3 Types of Water Damage: Water Backup, Overflow, Discharge and Flood

Common Water Damage Causes, What's Covered (Or Not)

Water is one of the most common causes of damage in homes and is a factor in a large number of insurance claims. Water damage to your property can happen from any number of sources, such as:

Because most standard insurance policies have limitations related to water claims, and paying for the repairs yourself can be expensive, it is good to know when your insurance will cover a water damage claim.

Causes of Water Damage in Insurance: What's Covered?

If water damage is sudden and accidental, there's a good chance you are covered by most standard home insurance policies.

Depending on the type of insurance policy you have, you might have coverage for damage caused by water. Some basic water damage coverage is included in a standard home policy like an HO-3; other sources of damage might not be covered unless you add an endorsement to your policy. It really depends on the type of home, condo insurance or renters insurance you have. Your standard homeowner policy will include:

  • Damages caused by the weight of ice, snow, or sleet. This can cause roof collapse or water damage, among other problems
  • Discharge and overflow of water, even if it is an accident
  • Tearing apart, cracking, burning, or bulging of a steam or hot water heating system
  • Freezing of plumbing and pipes

Some policies may contain exclusions for coverage of freezing of pipes if you left your home unheated during the heating season or if you did not shut off the water when you went away. These types of clauses are specific to various insurance companies so just be sure and ask before you plan to be away from your home for any length of time.

If you opted for the least expensive type of policy, or if you're restricted to a policy like an HO-1, you might have limited coverage. Unlike other standard policies, some cover a very limited set of perils and will not normally include the items listed above.

Understanding the Differences in Insurance Water Damage Coverages

If you're frustrated or confused by water damage coverages and insurance, you aren't alone. Below are explanations and definitions of the most often confused water damage terms and what you need to know about your coverage if you have to make a claim. You don't want to have your water damage claim denied

3 Types of Water Damage in Home Insurance

Some types of water damage are pretty straightforward. It's helpful to be familiar with three of them. When you call to make a claim and to find out if you're covered, the insurance company may use terms like:

  • Sewer backup or water backup 
  • Overflow and discharge
  • Flood

The source of water damage is not always obvious. The insurance company might throw some of these terms around when you call to ask if you're covered in a water damage claim. Before deciding if it is covered or not they will have to determine how the damage happened.

The insurance company will send an adjuster to manage your claim and they will investigate the source of the damage to see if it is covered. 

Water Damage May Be Limited on Your Insurance

In some cases, water damage coverage may be added to your policy. You can check to see if you have special water damage coverages like sewer backup added as an endorsement by looking at your policy's declaration page.

Sewer or Water Backup Coverage — Home Insurance Claims

Woman calling insurance about water damage coverage
How to know when water damage is covered by insurance or not. RuslanDashinsky / GettyImages

Sewer backup describes what happens when water comes up or is pushed into your home through the pipes from sewer or drainage systems. It is a very unpleasant type of water damage because it often involves dirty water from the sewers that will not only destroy your personal property but can also impact your health because it's so unsanitary. 

Most people don't know a lot about sewer backup coverage if they've never had to make a claim. Sewer backups can cause thousands of dollars in damage. The Civil Engineering Research Foundation indicates that the rate of sewer backup incidents is increasing at a rate of 3 percent a year, so this is one coverage you don't want to do without.

There are several potential sources of sewer backup:

  • Blockage of a city sanitary main: If the city main gets blocked, it may cause water to back up into your home through your pipes. 
  • Aging sewer systems that require updates or repair. 
  • Tree roots: When you have older pipes, sewer lines and water entry pipes, tree roots can find their way into the pipes and cause blockages. You can check for this problem on your own lines by having a plumber check your pipelines with a camera and do some basic preventative maintenance on your home. 
  • City-related pipeline issues like combined pipelines or problems in the sanitary main: When the system you are using combines the sewage and stormwater into one pipeline instead of having a separate pipeline for each, these are combined pipelines. The system can get overwhelmed in a storm and the water can back up into your home. 
  • Overflow or back-up of the drainage systems in your home. If your gutter systems or rainwater pipes are blocked or overwhelmed by debris or sudden water flow it may cause a back-up into your home. 

Sewer backup is not automatically included in most standard homeowner policies. You must add it to your policy by endorsement to make sure you're adequately protected.

Sewer backup coverage can be added to a policy for as little as $40 to $50 a year, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Contact your insurance company to find out the specific cost, but considering the aging sewer systems in many areas and the increased incidence of severe weather and storms causing claims, it's worth finding out about. 

Overflow Water Damage and Discharge Water Damage

Water damage in home due to dishwasher flood
Appliances breaking down may cause water damage find out what's covered. Sturti/ Getty Images

Sudden and accidental discharge or overflow from plumbing or appliances are usually covered on standard home policies. Overflow and discharge water damage is the type of water damage most people think about when they imagine a water damage claim in their home.

Overflow involves water escaping or overflowing from appliances, pipes or water outlets in your home. Some examples include your bathtub or washing machine overflowing. 

Discharge is what happens when water is released from plumbing or appliances and then floods your home. For example, if your water heater gives out or a pipe bursts, there is a sudden discharge of water. 

The key to insurance coverage in these types of water damage claims is it must be sudden and accidental, not a maintenance or wear-and-tear issue.

Flood Insurance Water Damage

Flood water coming in through door
Understanding Flood vs Other Water Damage. PICIMPACT / GettyImages

You would generally use the term "flooded" when you have water in your home. You might say, "My basement got flooded." It can be confusing when you're told that insurance doesn't cover flood damage, yet people get paid for "water damage floods." There is a difference between water damage and flood damage. 

What is a "Flood" in Insurance Terms? Definition

Insurance would view a flood claim as a body of water overflowing so the level of water outside your home rises to a point where it enters your home. The official definition of a flood states that it's "a general and temporary condition of partial or complete inundation of two or more acres and two or more properties of normally dry land."

A good way to understand whether you have a real flood claim or a water damage claim is to determine if more than one home is affected. If so, you may be looking at a flooding situation or a flood claim.

If only your home is affected, you probably don't have a flood claim even though you feel that you are "flooded." The source of water and the cause of damage is likely one of the scenarios described above. If it is sudden and accidental and not due to maintenance, it could be a covered water damage claim. 

A flood is generally not covered by home insurance policies. If you have concerns specific to your area, contact your local state commissioner's office for details about what flood insurance is available in your area. It can vary from state to state.

You can also find information and flood insurance policies through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Services are delivered to the public by a network of approximately 60 insurance companies and the NFIP Direct.

Understanding What Water Damage Coverage You Need

The most difficult thing to deal with when you have water damage can be figuring out if you're covered. Now that you understand the different kinds of water damage commonly covered in insurance terms, you can discuss your coverage with your personal insurance representative to find out what is covered on your policy type.