Homeowners are being advised to take urgent action to protect their homes from severe weather damage, with the Met Office warning that the freezing cold is likely to continue.
Halifax Home Insurance says that one in six of its current claims is for burst pipes, compared to just one in ten earlier in the winter. Electrical fittings, decorations and building structures are all at risk from water leaks.
Senior Halifax claims manager Martyn Foulds says: “The average cost to repair damage caused by a burst pipe is around £2,000, so it is worth ensuring the home is properly insured, taking steps to prevent frozen pipes, making sure you have adequate insurance and also knowing what to do to limit damage if a pipe does burst.”
Halifax argues that where it has not been done, it is still worth lagging pipes and insulating roof spaces and water tanks. It also advises leaving central heating systems switched on — at low temperatures — when not occupying the property, even if only for a short period. Homeowners and tenants are recommended to check that they know where their mains water stop tap is, to switch off supplies if pipes do burst.
If the worst happens, central heating and electrical systems should be switched off and cold water taps opened up to remove water from the system. Homeowners should notify their home insurer immediately. Insurers may need to be consulted before repair work is commissioned.
Liz Neild of M&S Money, another home insurer, says: “We are seeing a large increase in insurance claims for burst pipes, due to the freezing conditions across the UK. The most common type of home insurance emergency claim over the 2009/2010 winter months has been for water claims, including burst pipes.
“The increase in these claims is well over 100% compared to summer months. It's highly likely that the number of claims will increase throughout this month and February, as the weather puts further strain on central heating and household plumbing systems. Getting a leaking pipe fixed by a certified plumber can charge around £65 to £85 an hour and there may also be a call-out fee.”
The Association of British Insurers says that while most weather-related insurance claims are for motor accidents and travel delays, there has also been a big increase in problems with burst pipes.
The ABI suggests that homeowners check to see what their policies cover. Some insurers offer policies that not only compensate for property damage, but also meet the costs of paying for plumbers to come out to the home. Even where plumber call-outs are not included in the cover, an insurer may be able to put policyholders in contact with recommended plumbers.
Tom McClelland, Northern Ireland spokesman for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, warns that property owners have been lulled into a false sense of security about severe weather damage. “Back in the ‘70s, you made sure water was turned off [if a property was vacant],” he says. “This year winter has come back to bite us in the sense that we have had a decade of winters when there were no problems, so we got complacent.”
Even so, most properties should avoid severe damage, says McClelland. “I think it needs to get to at least minus 4 before you get much damage,” he suggests. It will mostly be where properties have been left empty, or with inadequate heat, where there are serious problems.
But, he warns there can also be difficulties cause by condensation in the pipes of oil-fired central heating which can lead to the system ceasing to work and water in the property freezing. McClelland adds: “Where there is major damage, I would advise going to a chartered surveyor who specialises in contract management.”
Another option is to engage a loss assessor, who negotiates on behalf of the homeowner with the insurer, which will appoint its own loss adjuster. The role of the loss adjuster is to reduce the amount the insurer must pay-out, or even to have the claim rejected altogether.
Henry Dony is president of the Institute of Public Assessors, which has members in Northern Ireland, the Republic and Great Britain. He explains: “Unfortunately, the insurance industry generally seeks to pay-up as little as they can get away with. Many people don't realise that for a claim of any size or complexity they need professional assessors.
“While no business would dream of dealing with the Inland Revenue without using an accountant, yet many people believe that with an insurance claim they can deal with the insurer and their loss adjuster themselves and get a fair deal.”
A loss adjuster will typically charge about 10% to 12.5% of the value of the claim — and the insurer will not meet these costs from the insurance settlement. “The fee is usually well earned,” says Dony. “Although [the policyholder] only gets 90% of the settlement, that is bigger than the 100% they would have got.”
Dony reports that his members are already receiving an increase in enquiries from homeowners whose properties have been weather-damaged. He expects a big spike in contacts from people in about a month when they begin to realise “they are not being treated fairly” by insurers and their loss adjusters.