Property: Only as safe as houses: Burst pipes? Power cuts? Anne Spackman tells you where to turn if a disaster occurs over the holiday

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The Independent Online
Although I always try to research my articles thorough1y, I hadn't been planning the tried and tested approach to this piece on how to deal with household disasters over Christmas. Of course, it wasn't actually Christmas when the ceiling fell down. It was the Wednesday before last, the day the Met men had warned that gales would blow.

This is exactly the kind of disaster you want to avoid over the next couple of weeks, as it requires one of those one-man businesses which normally close down for the holiday. If you are going to have damage, you want it in the areas covered by the big boys - the gas, water or electricity companies. Calls to the Federation of Master Builders and the Institute of Plumbing will be answered by machines referring you to the Yellow Pages. This is definitely the time to remember to send your builder and plumber a Christmas card.

Of course, I hope none of you needs the following advice, and that those of you going away return to find your house as you left it.

The thing most of us worry about as we turn the corner into our road is whether or not we have been burgled. That tends to happen more in the run-up to Christmas than over the holiday itself. But burst pipes, tiles off the roof and broken central heating systems are definitely in season now.

The best thing to do about burst pipes is to avoid them. Most water companies send out advice leaflets with their winter bills, suggesting what to do. Pipes in the loft are most at risk and should be lagged with felt or pipe-wrap surrounded by a waterproof cover. It is cheaper to put the central heating on a timer for a couple of hours a day than to pay for the damage caused by a burst pipe (this may not be true next year when VAT has been introduced).

Although buildings insurance policies cover damage caused by burst pipes, the small print may exclude damage while the home is unoccupied.

The water companies also recommend you tell the neighbour with the spare key where the main stop valve is. If your pipes freeze, defrost them slowly. If you throw boiling water at them or wrap them in hot rags they are likely to crack. Anglian Water suggests you use a hairdrier at low speed to thaw them.

If you suffer serious flooding, or a pipe bursts in your road, you can summon your water company's emergency service team, which is on call 24 hours a day, every day. But if your problem is small and internal, their responsibility stops at the cold water tap. They will switch off your supply at the mains, but will not mend your leak. For that you need the plumber.

The electricity and gas companies are rather more useful. If your power supply is cut off over Christmas your electricity company should respond immediately. Ring the customer services number on your bill or the emergency number in the telephone book.

The gas companies tend to operate a two-tier service. Emergencies are covered 24 hours a day, every day, and include gas leaks or cuts in supply. If your heating or hot water system breaks down, it is slightly more complicated. Customers with a three-star service contract will in 99 per cent of cases get a same-day visit. The cost of these contracts varies from region to region, with Scottish customers paying pounds 74 a year, London customers about pounds 90.

The three-star service covers all normal labour and parts costs for repairing boilers, pumps and central heating systems. You are normally asked to buy these contracts just after you have forked out a few thousand pounds for new central heating and can least afford to. Now it might seem a better idea.

If, like me, you have no such cover, the service will depend on who you are. Pensioners and those with babies, finding themselves without heating or hot water, will be given priority. A middle-aged person with two broken radiators may have to wait until the holiday ends on Wednesday 29 December.

Should your gas cooker break down with the turkey still raw, you could see if your gas company holds temporary cooking appliances or even spare cooked turkeys. They have been known to turn up with the roast at a nursing home whose ovens have broken down.

Should you suffer a burglary, some glass firms offer a 24-hour repair service throughout Christmas. Adams Expressglaze, whom I used when I had to break into my own house, offer this service within the M25 area and has contractors who cover emergencies nationwide. Their 24-hour help line is 0800 581500. They do not fit car windows.

And so back to my tried and tested personal experience. I rang Midland HomePlan, who cover my buildings insurance, and explained that the gales had blown part of my ceiling down. They sent out a claim form and offered to try to find a tradesman to fix the hole.

What would have happened had it been Christmas? They are closed only on the Bank Holidays - Monday and Tuesday December 27 and 28 and Monday January 3. On those days there will be an answerphone on which customers can leave their policy number and details of their claim to be dealt with when the office re-opens.

I hope none of this comes in useful. Have a Happy Christmas.