The next time you buy a policy to cover repairs to your home, make sure you read the fine print.
The WUSA*9 Special Assignment Unit is uncovering questions and confusion about a popular new service plan many Washington area residents are signing up for.
Flyers regarding a policy, which covers repairs to exterior water lines, have been delivered to hundreds of thousands of homes in the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) service area.
WSSC partnered with a third party called HomeServe to offer their customers exterior water line coverage last July. About 60,000 out of 350,000 eligible WSSC customers have signed up for the policy in the first 8 months.
It covers water line repairs between a home and the edge of the property line. That's the home owner’s responsibility to maintain and can cost you thousands of dollars if something goes wrong.
But the WUSA*9 Special Assignment Unit discovered what's not covered hasn't always been so clear to customers.
Customers like Kenice Middleton.
“Very frustrating,” she said as she stood in a water filled parking lot outside her Upper Marlboro home.
Frustrating because she bought a service plan from HomeServe for $3.99 a month to cover repairs if the water pipes outside her home broke. Which they did in April.
The policy states HomeServe will cover the cost of excavation, the pipe replacement or repair, and back filling areas of the ground they had to dig up.
HomeServe agreed to pay the $1,800 it would cost to repair the line on her property.
But Middleton found out there's a catch.
"You have to dig up all of this parking area to get to the pipe, and put the blacktop back,” she said speaking of the ground above the water line that needs repair.
"That's the most expensive part. They said it starts at $4,200 and could be upwards to $6,000,” she continued.
"That's the part they are saying is my responsibility to pay for."
HomeServe pointed to fine print in its Terms and Conditions which read:
"Repairs to any section...you share with any third party or is covered by a homeowners', condominium or like association" is not covered by their policy.
The parking lot outside Middleton's home is owned by her homeowner’s association.
Instead of the fully covered repair Middleton was counting on, she was facing a $4,000 to $6,000 bill right out of her own pocket.
"Which is why I got the insurance,” Middleton said.
Then, the WUSA*9 Special Assignment Unit noticed something else. Not why Middleton got the policy. But when.
Her paperwork shows she signed up for the HomeServe coverage the same day WSSC told her the leak outside her home, was her responsibility. The HomeServe website says a "property is not eligible if you are aware of any pre-existing conditions, defects or deficiencies with your exterior water service line prior to enrollment."
To cut down on customers trying to skirt that rule, HomeServe requires a 30 day waiting period before a new customer can call for repairs.
"Given that Ms. Middleton waited exactly 30 days after signing up to make a claim," HomeServe spokesman Myles Meehan wrote in an email, "it's reasonable to believe that she was aware of the exclusions."
Meehan says that includes the part about repairs to water lines under someone else’s property.
Middleton’s paperwork shows she signed up for the HomeServe coverage the same day WSSC told her about the leak outside her home, was her responsibility. That's a pre-existing condition, which is not covered under HomeServe's policy without getting through a 30-day waiting period.
Still, that didn’t stop WSSC and HomeServe from taking action to help Middleton.
"And so it's really now up to us, and to HomeServe to communicate better with our customers to make sure that they better understand,” said Chuck Brown, WSSC Director Office of Communications & Community Relations.
Brown said because this policy is so new to their customers, WSSC just hadn't encountered anything like this before.
Brown said it’s the customer’s responsibility to read the terms and conditions before signing any contract.
But he said WSSC and HomeServe needed to do a better job making sure customers know all the rules, including: if you don't own the land above your water pipe, HomeServe's policy isn't going to cover the entire repair bill.
And in what HomeServe spokesman Myles Meehan called a "gesture of goodwill," he said the company is making an exception in Middleton's case. Citing an "unusual and complicated situation" Meehan said HomeServe agreed to cover the entire cost of the job. Including re-paving the homeowner association's parking lot, as long as Middleton got written permission from the HOA for HomeServe to dig up their parking lot.
Brown said WSSC was pleased to help resolve the situation for its customer.
"While it’s not widespread, we think that there are going to be more of these types of situations moving forward,” Brown said.
“So we want to do our due diligence in informing our customers to ask the right questions."
So what are those questions you want to be asking?
1. Do you own the land above the water line pipes you want to insure?
2. How old is your home? WSSC says 50 years and above have water pipes that are at greatest risk.
3. Are your neighbors having problems?
4. Are you trying to protect yourself against something that could be considered a pre-existing condition? That could impact if, and when, HomeServe covers the repairs.
HomeServe says it has already paid out around a million dollars worth of repairs for customers with that exterior water line service plan, and that situations like Kenice Middleton's are extremely rare.