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How to stay afloat if the pipes burst

Get in quick as insurers face a deluge of claims, says Dido Sandler
HUNDREDS of thousands of householders have spent the past week mopping up after some of the coldest temperatures followed by one of the quickest thaws in history caused an epidemic of burst pipes and flooding. In the North-east, the temp- erature rose from -20 to 2 degrees in the space of 48 hours.

Estimates of the total damage to domestic property from leaking pipes run up to pounds 1bn. Insurers report most problems north of Manchester, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where overall one in 10 homes was affected.

The demand for plumbing and other home break-down services has been unprecedented. Earlier this week, plumbers despatched by one insurer's emergency help- line were taking up to three days to arrive instead of the usual same- day service.

If you have been away and have just arrived back to find your house devastated by flood damage, insurers urge you to contact them or your broker as soon as possible if you are covered either under a buildings or contents policy. Many insurers, including Norwich Union and Commercial Union, provide a 24-hour call-out service where they arrange for workmen to come and make emergency repairs. Others, such as Churchill, provide the names of plumbers in your area to call.

Meanwhile, you should turn off the stopcock connecting your house with the mains and drain the system by opening cold taps. The central heating and electricity should be turned off to reduce the risk of accidents. Try to dry carpets and soft furnishings. If possible avoid lifting the carpets, in case of shrinkage. Also try to get warm air circulating, and open the windows to help moist air to escape. Hire dehumidifiers if possible.

After the preliminary emergency work, the next step - negotiating with your insurance company's loss adjuster - is going to be an uphill struggle. Nicholas Balcombe, chief executive of claims specialists Balcombe Group, predicts that a large backlog of insurance claims will build up, with insurers and loss adjusters unable to deal with the sheer volume, and business customers receiving priority over domestic ones.

To help establish your claim and minimise delays or quibbles from your insurer, Mr Balcombe recommends taking photos or videos of damaged rooms before getting repairs done. Make sure you get receipts for all reclaimable expenditure, including additional heating bills. Do not dispose of damaged items before the insurance company's representatives have seen them, and prepare a list of what needs to be replaced. Then obtain written estimates for necessary repairs or replacements.

Mr Balcombe adds that if you need alternative accommodation, make sure it is comparable to the damaged premises - otherwise payment may be restricted. Some policies do not cover alternative accommodation for pets.

Burst pipes resulting from freezing weather, including the pipes leading from your house to the mains, are normally covered under buildings insurance policies. Insurance for your possessions will be covered under any house contents policy you have.

For the future, customers of Anglian Water may be tempted by a specialist plumbing insurance policy that the water company has been marketing recently. The pounds 45 Home Service Scheme, run by Gesa Assistance, offers wear-and-tear as well as accident protection. One of its key selling points is that it covers underground pipes linking your home with the public mains in the street. But flood-worriers should note that burst pipes due to freezing weather already fall into the accident category of cover under traditional building insurance.

However, one advantage of the Gesa policy and similar Green Flag Home Assistance Services policies marketed by some other water companies is that it can be cheaper to claim for flooding than through your buildings insurance. Buildings policies normally have an excess, which means that the first pounds 50 or pounds 100 has to be paid by the claimant, or you may lose a no-claims bonus.

When making a claim on buildings or contents insurance you may feel frustrated by the snail's pace of the process and insurance companies' delaying tactics. In a recent survey on claims experiences published by Which? magazine, only CIS and the Prudential came out well. The worst rated were Eagle Star, General Accident and Royal Insurance. Middling performers were AA, Commercial Union, Direct Line, Frizzell, Guardian, Legal & General, Norwich Union and Sun Alliance.

The best contents policies offer new for old cover - they pay the amount it would cost to replace the lost or damaged item. Others give you merely the used value.