Floods: It won't be a drop in the ocean so guard against the winter flood waters

Don't hang around in the ranks of the uncovered as we move into the high-risk season, warns Esther Shaw. Find the right policy and take precautions
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Just ask the thousands of people who are still living with the consequences of this summer's unprecedented rainfall – flooding is now a fact of life in Britain, whatever the season. But as the winter approaches so the risk grows more acute, and many homeowners should be checking that they are prepared for the worst.

A dark cloud, though, has appeared on the far horizon. At present, UK insurers have an agreement with the Government – the Statement of Principles – to provide flood cover to households as long as the state invests in flood defences. However, they expressed their "disappointment" following the Comprehensive Spending Review earlier this month, when the Government announced that the £800m earmarked for flood-risk management would not come into effect until 2010.

"The severe flooding events of this summer highlight the need for this increased investment to come on stream as soon as possible," says Jon Sellors from insurer More Than.

As a result, concerns are growing that cover could dry up. "We've already seen insurers reassess what they consider to be flood-prone areas by increasing premiums, and the industry could potentially refuse to insure homeowners in high-risk areas," says Debra Williams, managing director of price- comparison service Confused.com.

This, warns Melanie Bien from mortgage broker Savills Private Finance, could leave homeowners exposed. "Lenders will only advance money on a property if buildings insurance is in place, because they want to minimise their risk. No insurance means no mortgage, making it hard to sell a property on."

Checking your risk

It is estimated that up to five million people in two million properties currently live in flood-risk areas. People can assess the danger to their own properties by visiting www.environment-agency.gov.uk, while insurers such as More Than and Norwich Union also have sophisticated mapping technology that can assess the risk to specific households.

"Always inform your insurer if you live on top of a hill or in a high-rise flat," says James Harrison at price-comparison service Insurancewide.com. "Although the surrounding area may be at risk, it is unlikely your property will encounter water damage."

But people who see flooding as a remote threat should bear in mind that some climatologists predict a 30 per cent rise in UK winter rainfall. So homes that are currently deemed safe may come to be viewed differently.

Buying insurance

Incredibly, given these risks, barely three out of four homeowners have contents insurance in place, according to the Association of British Insurers.

To ensure you are fully reimbursed for any losses, shop around for a policy with comprehensive protection. "It is vital you are comfortable with the level of cover on both building and contents," says Ms Williams, "and that you are aware of limits on claims and the excess." The average flood claim is £30,000.

If you already have a policy with an insurer, it will probably continue with that cover, even if the risk grows in the area where you live – although you may face higher premiums.

Flooding preparation

If a flood warning is issued, place sandbags outside doors and windows to reduce the amount of flood water entering your property. Turn off gas, electricity and water supplies, and move possessions upstairs. And if possible, move your car out of danger.

Getting back to normal

Make a photographic or video record of the damage, as this may help your insurer to settle a claim. Also keep receipts from any work undertaken.

"Open doors and windows to ventilate and dry out the property," says Keith Lewis from Zurich Insurance. "Ensure your home is completely dried out before attempting any redecoration work."

When you call your insurer, it will confirm the level of cover you have for funding alternative accommodation and help you with the immediate costs of finding somewhere to stay.

It will also arrange for a loss adjuster to visit your home to assess the damage, and will arrange for emergency pumping to remove any remaining water.

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