Money: 'Tis the season to be flooded

... so get your pipes lagged and check your policies
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The Independent Online
Most of us take it for granted that Christmas will be dry inside, even if it isn't white outside. Nonetheless most of the worst domestic flooding horror stories occur at this time of year.

Household insurers traditionally greet the festive season with mixed feelings as frozen pipes and tanks send claim values soaring. Eagle Star, for example, reports that its average burst pipe claim is around pounds 2,000 in the winter compared to only pounds 500 in the summer.

Problems normally stem from pipes situated inside the home rather than those in the garden. In fact, should you have a problem with garden pipes, while they are legally the homeowner's responsibility, this is largely academic as every water company in England and Wales is now committed to the principle of carrying out free repairs on customers' external pipes.

The bulk of damage results from frozen water tanks and pipes situated in lofts. These have an above-average exposure to draught and cold because modern insulation is designed to prevent heat loss from the rooms below. They are also largely out of sight and mind.

If damage spreads to rooms below, the fact that many homes are left unoccupied during the holiday period means that the situation can often go undetected for days on end.

Simon Bolam of Edinburgh-based insurance brokers EH Ranson & Co says: "Nothing is ever likely to compensate for the horrors of having to dry out your house and watch the destruction of long-cherished items.

"Generally speaking, serious water damage is one of the most difficult things to sort out. It creeps into every corner, under carpets and into areas where the heating is difficult to get access to. Getting damp out of basements takes ages.

"So many of these claims are brought about by peoples' own stupidity," he continues. "They never believe that it could happen to them, but now we are getting huge swings in weather patterns people can very easily get caught, especially if they are going away over the Christmas break."

From the point of view of financial compensation, home owners with both buildings and contents insurance should find they are well catered for. Policies normally exclude the cost of repairing the actual pipes and tanks, but cover most damage caused by water that escapes from them. They also normally pay for the cost of alternative rented accommodation that may be necessary during the drying-out process.

As a broad rule of thumb any item that you would normally take with you when moving house will be covered by a contents policy and anything you would normally leave behind will be covered under buildings. Fitted carpets, which are normally considered to be contents, are the main exception.

Policyholders must, however, use their common sense to safeguard against accidents happening. If an insurer can prove that they failed to do so it could refuse to pay up. A policyholder who had known for a long time that he had a leaking pipe but had failed to repair it would, for example, be guilty of not using his common sense if that pipe in due course caused a flood.

It should also be noted that many policies exclude water damage if the property is left unoccupied for more than one month. There can be ways round this last exemption, however.

Linda Williams, director at Wirral-based JCH Insurance Brokers, says: "Some insurers may insist that the water supply is drained down. Others may demand merely that the heating is left on at a low setting if a neighbour is prepared to pop in regularly while the policyholder is away."

Most household insurance policies also now provide a 24-hour domestic assistance help-line to offer initial advice in the event of a flood and to put you in touch with a suitable plumber. Insurers' vetting should have established that - among other things - the plumber is honest and has reasonable charges. Dialling one out of the blue from a phone directory can prove ludicrously expensive as unscrupulous contractors know they can get away with virtually naming their own charges in emergency situations.

Even before phoning the help-line, the first steps should always be to turn off the main stopcock and the water and electricity at the mains - avoiding touching any wiring or electrical appliances that have been affected by the flood.

Ian Frater of Commercial Union, the insurer, says: "Anyone who doesn't know where these switches are located or how to turn them off should make it an immediate priority to find out as soon as possible. Friends or neighbours may well be able to help you or, if it's a new house, the builder can probably tell you where they are over the phone. If no-one seems to know get a plumber and electrician round simply to ask."

The most effective way of minimising the effects of water damage is, of course, to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Insurers commonly recommend replacing washers regularly to prevent dripping taps, checking that stopcocks are in good working order and keeping central heating switched on - especially at night - to prevent pipes from freezing.

Those going away for Christmas should leave heating on at a low level. In severe weather, however, it should be left on day and night at normal temperature settings.

The importance of ensuring that pipes and tanks are properly lagged is also frequently stressed. Suitable pre-formed insulation materials can be obtained from a DIY supplier. Cisterns and water tanks in roof spaces should also have their tops and sides - but not their bases - insulated.

q The Association of British Insurers has a factsheet on safeguarding against flooding - write to The Public Affairs Department, ABI, 51 Gresham St, London EC2V 7HQ. Insurer Prospero Direct has a free guide called Beating Winter Weather. Phone 0500 500 575 for a copy.