A family whose house was gutted by fire face a bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds, as their insurer says the five-bedroom property actually has seven bedrooms.
Paul and Sophie Weldin were on holiday with their four young children in April when they learned of the blaze at their East Devon home. They had moved in just two months earlier and had not finished unpacking.
But when they made a claim on their home policy, it was declined. Insurer Ageas said the Weldins had wrongly declared that the property had five bedrooms when it had seven.
Because the firm did not offer cover for homes of that size, the policy was void.
Nightmare: Paul and Sophie Weldin, pictured with children Daisy, ten, Woody, eight, and twins Albie and Dexter, five, face a big bill to rebuild their East Devon home
Without insurance, the Weldins will have to find £460,000 to rebuild their home and replace their belongings.
Paul, 42, and Sophie, 44, are adamant Ageas is wrong and that the house has five bedrooms.
They say the other two are attic rooms used for storage and, as they do not comply with building regulations, cannot legally be classed as bedrooms.
But insurers can throw out claims based on one disputed detail such as this. Others include declaring the wrong type of lock or burglar alarm, underestimating the worth of your belongings or failing to correctly state how much of your roof is flat.
The Weldins’ case is a stark warning to other homeowners to check their documents are accurate, up-to-date and don’t have any hidden caveats restricting when the policy will and won’t pay out.
Experts warn that buying policies online via tick-boxes raises the risk of customers misunderstanding questions or unwittingly making a mistake.
The Weldins first heard about the fire while in Singapore. Paul had logged onto Facebook at the hotel and seen reports of fire engines at a property on their residents’ group.
They quickly realised from photographs posted by neighbours that it was their home and called their insurer, Ageas, almost immediately to tell it.
Paul, a sales manager, had bought their home buildings and contents cover via a comparison website and paid £416 for an annual policy.
One of the first questions on the online form is how many bedrooms the property has, including any that now have another use, such as studies.
It also asks for the number of reception rooms, including living rooms and dining rooms, bathrooms and any ‘other rooms’ (not including kitchens, utilities and conservatories).
Paul Weldin says he didn’t declare the rooms on the top floor as bedrooms, or other rooms, because at the time of buying the insurance, he saw them as a large attic space
Paul says he didn’t declare the rooms on the top floor as bedrooms, or other rooms, because at the time of buying the insurance, he saw them as a large attic space.
He says: ‘We have experience in converting this type of loft and attic space and knew that while it had the potential to one day be converted into a playroom for the children perhaps, we would first have to make the rooms habitable and install safety features such as fire alarms.’
The Weldins say the property had been marketed as having five principal bedrooms plus two attic bedrooms. But after viewing, they got £35,000 off the asking price as all were not proper bedrooms.
Yet, despite their policy insuring them for a rebuild cost of £650,000 plus £65,000 for contents — more than the actual sum they needed — Ageas still refused to pay out.
The fire was caused by a faulty security light fuse outside the front door. Sparks are thought to have spread to a log pile in the porch.
Paul says: ‘The firefighters said it was lucky we weren’t home as the fire started in the middle of the night when we would have been asleep and so may not have made it out.
But we still lost almost all of our belongings, including Sophie’s late mum’s possessions that were stored in the attic.’
After Ageas refused their claim the couple took their case to the Financial Ombudsman, but it found against them.
The Ombudsman report reads: ‘Taking a common sense approach, I think most people would consider upstairs rooms within a house as bedrooms.
‘Provided there was enough space for a bed, the room was heated and had a window. I don’t think that whether a room has been signed off as a building regulation compliant bedroom is relevant.’
The fire was caused by a faulty security light fuse outside the front door. Sparks are thought to have spread to a log pile in the porch
The report said that while Paul had not been dishonest, he had not taken ‘reasonable care’ with the insurance forms.
Paul says: ‘Installing a radiator, cupboard and throwing a bed in a small room does not make it suitable sleeping accommodation.
‘There are no words for how frustrated and disappointed we are over how we have been treated.’
The Financial Ombudsman has been criticised after an undercover probe found some employees were so poorly-trained, they had to search Google for the financial products they were investigating.
Some staff said they felt under pressure to process a backlog of complaints and did not have time to investigate cases properly.
James Daley, of consumer group Fairer Finance, says: ‘It can’t be right that a family who have tried to do the right thing are financially crippled because of a disagreement over a technicality such as what counts as a bedroom. The outcome is disproportionate and the penalty is too high.
‘If insurers want to behave like computers and write policies at arm’s length without going round to people’s houses, then it shouldn’t be the customer taking on all of that additional risk.
‘I’m disappointed at the Ombudsman for taking such a rigid view and not stepping back to look at the human element.’
The Weldins are now living in their holiday let nearby. Friends have rallied around, finding clothes and toys for the children — Daisy, ten, Woody, eight, and twins Albie and Dexter, five.
Now, Paul and Sophie’s only option is to go to court, but this would cost thousands of pounds, which they can’t afford.
The Ombudsman says it is ‘comfortable’ with its decision.
A spokeswoman for Ageas says: ‘The Financial Ombudsman Service agreed that their home had seven bedrooms, rather than the five they said they had when they bought their policy.
‘Because of this misrepresentation, we are cancelling the policy, rather than paying a proportion of the claim.’