lankford has been a financial journalist for more than 20 years. She was the “Ask Kim” columnist at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, and her articles have also appeared in AARP The Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and other publications. She received the personal finance Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and she has written three books.

Jenna Gyimesi is the associate editor of AARP The Magazine.