Householders returning after a Christmas holiday to burst pipes and waterlogged homes might tell themselves that it could be worse. Home and contents insurance should pay for new pipes and damage to building and belongings where frost has caused the burst, although Commercial Union is one of few insurers who does not charge a pounds 50 to pounds 200 excess on claims.
If the same thing had happened because of corrosion, the cost of replacement pipes - which can be several hundred pounds - would not be covered.
The water companies have problems of their own with burst pipes and leaking mains. But some of them are wrongly claiming that householders are not normally covered for pipe bursts from frost between the stopcock and a property boundary.
Colin Winsper, managing director of South Staffordshire Water, said: "There are one or two [insurers] that cover repair to pipe work but very, very few." This view was also expressed by representatives of Anglian Water and North Surrey Water, which sell policies.
Leaflets put out by Anglian Water and South Staffs Water promoting policies underwritten by Leatherhead-based Gesa (Group European Assistance) both say: "What may surprise you is that in the event of a flood caused by a burst pipe, it's unlikely that a standard home insurance policy will cover the cost of repairs." The brochure does point out that a standard home insurance policy provides cover for accidental damage to water supply pipes or drains, but fails to explain that insurers classify frost damage as accidental.
John Kirkman of Green Flag, which underwrites the policies offered by 12 supply companies, including North Surrey and Yorkshire Water, added: "Our understanding is that the mains supply to a house is not covered." But the Association of British Insurers said that it believed all standard home insurance policies included cover for bursts of the supply pipes arising from frost. And in an extensive phone round of insurers the Independent could find none whose policies excluded underground pipe bursts from frost.
Tony McMahon, claims manager of Sun Alliance Connections, suggested: "Each individual should check their policy carefully. The wording may vary from insurer to insurer and policy to policy. The main exclusion will be if a property is unfurnished or unoccupied."
The worst problems face occupants who took a winter holiday and failed to take precautions against frost. Householders may even find they have lost their insurance cover if the absence was prolonged - either over 30 days or 60 days, according to the policy - and they did not make special arrangements with their insurer.
Insurers will normally insist on either central heating being kept on, or water supplies switched off at the stopcock, and homes being visited daily during a long absence or weekly in the case of second homes. In rare instances insurers may require water systems to be drained.
There are other cases where policies may not provide cover. Unprotected external pipes, and those in outbuildings, are not covered by Direct Line's policies, though they are by most insurers.
Standard buildings and contents policies give cover for consequential damage (such as to possessions, plasterwork and ceilings) from burst pipes, whether they are caused by frost or wear and tear. But standard homes policies only cover replacement costs of pipes where they have been "accidentally" damaged, a definition that includes bursts caused by frost.
Several water supply companies are offering policies that provide cover against bursts caused by wear and tear - which Gesa, underwriters of some of the policies, points out normally cause 90 per cent of bursts. Taking out a supplementary policy may be justified, but householders need to be aware of the limited benefits they are gaining. Gesa's Home Service Scheme costs an annual premium of pounds 45, for which cover is obtained for up to pounds 150 for internal plumbing emergencies, and up to pounds 550 for external pipe bursts, including those caused by wear and tear.
Green Flag's Home Assist policy, at pounds 72 a year, is more extensive, and covers other home emergencies, such as faulty central heating boilers, and its Home Assist Plus policy, at pounds 96, also covers roofing problems. Cover is limited to pounds 100 of parts and material, plus four hours of labour. Gesa's and Green Flag's policies contain no excess charges for claimants to pay.
One of the advantages of home assistance policies is that the insurer will engage the plumber on behalf of the householder, but some insurers, such as Touchline, also offer this facility.
The benefits of insurance are demonstrated by 72 year old Mrs Cecilia Wilson of Kilwinning in Ayrshire. She woke up last Saturday morning to find the flat upstairs had been flooded from a burst pipe. When the water cascaded into her flat it destroyed her ceiling, the television, video and various bits of furniture.
Mrs Wilson has a standard home and contents policy with Direct Line, which is not only paying to replace damaged items, but is also meeting any costs from her husband having to stay in a nursing home while the flat is made habitable. Mr Wilson was in hospital when the burst took place.
Mrs Wilson is grateful to her insurers. "They have been absolutely splendid," she said. "They came in right away. I don't know how much it is all going to cost, but the insurer is going to pay it direct."
Green Flag: 0800 800688
Gesa: 01372 366701