Personal Finance: How to weather storm damage to your property this win ter

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If your home is one of those lashed by the storms of the past week, what should you do? Guy Dennis makes some suggestions.

Andrew Wilkinson was in bed when his house started collapsing around his ears. "A terrific crash woke me up. I went to the window and saw my chimney in the garden and there was debris everywhere. The chimney came down in the 1987 storms as well and I can't believe it's happened again."

His home in Selsey, West Sussex, sustained damage estimated at pounds 18,000 as a result of a freak tornado two days ago. Luckily, he was insured and his repair bills will be paid by his insurer, Cornhill. As storms swept across the UK this week causing an estimated pounds 500m of damage, others may not be so lucky.

What should you do if you are similarly affected? Be ready to talk: this is the basic advice from insurance companies to their policyholders. In other words, as soon as possible after your home is damaged by storms, you should contact your insurance company.

Nearly all insurers have 24-hour helplines, but it is worth checking. A survey for Cornhill found that 40 per cent of people were unaware that their insurer had such helplines.

Emergency repairs are the first issue faced by victims of storm damage. The Association of British Insurers (ABI), the industry trade body, advises that reasonable costs of temporary emergency repairs will generally be paid by insurance companies.

The ABI interprets "reasonable costs" as being those needed to stop any damage getting worse. However, for repairs over pounds 500 it recommends insurance companies should always be contacted before the work is undertaken.

Temporary repairs carried out by the DIY inclined should also be covered. If you board up windows or hire water extractors, for example, keep the receipts - they could form part of your claim.

In a worst case scenario, when your home becomes uninhabitable, insurers should cover the costs of temporary accommodation. This too is often qualified by the word "reasonable" - do not expect a five-star hotel. Accommodation should take into account the quality of your home, however.

With emergencies over, you can start to look at the issue of permanent repairs to property, but beware. If you've suffered from the storms then cowboys may head your way in a gold rush of their own. Mark Barratt, chairman of the National Federation of Builders, warns that "unscrupulous `cowboy' builders always try to take advantage of home owners shocked and battered by violent weather". He recommends using a reputable builder from a recognised trade association. Many insurers have lists of such builders in your area.

Flooding is another serious problem. Flooded houses need drying, but drying things too quickly causes further damage. Leave the windows open until mid-afternoon if the weather permits - the air is drier outside. But leave the heating off while windows are open to save energy.

Doors and drawers should be opened and you should also clear air bricks of any debris. Dehumidifiers are good for flooded houses as they dry the air without causing heat damage. They should be used with the windows closed.

Damaged furniture and fittings should be stored in a dry place as they will need to be inspected and may have a salvage value even if irreparable.

Floors may also need to be looked at: suspended wooden floors need ventilating and floorboard may have to be lifted to dry the floor thoroughly. A dehumidifier may be useful here.

The wide-scale nature of the damage has led to mounting claims for insurance companies. The ABI believes total costs amount to pounds 300m to pounds 400m for the storms since Christmas Eve, while other estimates are even higher.

And it may get worse. The message from insurers, both in the long and short term is: be prepared for more of the same. The storms we have seen this winter are not yet over.