How does your cover grow? Thieves alter the landscape

We spend more than £3bn on our back yard but last year there were nearly half a million green-fingered burglaries. So are we fully protected? asks Laura Brady
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The Independent Online

Not everybody's horticultural imagination stretches to chocolate or crystal cobwebs. Yet while our gardens may not be sculpted to the same extent as the creations at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, more of us now devote a lot of time and money to our own piece of the great outdoors.

Not everybody's horticultural imagination stretches to chocolate or crystal cobwebs. Yet while our gardens may not be sculpted to the same extent as the creations at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, more of us now devote a lot of time and money to our own piece of the great outdoors.

We're spending a record £3.35bn on gardens, accessories and outdoor toys, according to research from Halifax General Insurance. Much of this has been down to the popularity of garden-makeover television shows and growing awareness that a well-groomed back yard can boost a property's value.

Fashions are changing too. Where last year's must-have garden accessory was a patio heater costing between £50 and £150, the trampoline is shaping up to be this year's hottest seller.

Manchester's Trafford Centre shopping mall recently reported that trampolines, which often cost hundreds of pounds, have already enjoyed a 50 per cent boost in sales this summer.

However, statistics like these will be music to the ears of opportunistic thieves.

Figures from the latest British Crime Survey reveal that some 493,000 thefts of bicycles and other items from gardens took place in the year to December 2004. The majority of these were in the summer months when homeowners opted to spend more time, and more cash, outdoors.

"In particular, the summer of 2003 saw extraordinarily high numbers of claims as the hot weather resulted in huge investments in garden furniture and expensive barbecues," says Simon Ziviani at Direct Line Home Insurance.

While this year's summer forecasts are mixed - with excitable predictions of a July and August heatwave being offset by the Met Office's more sober expectation of "average" hours of sunshine - that's unlikely to stop either homeowners or criminals from making the most of all our extra investment in gardens.

To this end, it will be worth checking your insurance to see what is, and isn't, protected.

Garden cover is not a product in its own right but usually forms part of your home contents policy. However, if particular items such as wrought- iron benches or ornaments securely fixed to the ground are damaged by vandals or weather, they will be counted as part of your buildings cover instead.

Standard home contents insurance will usually protect your garden and its goods from vandalism, theft, fire damage and bad weather, but the level of insurance differs between companies.

While some will cover you only for the theft of standard garden furniture - tables, chairs, garden toys, barbecues - and lawnmowers and tools, others may include normal household goods that you've brought outside for the day and left overnight.

Others will only pay out if everything is put away securely.

At Virgin Money, the home contents insurance policy makes no distinction between anything locked up away from the house - in a shed, say - and possessions inside your home.

If you kept £5,000 worth of tools and expensive furniture secured under lock and key in a shed, you would be covered as long as it was within the valuation limit of your overall home contents insurance.

If you were to leave all your goods unlocked outside after a summer day's lounging - including a stereo, for example - you'd be covered up to £500 with Virgin Money.

The online insurer esure provides £1,000 cover for theft of standard garden furniture that isn't locked away at night. The company says it will consider claims for household goods, such as stereos left outside, if the owner hasn't been reckless.

But lock your goods inside a shed or outhouse overnight and esure will extend its cover limit to £2,000.

If the real value of your garden lies not with the contents of the shed but in the form of exotic plants, shrubs or trees, make sure you find an insurer that will cater for this.

In addition to £750 worth of cover for unsecured items left out in the garden overnight, More Th>n offers, at no extra cost, a further £1,000 cover exclusively for stolen plants or shrubs damaged by vandals.

It works differently at Saga, where the company has a standard policy that covers you for theft of the usual garden furniture, such as tables and chairs.

But since many of Saga's older policyholders have built up special collections over the years, the insurer levies an extra £24.84 premium for £1,000 cover. This protects against the theft, say, of exotic plants and "non-standard" items such as birdbaths and even turf.

As a rule, most household contents policies will cover bicycles stolen from the garden to the tune of £500, as long as they're either locked up or not in full view.

Don't forget that there's an excess to pay for any claim - starting at £50 - and check with your insurer that it is happy with your choice of shed lock.

A spokesman for Direct Line recommends installing sensory lighting that flicks on with movement in your garden. And any ladder kept in a shed should be chained to a wall; don't help thieves to help themselves.

THE STONE SLABS THAT MOVED IN THE NIGHT

Laura White, 28, a design consultant, and her partner Mike Widdicks, 33, a building site manager, describe themselves as "outdoor people".

"The garden is a really sociable place," says Laura. "As well as furniture, we have a large water feature, a Chimnea [heater] and a barbecue - the total cost of which comes to £1,500."

But the couple, from Rodley, near Leeds, are more enthusiastic about their garden than the insurance that covers it.

Their Halifax home insurance has the standard £2,000 cover for the garden - but on the condition that contents are locked in an outhouse overnight.

For anything left out in the garden, the maximum claim is capped at £500.

"We do not lock everything away at night because it would be a real hassle," admits Laura. "I know £500 would not cover us if everything was stolen, but we rely on the fact it is hidden and difficult to move."

Unfortunately, Laura already has experience of garden theft. At her previous home, thieves made off with an entire path's worth of Yorkshire stone slabs after digging them out of the ground.

However, she is determined to learn from that lesson. "We are probably too relaxed and, looking at the statistics for garden theft, will have to start being more careful."

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