Monthly Archives: October 2014

Halloween Costs and Concerns

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Well, the first big shopping holiday is right around the corner; no, not Thanksgiving, it is Halloween. After Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween is the holiday that gets most deeply into our wallets. It is also a holiday that brings great joy to retailers everywhere because literally billions of dollars will be spent on costumes for children and adults, decorations, greeting cards and, of course, candy.

All told, estimates are that we Halloween party goers and throwers will spend about $7 billion on Halloween this year. And, if we do, that will be a will be a billion short of our 2012 record spending. The KaChing meter hit $8 billion that year and these numbers are up from somewhere around $2.5 billion in 1995. If you consider that $2.5 billion in 1995, accounting for inflation, would be about $3.7 billion in 2012, Halloween has beaten inflation by about a factor of 2. Not bad for a skeleton and a black cat.

Why the growth? As they say, “experts differ” or as us more plain spoken country folk say, “who knows?” One opinion is that it is the “revenge of the grown-ups” as baby boomers, GenXers and Millennials continue celebrating Halloween well into adulthood; another opinion is that Halloween represents a sort of low budget holiday everyone can participate in. Whatever the reason, it is a retailer’s dream and has become the official pre-holiday that kicks off the holiday season.

While spending on candy, costumes and cards is of big interest to retailers, we here at Homer Smith Insurance are in the insurance business and while we like bobbing for apples as much as the next person, we recognize that there can be a dark side to Halloween as well. Some writers suggest we need to be concerned about crime on Halloween and, for sure, the notion of “trick or treat” implies some coercion, but increased rates of reported crime actually don’t seem to be supported by statistics. Occasional scary reports of people putting poison or razorblades in candy appear to be just urban myths – a bit like witches and ghosts. One very detailed statistical study of crime in Boston showed a spike in violent crime on Halloween night and specifically in the early evening hours, but by and large Halloween seems much like any other night from a crime perspective. There is one area of concern though; Halloween is the deadliest night of the year for pedestrian accidents. Children are at particular risk according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the America Automobile Association – which is not difficult to understand when you have millions of excited children eating sugar on the streets after dark.

We recently shared some common sense tips through an email to clients and friends and they bear repeating here.

  • Set ground rules and if your child will be trick-or-treating without you, establish a route and don’t allow your child go door to door in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
  • Walk on sidewalks and driveways where possible and when crossing a street, always cross at a corner or in a crosswalk.
  • If possible, carry a cellular phone.
  • Make sure your child carries a flashlight, glow stick or apply reflective tape on their costume to remain visible.
  • To keep kids from tempting to dig into their candy before you get home, feed them a meal or snack beforehand.
  • If you bring your pet along, make sure they have IDs. Halloween is the second most common day for pets to get lost – after the 4th of July.
  • Remind your child of the dangers of getting into a stranger’s car at any time. If someone stops them and asks for help or offers them candy, tell them to scream as loud as they can and run.
  • If your child has a food allergy, be sure to carry their emergency medicines with you.
  • When driving, remember that children are everywhere. Be alert and drive slower than the speed limit in neighborhoods.

Have a safe and happy Halloween from all of us at Homer Smith Insurance.

Winter Is On The Way – Part 4 – Snowbirding

Over the past weeks our blog postings have looked at winter readiness – the general climate here on the peninsula and some predictions for the winter –  then winterizing your car and your home. There is one more area to look at for our northwest population – our snowbirds.

As much as we love the Peninsula, between mid-October and March it can be a bit Vitamin D deficient; between the marine layer and various other weather phenomena, the sunshine vitamin basically leaves town. Some of our residents are inclined to follow, heading off for sunny and warm climates in Arizona, Florida and other exotic and vitamin D rich destinations.

If you are going to be vacating your home for a significant period of time – and that could be as little as 30 days – the first thing you need to do is let your insurance agent know about your plans. Insurers are wary of vacant houses. They may be subject to vandalism, theft or situations where minor problems turn into major damage – a plumbing leak for example. For these reasons, your home insurance policy may well have provisions for exclusion of coverage in the event of vacancy and the exclusion generally kicks in after a home has been empty for 30 or 60 days.  Here at Homer Smith Insurance, we can help you understand your policy provisions and advise on cost- effective ways to maintain coverage. Don’t be tempted to take off without notifying your insurer or agent because if your insurer discovers the house has been sitting vacant, it may be grounds for denying claims for property damage or liability.

Once your insurance considerations are taken care of, your concerns about buttoning up the house are similar to those of us you are leaving behind with the added consideration that you will not be physically present to monitor your home. When you are satisfied the roof is sound, the gutters are cleared and the doors and windows are draft free, you can begin looking to other areas. Some rules of thumb to follow when looking at items in your house include:

* If it uses water, turn off the supply – this applies to sinks, toilets hose bibs, washing machines and so forth and you can consider shutting off the whole supply at the main shutoff. Remember the outlets as well, a bit of RV antifreeze down the pipes can help prevent freezing.

* If it uses energy, turn it down or turn it off – this applies to your furnace or heating system, water heater, and electrical appliances. For computers, televisions and all the rest of those electric items, take the plugs right out of the wall unless there is a compelling need to keep them on. Lower your water heater temperature setting as far as it will go, though you may not want to turn it off entirely if it is in a space where it might freeze.

Check all smoke alarms and insure they are in working order; install fresh batteries. Empty your freezer, turn it off, and unplug it. If you put a box of baking soda on a shelf, it will absorb odors while you are gone. Leave the doors standing a little open as well. If you have outdoor security lights, make sure the motion sensors are working correctly, and, of course check that all windows and doors are locked and any security alarms are set.

Finally, make sure there is a contact person for your home – someone you trust who has access to the house and is willing to check your house regularly to manage simple tasks like removing sales flyers or political brochures and who can act in an emergency to intervene in a problem or make repair appointments if necessary.

There are some good “how to’s” on the web that may be of help – some with pictures and detailed instructions. Happy vacationing!

Winter Is On The Way – Part 3 – Home.

In our first segment on winter in Washington, we looked at general predictions for our winter this year, then in our second installment we went on to look at getting your car ready for winter. Now it is time to move on to the terrifying world of chimneys, gutters, downspouts and window sealing – it’s time to look at winterizing your house.

Our two principle concerns in winterization are avoiding damage that might hit our Washington home insurance and avoiding excess energy costs that hit our wallets. In Washington State, the most common homeowner insurance claims are for water damage, wind and hail, liability and crime. Each of these types of claim have seasonal implications and water damage is likely to be your biggest concern in winterizing your house.

Start first with protecting your roof. You can check for missing shingles or curling that indicates shingles are aging without necessarily going up on the roof, but if you spot something from below, or if you have a known leak, you will likely need to get up close and personal. If you do have a known leak, check and repair any problems with roof coverings, flashing or attachments – like a satellite dish. Next, clean your gutters to prevent winter damage and trace your water flow to insure it is directed away from the foundation. Gutters that are clogged with leaves and debris favor the formation of ice dams, where water backs up and when the water freezes, it can cause water to seep into the house. Look for leaks and misaligned downspouts while you are cleaning the gutters to be certain the downspouts are carrying water away from the house’s foundation, where it could cause flooding or other water damage.

Your other winter water concern is burst pipes. Here on the Olympic Peninsula, we enjoy a climate where freezing temperatures occur relatively infrequently. However, in every winter we can expect some periods of cold where there is a risk of freezing pipes. The area most susceptible to freezing are exterior faucets although in severe weather, any pipe on an outside wall or in an unheated space like a garage or crawlspace may be at risk.

Shut off the water to exterior faucets if you can and then open the exterior faucet slightly to drain the line. If you can’t shut off the faucets, you can buy inexpensive Styrofoam covers that help insulate the spigot. For many areas of the Peninsula, these may provide sufficient protection in most winters.

Check all your pipes that pass through unheated spaces — crawlspaces, basements or garages – and if they are not already insulated, consider wrapping them with pre-molded foam rubber sleeves or fiberglass insulation. For extreme situations you can buy a heating tape. Check your local hardware store for the range of products available. In a cold snap, keeping a trickle of water running through the pipes may help prevent freezing, but note that five drips per second looks like a small steady stream and will use about 40 gallons a day.

After you have taken care of potential water problems, turn to the energy saving potential of air leakage and insulation. Check the common air leakage areas for drafts – recessed lighting, window and door frames and electrical outlets.

Apply caulking to drafty exterior doors and replace (or add) doors sweeps to complete the seal. Drafty windows should be caulked or fitted with storm windows. At a minimum you can use plastic storm window material. It may only last one season, but it is inexpensive and can be an excellent investment. Leaks around electrical outlets are very common when the outlets are on outside walls. Outlet gasket kits are readily available at your local hardware store and are easy to install.

By October, your heating system has been dormant for months. Turn it on and check to see that everything is working properly. You may want to invest in having the furnace cleaned and checked professionally, but at least change the furnace filter as you begin the heating season and check the filter monthly during the season. A dirty filter will compromise the flow of air and reduce efficiency. Also take the time to check ductwork and fix any gaps or vacuum ducts if needed. If you have a fireplace or wood stove, check for creosote buildup or, better yet, have a professional check it for you.

Finally, it is time to check your home’s smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Change the batteries and test each detector. Check your fire extinguisher to make sure it is adequately charged and replace if necessary.

Winter Is On The Way – Part 2: Winterize Your Car

In our last blog we looked at some predictions for this winter’s weather and discovered that different prediction models are producing some different results.  That is probably not surprising, particularly for our climatologically complicated corner of the world.   After all, as Mark Twain noted, “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get” and we will find out soon enough who is right.  Our job here at Homer Smith Insurance isn’t to tell you which Washington weather forecast is right; it is to help you get prepared for whatever comes our way.  You can also get some good Washington winter driving tips HERE.

In many respects, winterizing your car has gotten a bit easier.  It is well within the living memory of many of us who live on the Peninsula that winter meant a mandatory change of oil and a battery load test but technological change has made these checks less important.  Nevertheless, your first check for winter readiness ought to be a trip to your car’s owner’s manual to check for maintenance recommendations for winter, including tire pressure specifications, engine oil change specifications and any specific winterizing your car manufacturer may recommend.

Some general winterizing, you can easily do yourself, although it will help to have someone work with you on some items.  Inspect the car’s light – all of them – tail lights, stop lights, turn signals, emergency lights and even interior lights.  Replace burned out bulbs and check again to make certain underlying switches and flasher units are operational.  Clean all windows inside and out and clean your headlights and taillights.

Set up a winter driving kit to keep in your car.  The kit should include items such as emergency food and water, traction assistance such as mats or kitty litter, jumper cables, an ice scraper and brush, small shovel, a working flashlight, a blanket or tarp and a small first aid kit.

If you are comfortable with a few mechanical tasks, check your tire pressure, your engine oil level and your battery terminals.  The pressure in your tires will drop as the temperature drops reducing fuel efficiency and, at very low pressures, potentially leading to a tire seal failure.  Make sure pressure is at manufacturer’s recommendation. If your oil is low, top it off or change it according to your manufacturer’s recommendation.  If your battery terminals are corroded, it can lead to poor conductivity and inefficient charging.  You can clean the terminals with a solution of baking soda and water followed by brushing with a wire brush.  Wear gloves and eye protection while doing this and be careful while brushing to avoid grounding the brush and creating sparks.

Here in the northwest you should be replacing your replacing your windshield wipers regularly and this is a good time to do that.  After a dry summer, wiper blades may be brittle and cause streaking.  If you purchase them at a local auto parts store, people there will often install them free.

Finally, consider your tire options.  If you don’t have all-season tires and will likely have to drive in the snow this year, it’s a good idea to purchase tire chains. Tire chains are essential if you drive out of the area and may have to cross one of the Washington passes.  Buy early – chains are generally easy to find early in the winter season, but sell out before winter is over.  Studded tires are another option but for most of us on the Olympic Peninsula they are not a necessity.  South Jefferson County along the Hood Canal might be an exception as they are prone to greater snowfalls there.  Don’t buy studded tires on the assumption they will replace chains.  So far as the State of Washington is concerned mandatory chains means just that! When the sign says chains, you need chains; studded tires are no substitute.   And remember, studded tires are only legal between November 1 and March 31.

Winter Is On The Way – Part 1, Predictions

Well it isn’t winter yet, but you can see it coming.  The morning news notes that a combination of snowy weather and the government shutdown is having an impact on the Pacific Crest Trail hikers.  Snow in the mountains is generally our first indication that we are headed into the winter season.  For us out here on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the winter weather generally isn’t as dramatic as it is in the mountain passes between eastern and western Washington.  Still, it is time to take stock of those things we need to do make sure we get safely through the Peninsula’s gray, wet and occasionally snowy period.

Over the next days, we will take some time to look at what the coming season means to us and what we need to do to get ready for it.  Today we will look at the weather forecasts for our area in general to see what it is we may expect and in future installments we will look at weatherizing your car and your home.  For some of our area residents, winter also means pulling up stakes and heading for warmer and drier climates so we will also do an article on weatherizing your home for a long term-absence.

There’s a whole industry in weather forecasting and for some of us it seems a bit like gazing into a crystal ball, but the kings of prognostication are the folks at “The Old Farmer’s Almanac.”  The Old Farmer’s Almanac was first published in 1792 – that was during George Washington’s first term as president. It was a folksy publication that blended humor with valuable information and it laid claim to a “secret method” of forecasting that it reckons is right about 80% of the time.  That 80% figure is a bit tough to pin down.  Weather being what it is, a little bit of rain and a little bit of sun frequently go together on the same day around here making everybody a little right and a little wrong.  Professional meteorologists suggest the almanac is right only about 50% of the time; that is, a coin toss.

Whether you believe the almanac – or only half believe the almanac – their prediction for our area is for slightly below average temperatures for October and slightly above average temperatures for November.  Their longer term forecast is for a snowier than normal winter with snow falling from mid-December through mid-January. They predict near normal precipitation and that the coldest periods will be in mid- to late December, early to mid-January, and mid- to late January.  Those periods obviously coincide with their snow forecasts.

This prediction is a bit different from the prediction from the Office of the Washington State Climatologist;

the state climatologist is predicting warmer than normal temperatures for the state as a whole including western Washington.  The problem with the state prediction is that it sometimes tends to be couched in a less than confident manner, as in the rainfall prediction for western Washington as “equal chances of below, equal to, or above normal precipitation;”  safe, perhaps, helpful not so much.

In any case, out here on the Peninsula, we have a phenomenon called the rain shadow that makes any prediction of the weather that much more difficult.  The rain shadow is a sort of elliptical area on the eastern side of the Olympic Mountain range that affects precipitation in the area from Port Angeles east to Port Townsend and on to parts of Whidbey Island.  The rain shadow means that while Forks gets nearly 120 inches of rain a year, Sequim and Port Townsend average less than 20 inches a year.   Snowfalls are correspondingly small with Port Townsend at only about 2 and a half inches a year.  Note also though that Brinnon and south Jefferson County fall outside the rain shadow and get much more precipitation and snowfall.

In short, whether the Old Farmer’s Almanac is right or the Washington State Climatologist is right, we are fortunate to be in an area of the state that has relatively less bad weather and precipitation than the rest. While we can’t know for certain what lies ahead, we do know we need to be prepared for it, so in the next several blogs we will put together some information to help you winterize your home and auto for this part of our state.