Storm clouds, silver linings

Last week's gales, culminating in a devastating tornado, have left many scurrying to check their insurance cover, writes Emma Simon
HOMEOWNERS have faced a week of misery after the most serious storms since 1987 lashed Britain last week.

More than half a million homes were battered by gales last weekend, and just when forecasters said we had seen the worst of the wintry weather, a freak tornado hit the Selsey area of West Sussex, affecting more than 1,000 homes as gusts of up to 100mph tore off roofs and blew down trees.

Insurers estimate that the cost of the damage caused by the storms could be as high as pounds 500m. This figure will rise further when the full cost of the damage in Selsey is known.

Although the total will be well below the pounds 2.7bn insurers paid out following the big freeze in 1990, many experts are speculating that the latest bout of severe weather could push buildings insurance premiums up again. Michael Gaughan, group marketing manager of Independent Insurance, says: "There will be no immediate rise, but I would not be surprised if we see increases in the spring. By then insurers will know the full cost of these storms, and this may be reflected in higher premiums."

But other insurers, such as Eagle Star, have been quick to scotch rumours of premium hikes. Matt Holmes, a spokesman, says: "Despite the increase in claims over Christmas and New Year, we are not anticipating a premium rise. This only happens after sustained periods of bad weather, not one or two storms."

David Ross, spokesman for Guardian Insurance, adds: "Although the picture on television from Selsey showed how devastated the town was, this destruction was localised. This should limit the cost of repairs, so I do not expect insurers to raise premiums as a result of this one freak incident."

The gales caused a five-fold increase in claims over the period, although most of these were for minor damage compared to the havoc wreaked by the Selsey tornado.

Gill Murphy, a spokeswoman for Direct Line, says: "We have received more than 8,000 calls since Christmas. Most of these were for damaged roofs and guttering." Out-buildings, such as greenhouses and garden sheds, have also been hard hit by the storm.

But property damage has been far more serious for homeowners in the worst- hit regions. In these areas insurers and loss adjusters have seen a 1,000 per cent increase in claims. Fortunately most policyholders no longer have to ring around for estimates, complete a lengthy claims form, pay for repairs and then wait weeks for the insurance company to reimburse them.

Today, in an effort to improve customer relations, insurers have tried to create hassle-free claims procedures. Most household insurers now operate 24-hour helplines and last weekend many insurers drafted in special teams to operate the phone lines.

Helpline operators are able to recommend approved repairers working in the local area. Most insurers will now approve claims up to pounds 500 over the telephone. This saves policyholders filling in claims forms.

In many cases these approved repairers - be they builders, plumbers or electricians - will bill the insurers directly so the policyholder is not out of pocket, which at this time of year is a real bonus.

It is important to know exactly what is, and what is not, covered on your insurance policies. For most structural damage to your property it is your buildings insurer you need to contact. But damaged aerials and satellite dishes are covered on contents insurance. Hedges, gates, fences and trees that have blown over are not generally covered on any insurance policy.

The high winds inevitably brought down pylons, causing power cuts in 18,000 homes in the North-east and North Yorkshire over Christmas.

If this happens it is generally possible to claim for food that defrosted in the freezer on a contents policy. Most standard contents policies offer around pounds 200 for this, though some may offer more. It is also worth looking at the customer charters provided by the electricity companies. If you feel that they have failed to restore power within a reasonable period of time, you may be entitled to compensation.

Reports indicate that homeowners in the North-east are appealing for compensation after they were left without power for most of the Christmas period.

Homeowners in the areas worst hit by storms are also being warned to be on the look-out for bogus builders trying to make a quick profit.

These rogue tradesmen will often target elderly homeowners, charging extortionate fees for repairs. Matt Holmes of Eagle Star, says: "From past experience this has been a huge problem. Homeowners should always seek to use builders that are recommended by the insurer. If this is not an option it is always best to get as many estimates as possible.

"Check with your insurer before proceeding with any repairs, as this can save a lot of problems later."

Keep the receipts

What to do if your home is damaged by bad weather

Always ring your insurers first. Most household insurers provide 24- hour helplines. Keep this number as the insurance company will be able to refer you to a local repairer, help replace damaged goods and advise you how to proceed with your claim.

Make sure temporary repairs are in place, such as tarpaulin over any holes in the roof. This will limit further damage. The cost of these makeshift repairs should be paid for by your insurer.

Keep all receipts for repair work. Insurers may need these to pay claims.

Store damaged goods in a dry place. Loss adjusters may want to inspect them before the insurers settle the claim.

If a pipe freezes, turn off the main stop valve. Apply heat from hot water bottles, a thick cloth or an electric hairdryer. But be careful using electrical goods in damp conditions.

If you have a burst pipe, turn the water supply off immediately and call a plumber or your insurer.