As winter comes, so does the risk of flood damage

Heavy rains and antiquated drainage systems are putting more homeowners at risk, and insurance costs can easily soar. Alison Shepherd reports
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Winter has arrived early this year, bringing the big chill to the north and west of the country. But along with the danger of frozen pipes, there is the risk of flooding as rivers swell.

Just a fortnight ago, Cornwall was hit by torrential, freezing rain and flooding which wrecked hundreds of businesses and homes. This may only be a taste of what's to come.

The Environment Agency estimates that more than five million people in England and Wales live or work in properties that are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. With the increasing but less predictable threat of flash floods – due in part to blocked or antiquated drainage systems – many of us face the prospect of dealing with a filthy invasion of our homes.

You can check on the level of your risk by visiting environment-agency .gov.uk and typing your postcode into its Flood Map. But, says Mary Dhonau of the National Flood Forum, the map could offer a false sense of security. "Unfortunately, it's not just about flood plains any more. More and more homes are being hit by surface water that accumulates when drains and culverts become overwhelmed. I think almost everyone needs to be aware of the threat these days," she says.

Ms Dhonau has first-hand experience of flooding with Worcester home being overrun by water and raw sewage seven times in 10 years. It was on the seventh occasion in 2000 that she and neighbours set up the forumand to campaign for the Government and water companies to improve their warning, drainage and defence systems. After a decade of lobbying, she is disappointed that the coalition will cut its flood defence budget from £2.15bn to £2bn over the next four years. This puts at risk a deal between the Government and insurers guaranteeing that homeowners in known flood areas will still be able to buy insurance cover for as long as ministers continue to maintain the infrastructure. "Any deterioration in the flooding defences would be a concern for us, as it would have implications for costs," says Malcolm Tarling from the Association of British Insurers (ABI). "We are already almost unique in the world to offer insurance against the impact of flooding as an integral feature in our policies."

Insurers paid out £174m to people in Cockermouth to make their homes habitable last November, with the average claim somewhere between £20,000 and £40,000, according to the ABI. Overall flood payouts rose to £4.5bn in the past decade, up from £2.6bn paid out in the 10 years to 2000.

Regardless of the Government's deal with insurers, these payouts are reflected in premium levels. "In a survey we carried out of nearly 500 flood victims, some reported premium rises of more than 500 per cent and excesses rising from £50 to £5,000," says Ms Dhonau. "It worries me that those most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. They may not be able to afford to protect their homes at all."

Julie Owens, head of home insurance for Moneysupermarket.com, says hikes in premiums of about 8 per cent following a flood claim are usual. She adds that those who know they are at risk of flooding should check their policies. "If you are flooded, you may need to claim on your contents and buildings policies, so be clear which items fall under each. Taking both with the same insurer will ensure that no items fall through the gap."

You must also check your contents cover to ensure you will not be left out of pocket, warns Ms Owens. "If you are insured for up to £25,000, when the real value is £50,000, insurers will pay only half your claim, as you were underinsured by half."

It is also worth asking a possible provider about the levels of customer care they offer, says Ms Owen. Some companies, such Lloyds, offer dedicated claim handlers. "In the main, insurers are very reasonable when it comes to floods," says Ms Owens. "They recognise that it is very distressing and will act quickly."

One of the most beneficial steps flood-risk homeowners can take is to protect their house. "You need to know if your home is susceptible to groundwater or surface water flooding," says Ms Dhonau, who helped to compile the NFF's Blue Pages directory of flood protection services. "It is no good getting doorstops, flow- pipe or airbrick covers if the flood water seeps up from underneath. For that, you need a pump and sump.

"We need to get away from the culture that thinks the inefficient sandbag is the only defence. As householders, we can minimise the damage. Now we have to get the insurance companies to recognise the cost of such work and to lower premiums for those who have done the right things."

Case Study: Flood warning

Richard Gale and his family were caught in both the 2005 and 2009 Cumbrian floods. Mr Gale, 47, would advise all those who know that flooding is a threat to choose their insurer carefully.

"After the Carlisle flood in 2005, our insurer and its loss adjuster made our lives even more of a misery. We had to fight for every single thing, and were left to sort out all builders and clean-up work. So when that policy ran out, we switched to NFU Mutual,. It was a completely different experience. They sorted everything for us, even arranged for the delivery of the static caravan that we lived in."

The Gales' home near Keswick, is a 1940s house and until 2005 had never been flooded. After the second strike, they replaced all the wooden floors with concrete and tiles, and are hoping to install lightweight flood doors soon.

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