How to protect your home from burst pipes – and other domestic disasters

Chiara Cavaglieri offers a few simple tips, and looks at the best cover

The thaw is under way in many parts of Britain, although it may only be temporary, and insurers are urging homeowners to check their homes for damage as snow and ice gives way to wet weather.

Freezing conditions have led to a three-fold increase in the number of home-emergency claims, with a 200 per cent jump in calls for help relating to water damage, says Marks & Spencer Home Insurance.

"We're expecting the number of claims to increase throughout January and February as the severe weather puts a greater strain on central heating systems and household plumbing systems. The bad news is that the winter may have barely begun," says Simon Coughlin, a spokesman for M&S Home Insurance.

Some home-insurance policies provide cover as standard for emergency breakdowns, while others only provide basic cover, for burst-pipes, say, but not for a boiler breakdown. Cover is commonly available as an extra to home-insurance policies, and most price-comparison sites allow you to add it on and recalculate a quote. AIG, for instance, will charge an extra £23 a year to add this cover to a standard home policy. Other insurers, such as Aviva, Churchill, Insure.co.uk and Cover Direct, offer the option of adding emergency cover. But the standard home-insurance quotes from these firms may not be the best buy in the first place, so any extra you have to pay has to be factored into the real cost of cover.

Alternatively, you can take out a separate home-emergency policy. Aviva offers standalone cover for £7.95 per month, or as an optional extra to its home insurance for £4.95 per month. It covers up to £500 per incident for repairs and labour on broken-down boilers, blocked drains, burst pipes, loss or failure of heating or your gas or electricity source, and even lost house keys. Aviva also provides cover of up to £100 for temporary accommodation, with no excess.

"It's important to scour the small print," says Julie Owens, of Moneysupermarket.com, "as wording will vary between policies." Common policy exclusions include water leaks due to taps needing rewashering. Also, many older heating systems, over 10 or 15 years, may not be covered.

If you're looking for more protection, Homecallplus offers a Rainbow package with full cover for a whole range of potential disasters. You pay an annual £126 or a monthly direct debit of £11.47. As well as the usual protection for drains and sewers, wiring and heating, or hot water, it provides cover for invasion by vermin and wasps. Direct Line offers Home Response 24, which sends out an engineer or plumber should you have problems with your heating, drainage, locks, and, as an optional extra, electrics. Premiums depend on where you live and the age of your heating system, but someone living in West London, in a flat, can buy cover for £101 a year.

Watch out for policies with high excess levels and restrictions, such as a limit on the number of claims, or call-outs per year. Some may even refuse to replace a boiler if it breaks down beyond repair. Homecallplus may cost more than standard home emergency cover added on to a home insurance policy, but it does allow for an unlimited number of claims with no excess to pay and a no-claims bonus of up to 30 per cent. Some policies also provide a free annual gas-safety check.

Without proper cover, plumbing bills can soar. Certified plumbers on call-out to fix a leaking pipe can charge £65 to £85, and repair costs for boilers can run into hundreds of pounds. Replacing a fan could cost you from £203 to £630, while a new pump would set you back up to £389, according to consumer organisation Which?.

If you do find a burst pipe, first turn off the mains water supply, then drain the water system by running all the cold taps and then all the hot taps. "At this point, you should get a plumber out on an emergency call – or call your emergency home insurance helpline who should be able to help find you a local plumber. Then call your home insurer as soon as possible," says John O'Roarke, the head of Liverpool Victoria home insurance.

You can also take some simple steps to minimise the risk. Insulating lofts, water pipes and tanks will help avoid water freezing and expanding. If the temperature is forecast to drop and you're going away, you can leave the heating on at a low level. Many boilers also have a frost protection mechanism which turns on automatically when the temperature drops. Ensure that you know where the main stopcock is. It's also a good idea to clear guttering and drains from leaves which could lead to blockages.

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