Is home emergency insurance worth it?

From boilers bursting to rodent infestation, you can pay for cover. But is it cost-effective

When the temperature drops, marketing budgets at companies selling boiler and domestic emergency cover tend to soar.

These sorts of policies can cover everything from your central heating failing, to losing your keys, or being infested by a plague of mice. But whether they represent good value depends on the cover householders already have, where they live, as well as the type of policy chosen.

Financial protection from certain home calamities is provided by home and contents insurance, with many policies covering the cost of getting a locksmith, and some plumbing repairs and the like. Also, homeowners might already have a specific home emergency policy without realising.

Brent Hartley, chief executive of provider HomeCall+ says home emergency insurance is often sold by mortgage lenders as a stand-alone policy, in addition to home and contents cover, for just a few extra pounds.

"The problem is that cover is often not sold in such a way that people know when they can claim: customers often don't know they have the extra protection, so rates of people claiming end up being very low, which is why the policies can cost so little," says Hartley.

If you are thinking about getting home emergency cover, where you live could be one of the most important factors determining how likely it is that a policy will be cost-effective.

For example, research on behalf of comparison website Uswitch.com shows the average hourly rate for a plumber in London is around 76, which is twice as much as the average for the South-west of England around 38 and more than three times the hourly rate for the North West, which is around 23.

Some insurers, such as Direct Line ( www.directline.co.uk), price home emergency premiums according to a number of factors including where you live whereas others charge a flat rate. HomeCall+ (www.homecallplus.co.uk), for example, costs 15.60 a month, regardless of your postcode.

As well as paying for same-day repairs to heating and hot water supply, plumbing, drainage and electrical problems, broken doors and windows, loss of keys, vermin infestation and storm damage to windows and roofs, some policies will also pay for annual boiler inspections, which homeowners are advised to undertake every year and can cost as much as 80 for Londoners.

So, a comprehensive policy that does not vary premiums according to your location might be a good bet if you live in London, whereas a policy priced to reflect the comparatively low cost of fixing problems in other regions might be worth investigating for those living outside the capital.

A further complication facing would-be policy holders is the myriad of levels of cover available. This makes it extremely difficult to compare policies and work out which offers best value.

For instance, Direct Line ( www.directline.co.uk) offers three levels of cover, all with some protection against the cost of fixing problems with plumbing and drains, electrics, heating and security problems.

Their "response" package covers all call-out fees and the first hour of labour, while the more comprehensive and typically pricier 'total response' covers all call-out fees plus parts and labour up to 1,000, including VAT.

Stand-alone boiler insurance is one of the more popular kinds of domestic cover, with around 28 per cent of householders holding a policy, according to price comparison service Uswitch.

Consumer watchdog Which? says nearly one in three boilers breaks down within the first six years of installation and that customers should bear in mind a number of factors when shopping around for cover (which, it is worth saying, they need not buy from their energy supplier).

Which? recommends checking whether the policy caps the number of call-outs you can make, whether repairs on boilers over a certain age are covered, whether the first hour of a tradesperson's time or the cost of the full job is covered, and how far both parts and labour are covered, in addition to establishing the maximum annual claims you can make.

If all this research seems too involved, and you would rather take your chances on paying to fix home disasters when they happen, the best way to find a good-value and reliable plumber, locksmith or pest controller is through a recommendation.

If this is not possible, get at least three quotes before deciding on someone's services, and be clear exactly what the costs quoted will cover before agreeing to a call-out.

When it comes to gas-related repairs, always use a Corgi-registered specialist and for electrical problems, ask about professional qualifications and affiliations, such as with the Electrical Contractors' Association.

Ask any tradesperson for a written quotation, get a firm time for the start and expected completion of jobs and always get a full name, address and postcode for them before they arrive. Also, never pay in advance for work.

For more guidance visit www.tradingstandards.gov.uk; to compare prices between home emergency policies, try www.uswitch.com

10 questions to ask before signing up

1. Do I already have the cover I need through my buildings and contents cover?

2. Do I already have a separate policy sold to me as an add-onto my home insurance?

3. Will the insurance policy pay for same-day repairs?

4. Do I live in London where just two hours of a plumber's time can be the same price as some annual policies?

5. What exactly does my preferred policy cover?

6. How does this compare with what else is available?

7. What is the excess?

8. Are any repairs made by the affiliated tradesperson under the policy guaranteed, and if so, for how long?

9. Does my policy include annual boiler inspection?

10. Is the peace of mind of insurance more important to me than avoiding paying out for cover I might not get full value back on?

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