An Englishman’s home is said to be his castle – but when a property comes under unexpected attack from hazards such as flooding, subsidence or damp, it can feel like anything but a fortress.
We take a look at six common perils facing homeowners or those thinking about buying a new home.
We also show how you prevent them, mitigate damage and what they mean for your home insurance.
Concern: Finance worker Lisa Beeton from Peterborough outside her underpinned home
How to spot subsidence
This summer’s heatwave could spell disaster for some homeowners. Subsidence is known to increase during hot, dry weather. Subsidence is the downward movement of ground underneath a building which causes the foundations to become unstable. It happens most often to properties built on shrinkable soils such as clay, although it can also happen on drier soils if water leakage washes earth away from the building’s foundations.
The problem can also be caused by tree roots sucking moisture out of the ground and often occurs in areas where there has been mining activity in the past.
Graeme Trudgill is executive director at the British Insurance Brokers’ Association. He says: ‘Subsidence can be unpredictable and long periods of hot, dry weather, particularly following a wet spell, can cause problems for some properties. It is vital to ensure you have good buildings insurance in place.’
Subsidence and the opposite ‘heave’ – when the ground swells and rises upwards – are standard perils covered in buildings insurance although there will usually be a high excess of about £1,000 on any claim. This is the part of the claim that policyholders have to pay themselves.
Be aware that it will be difficult to switch insurers once you have had a subsidence claim or if your home is underpinned – a procedure to repair and strengthen the foundations. It means you could end up trapped with expensive cover.
Always get a full structural survey done if you are buying a home. If the property you want has been underpinned, get the details of the current home insurer and speak to an independent insurance broker to gauge how much cover is going to cost and who else will be prepared to offer it.
Be on alert for early warning signs of subsidence. Cracks are common in all properties, but signs of subsidence include large, diagonal cracks that are wider at the top than the bottom and thicker than the edge of a 10 pence coin throughout (about 3mm). Cracking that is visible inside and outside the property is a worrying sign, as are large cracks around windows and door frames.
Chris Irwin is senior product manager at Yorkshire Building Society. He says: ‘The effects of subsidence become worse over time, so early action can make any problems easier and less costly to deal with.’
Maintaining trees in your garden, regularly cleaning out guttering, and making sure pipes and plumbing are in good working order will help prevent problems.
Finance worker Lisa Beeton, 49, from Peterborough, and her husband James, also 49, had to have their new-build home underpinned in 2007 after excess water and poor drainage under the property caused subsidence.
The damage was monitored and the cracks in the home measured by Lisa and James’s insurer for more than two years before it decided to go ahead with underpinning works. The total cost of the claim came to around £90,000.
Lisa says: ‘At first our insurer thought the cracks were due to ‘settling’ as our home was newly built. But we felt certain it was something more significant.
‘The crack over the kitchen door was more like a hole in the wall. Subsidence claims take time as the insurer wanted to assess the situation before starting the work.’
Lisa is still with the same insurer – Churchill – and says she has not noticed a big increase in premiums. But she says it would be difficult to switch to another insurer.
ACTION PLAN: Subsidence is covered under most buildings policies, but premiums may increase following a claim and it could then be difficult to switch insurer. Use a broker to find out all options available if your property is underpinned.
A flood is obvious but watch out for leaks
Flooding and leaks account for nearly one in four of all home claims, according to Aviva’s latest UK Claims Report, published yesterday.
But while a faulty toilet or washing machine can be difficult to predict or control, there are some easy steps homeowners can take to cut the risk of burst pipes, which are common during cold weather.
Water can freeze in pipes around the home, particularly if they are external or exposed, and can cause them to crack. When it eventually thaws, any cracking can result in a leak. Lagging pipes can reduce this risk.
Experts also advise homeowners to keep central heating on at a low level overnight during cold periods.
Monitoring devices are available that alert homeowners in the event of a leak. The technology is expensive – LeakBot, for example, costs from about £150 – but it could save homeowners a great deal of stress and expense in the event of a burst pipe.
Damage: Steven Greatorex- Smith made a claim for £7,000
Steven Greatorex-Smith, 49, from Kettering, Northamptonshire, had to make a claim on his home insurance last summer after a water pipe in a downstairs toilet leaked.
Steven, a driving instructor who lives with husband Andrew, says carpets, kitchen cupboards and some furniture were damaged. The total claim, through Direct Line, came to more than £7,000.
Steven says: ‘We had been out for the day and came home to about six inches of water on the ground floor. Direct Line was great and sent out a flooding specialist immediately.
They ripped out all the carpets and brought in drying equipment. It took weeks to get back to normal. Thankfully the buildings and contents cover with Direct Line paid for everything.’
Flooding can also result from environmental factors outside the home. So, when house hunting you must take flood risk into account.
The Environment Agency website has maps that can show areas of flood risk by postcode – and for different types of flooding – visit the Flood Warning Information Service map.
Sarah Cordey, of the Association of British Insurers, says: ‘It is not just being near a river or the sea that people need to think about when it comes to floods. More surface water flooding is being caused by torrential rainstorms. For most parts of the country you can check a property’s flood risk and go into the house-hunting process better informed.’
ACTION PLAN: Flood and ‘escape of water’ incidents are covered under home insurance. Take steps to reduce the chance of burst pipes in the home and check any flood risk before buying a new property. Consider adding accidental damage cover to your policy. This means your policy will cover you in the event of drilling into a wall and damaging a pipe which causes a leak.
FIVE TIPS TO HELP FIND THE BEST HOME INSURANCE
- Consider taking out both buildings and contents insurance with the same insurer. This will avoid any dispute over liability between different insurers in the event of a claim.
- Maintain your property. Insurers expect homeowners to take reasonable care of their home, regularly checking roofing, guttering, fences and pipes.
- Remember not to switch on price alone when moving insurer. Policies vary widely with some things included as standard on some policies but not on others. Consider accidental damage cover – more than two in five claims are for accidental damage, according to Aviva’s UK Claims Report.
- Check all limits and policy excesses. Most policies will put a cap on claims so make sure the limits are adequate for your needs. Understand the excess – the part of the claim that you will have to pay. Many policies will give you the option to reduce your premium in exchange for a higher excess.
- Review the value of your home contents regularly, including any expensive individual items, to ensure your cover is adequate. Also, check your rebuild cost is high enough. This is typically much lower than a home’s market value.
- Essential guide and compare prices: How to get the best home insurance
Ask the right questions about extensions
Improving and extending your home can add value to it, but there are potential pitfalls. Likewise, those looking at a property that has been extended or renovated need to ask the right questions before buying it.
Planning permission and local authority building regulations approval is essential. But homeowners also need to inform their home insurer.
Trudgill says: ‘Notify your insurer before work commences. In some cases it may restrict certain perils, such as liability and death cover, while the work goes on. Always check your building contractors have liability cover and indemnity insurance.
‘For significant or large-scale renovations it may be worth considering getting standalone insurance to cover all eventualities during the build.’
If you are buying a property that has been extended or altered, your solicitor should request the necessary paperwork and buildings certificates. If you proceed without this it could cause problems when you later come to sell.
A future home insurance claim may be rejected if you cannot prove building regulation consent. A local authority can order you to reverse any works or take necessary steps to ensure the alterations meet regulations, which could be expensive.
ACTION PLAN: Some perils may be excluded from your standard home policy during building work. Speak to your insurer early and if you have concerns consider cover for any gaps. The value of your home – and rebuild cost – may increase following the work, so inform your insurer.
Cracking up: Hot, dry weather increases damage from subsidence
Keep a keen eye on a flat roof
Flat roofs, common on loft conversions and extensions, are more likely to have leaks and pose a higher risk for insurers.
Matt Connell is director of policy and public affairs at the Chartered Insurance Institute. He says: ‘Typically a flat roof will need to be replaced more frequently than a standard roof and requires greater ongoing maintenance.
‘For this reason insurers will ask what proportion of your property has a flat roof. Do not forget flat roofs covering any extensions or loft conversions.’ It is important not to rush this calculation and give an incorrect figure that could invalidate your cover.
ACTION PLAN: Mainstream insurers will cover flat roofs, typically up to a maximum proportion of your total roof area. Always check policy details directly with your insurer. It will expect regular checking, maintenance and, where necessary, replacement of your flat roof.
How to spot and deal with damp
Damp and condensation can be hugely damaging inside the home – causing unsightly marks on walls. But it is not covered under standard insurance.
Rising damp, caused by moisture coming up from under a property, is also not covered if it has penetrated the damp-proof course – a barrier between your home and the ground. This can cause significant damage to brickwork and timber in a property and can be expensive to fix.
If you are buying a property – particularly an older property – get a full building survey and ask questions about damp.
ACTION PLAN: Most damp issues are not covered under home insurance. Homeowners should take steps to minimise damp and moisture damage in the home.
Growing pain: Japanese knotweed is a virulent plant that is thought to cause significant damage to the foundations of property
What you must know about knotweed
A homeowners’s worst garden nightmare, Japanese knotweed is a virulent plant that is thought to cause significant damage to the foundations of property, walls and pipes.
Although a new academic study has suggested it may be no more damaging to property than many other plants, Japanese knotweed is not covered under standard home insurance policies and it is not unusual for mortgage lenders to refuse to lend on a property with a history of it.
It is likely to cost thousands of pounds to professionally remove the fast-growing weed – it can only be disposed of at licensed landfill sites as it is considered hazardous waste. Contact the Environment Agency for advice. Liability is another issue. If you have knotweed and your failure to control it causes it to spread to a neighbour’s land, you could be prosecuted.
A recent landmark case saw a judge award damages – for removal of the weed and loss of property value – to two homeowners where knotweed had grown on to their land. The claim was made against Network Rail as the firm owned the land behind the affected properties.
ACTION PLAN: The costs of clearing and disposing of Japanese knotweed are not covered under standard home insurance, but you must still inform your insurer if you have it on your land. Failure to notify could lead to any future unrelated claim for structural home damage being rejected.
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