Protect your home from winter weather

Frozen pipes and broken-down boilers can be expensive if you haven't got adequate cover. Chiara Cavaglieri reports

This is already shaping up to be a cold winter.

Temperatures of close to -20C have been reported in some parts and even in the big cities the mercury has regularly fallen below freezing. With icy conditions and further outbreaks of snow on the way, our homes may seem like warm safe places to hibernate this winter. But with the risk of freezing pipes and boilers breaking down, those without comprehensive cover could be forced to fork out hundreds and even thousands of pounds in repairs and call-out fees to cover the damage.

We're all accustomed to wrapping up in scarves and hats to face the elements, but insurers warn we need to winter-proof our homes too. An unexpected plumbing bill due to a frozen or burst pipe or a defunct boiler couldn't come at a worse time with Christmas only a few weeks away. Although many home insurance policies will cover you for some damage caused by such emergencies, if you want full protection against potential winter hazards, it pays to take out extra home emergency cover for peace of mind.

"If you don't have cover, a broken boiler will mean the family is left in the cold, possibly with no hot water until you can find a heating engineer to make the essential repairs. Even worse, if your boiler is a write-off, you'll have to find a substantial sum (£1,200-£1,600 or more) to replace the boiler," says Seamour Rathore from price comparison site Energychoices.co.uk.

Some insurers include cover in their standard home insurance policies. For example, Sheilas' Wheels will pay up to £500 per claim for call-out charges, two hours' labour costs, parts and materials up to £100 for the sudden failure to function of the main heating system. Others will let you add cover for an extra fee. For example, the AA charges an extra £24.99 a year for up to £250 per claim for call-out charges, labour costs, parts and materials for an emergency due to burst or blocked pipes, flooding or significant risk of flooding as a result of damage to the domestic heating or water system.

Alternatively, you can take out a separate, stand-alone policy. Most energy companies offer this but there is no obligation to take cover from your supplier, so compare both prices and the level of cover available carefully. Homeserve, for example, offers gas boiler breakdown cover for £9.18 per month.

"It is always worth reading the small print and checking the extent of your cover," says Julie Owens, the head of home insurance at Moneysupermarket.com. "I would also advise people to shop around and consider the type of cover required. If you need more comprehensive cover, then a stand-alone policy might suit you better."

If you're looking to get protection for the coming weeks, note that you may have to wait before you can make a claim. The initial no-claims period can be up to 28 days after taking out the policy with some companies.

With both add-on cover and stand-alone products, it's crucial to check for exclusions. Some policies will be invalidated if you leave your property unoccupied for a long time, typically 30 days in a row. If you are planning a long trip, tell your insurer first and confirm that you are still covered if anything happens while you're away. You should also ensure that your policy has "trace and access" cover, without which you may have to reach into your own pocket if the plumbers remove any carpets or fittings while they try to fix your pipes.

When it comes to cover for boiler breakdown, many plans exclude those over 15 years old. Find out your model before you shop around and check if there is an excess level to pay or a limit on the number of claims per year. The Homecare 100 policy from British Gas costs from £13 per month and allows an unlimited number of claims as well as annual service of your boiler, whereas the AA's stand-alone Home Emergency Response policy, costing £12.99 per month, allows only four claims per year. However, don't let price be your only consideration: Homecare100 covers only boilers and controls, while the AA's policy includes cover for your boiler, plus burst water pipes, blocked drains, electrical failure, pest infestation and even lost keys, so you do get more bang for your buck.

Finally, remember that prevention is always better than the cure so take simple steps to minimise the risk of a home emergency.

"It's worth taking 10 minutes to do some basic checks around the home to help prevent a small leak from becoming a disaster. Stand in your garden and have a look at the roof – has the recent snow dislodged any tiles? Is all your visible pipe work leak or drip free? Also check the insulation around water pipes in the loft or other exposed areas. A small gap can easily mean a frozen pipe when temperatures hit minus degrees," says Tom Stringer, the head of home rescue at the AA.

Other steps should include having your boiler serviced at least once a year, insulating your loft, water pipes and tank to stop the water freezing, clearing gutters and drainpipes of leaves to prevent blockages and overflows, and keeping the central heating set to at least 10C to prevent pipes from freezing. You should also have a home emergency kit on standby containing torches, tinned food, warm clothing, blankets, and of course, your home insurance documents.

Expert View

Julie Owens, Moneysupermarket.com

With freezing winter conditions upon us and Christmas right around the corner, having a home emergency policy in place can give you much-needed peace of mind in the hectic and costly festive season. If you have any kind of emergency at home such as boiler breakdown, a flood or a wiring problem, access to tradespeople can be limited and the costs can run into hundreds of pounds before anyone has set foot through the door.

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