The right policy will keep your home fires burning

The misery of a boiler breakdown is enough to put a freeze on any festivities, but there is an answer. Alessia Horwich and Julian Knight report

Winter is definitely here but is your home heating system up to taking the strain? Boilers and radiators are generally more reliable than most items in the home but when they go wrong they can be ruinously expensive to repair.

Call-out charges can be as high as £80, while fitting a new pump can cost up to £1,000, and, if it's Christmas, and you have a house packed with guests, you have little option but to pay up.



But there are insurance policies which can help you cover the cost of call out and repairs, starting from as little as £5 a month. What you get from your boiler and home-heating insurance depends what cover you opt for.



Some policies will only give you cover for the boiler and central heating in emergencies, leaving you to fork out for routine checks and repairs. Others offer cover for maintenance and emergencies, but just for the boiler and its controls, not the full central-heating system including plumbing and drains. So if there's a leak in a pipe right next to the boiler, but you've only got boiler cover, you won't be able to claim. Some policies will include the annual boiler service, others won't. The key is in the small print.



However, from all policies you should expect to get a 24-hour, 365-day helpline for urgent heating or hot-water problems that covers the cost of the call-out, repairs, parts and labour. Some policies will limit the amount of call-outs you can have per year, and there will be some that only provide this service in real emergencies, according to their definition (at one time British Gas didn't qualify having no hot water as an emergency). Other policies will also cap the amount you can receive per claim, meaning that replacing a whole central-heating system might leave you out of pocket even with cover.



And, of course, there are pesky exclusions to watch out for. "Peripheral insurances often come with exclusions and limits you need to be aware of," says Lee Griffin, spokesman for insurance comparison website gocompare.com. "Some policies will exclude scale damage and others will set limits on the amount of times you can claim and the extent of repairs that will be covered."



Damage caused by faults is rarely covered. So your policy will pay to do the repair, but if a leak has caused damage to your home it will not be covered. "In this situation home insurance is generally there to reimburse you for any damage," says Mr Griffin, "so if you had a major incident with your boiler that resulted in damage to the fixtures and fittings, you would need to look at that policy rather than your boiler insurance."



Many emergency policies will not cover claims that occur during summer as milder weather means heat is not essential and loss of heating or hot water therefore is no longer technically an emergency.



Although the most popular makes of boiler are likely to be included, not all brands make the cut when it comes to insurance, and if your boiler is more than seven years old some insurers will require an inspection and others simply won't want to know. Plus, if your boiler packs up completely, many policies won't cover the cost of replacement unless you have specifically taken out a lifetime policy.



Depending on what cover you opt for, insurance can range from a monthly cost of £5 up into the hundreds annually. A comprehensive policy covering your boiler and central-heating system and the annual boiler service from British Gas, for example, costs from £150 per year. However, prices often vary according to your postcode.



"One of the key distinctions is whether you live inside or outside the M25," says Jon Ingram, operations director at comparison site boilerchoices.co.uk. "It's hard to get insurers to pin down the reason for this. Some say it's about the availability of engineers and the distances travelled for a call out, but it isn't wholly clear."



As with any insurance policy, essentially you get what you pay for, so cheaper policies often have a higher excess (upwards of the standard £50), or a limit to the number of repairs covered.



To cut costs, it's important to remember that you can get standalone policies and you don't necessarily have to take cover offered by your energy provider. "Don't assume getting a policy from your energy provider is best," says Archna Luthra, at consumer advice website moneysavingexpert.com. "If they try and push you into buying one, resist and check other options first."



Whether or not you choose to go for standalone cover for your boiler essentially depends on the age of your heating system and what you estimate the probability to be that it will need repairs at some point.



"It's risk analysis," says Mr Ingram. "Some claim that if you've got a brand new boiler the cost of repairs is on average less than £200, and with most policies costing more than this annually you could be better putting that money in a savings account and using it if and when you need it."



However, with older heating systems, the cost could be worth the peace of mind.



Before you take out any cover it's essential to check that other insurance policies you've bought don't cover your heating system. White-goods insurance can include boiler cover, and repairs can be included under handyman insurance policies. "It really is worth doing your homework even though it can be laborious," says Mr Ingram. "As with all insurance, the devil is in the detail."



If your boiler regularly breaks down you may be better off replacing it completely, and last week's pre-Budget report offered a way to ease the cost. Households looking to replace their old energy-inefficient boilers will be able to claim a grant to help with the cost of a new model. Up to 125,000 households will be able to benefit from what has already been dubbed the boiler "scrappage" scheme following the similar, successful, scheme for cars.

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