How to cope with a watery deluge

Jonathan Christie explains why the recent flood damage should teach us to be prepared

Rising rivers, early spring and tornadoes – Britain's climate is clearly becoming more extreme. For thousands of homeowners in the UK, flooding is just a grim fact of life. But for others, the recent flash floods across the Midlands and the North were an unwelcome surprise, and insurance companies are bracing themselves for thousands of fresh claims. Acts of God and the havoc they wreak are tricky to predict, but doing your homework and preparing for the worst may take the edge off of any deluge or tempest heading our way.

Am I in the line of fire?

Whether you're concerned about your current home or worried about an impending purchase, you can establish the risk of flooding to your property through the environment agency's website (environment-agency.gov.uk). A simple postcode search provides a map that shows the different levels of risk. Inland flooding, tidal flooding and high-risk areas are displayed. It can be startling to see a large, blue smudge running across your property's (or future property's) location – if you have concerns or need clarification on what the actualy risks are, contact the environment agency directly, or your local council.

Often, simple precautions can minimise the chances of flood or storm damage. Securing lawn furniture, checking nearby trees, repairing your gutters, tiles and roofs and ensuring any nearby streams or watercourses are regularly dredged and cleared can all help – even if this means getting your wellies on and doing it yourself. Local knowledge can be a good source of information, especially if there are older residents nearby. They might let you know if there have been any recurring problems or about just that one blocked culvert in 1958.

What should I do if a storm hits?

If you suffer storm or flood damage, notify your insurance company as soon as possible – most have 24-hour helplines. Your services may need to be checked, so contact your electricity, gas or water providers and, in the case of floods, be wary of contaminated water – run your taps through for a few minutes before use.

Storms can leave properties in a precarious state and older homes that suffer from a soaking mustn't dry out too quickly, as this can cause even more damage. There will inevitably be repairs and, in the wake of last week's storms and floods, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has issued a warning to people to check the credentials of any builders they may employ.

Richard Diment, the FMB's director general says, "Many people will be in a hurry to repair damage, but rogue builders will be preying on unsuspecting and sometimes desperate people who need to fix their homes quickly."

Some of the guidelines they've issued include: avoid dealing in cash; never pay in full up front; don't employ someone who knocks at your door asking for work; and agree a contract. The FMB's free Find-A-Builder service is available at www.findabuilder. co.uk or on 08000 152 522. Finally, keep all receipts and approve any work valued over £500 with your insurers.

How do I know if I'm adequately insured?

There are more than 2 million homes in the UK that are at risk from flooding and yet, even after the storms of January this year, it's estimated that a third of households are still not insured. Being covered will ease a lot of pain after a battering from the elements, so check your existing policy is up to date.

Kelly Ostler from the Association of British Insurers says the most common mistake made by homeowners is being under-insured.

"Ensuring you have enough cover on your buildings and contents insurance is something many people forget to check," she says.

"Good practice is to read through your annual renewal and make sure that any home improvements like loft extensions and conservatories, as well as high-value items like flat-screen TVs, are added to your policy. This doesn't always mean your premium will increase, but it will ensure you have enough cover should the worst happen."

With the average flood claim costing about £25,000, make sure you're not going to be short-changed. Check also that there are no exclusions in the small print. Some policies will cover the repair of a broken roof tile, but not the damage caused by any subsequent leaks.

If you're unhappy with your level of cover or a revised premium, shop around for a better deal. But don't cut corners with a cheap quote - it could cost more in the long run.

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