The great outdoors risk factor

We make sure our house contents are insured, says Stephen Pritchard. Why do we forget garden valuables?
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Summers in this country might be short, but that has not stopped Britons from spending ever-larger sums on their gardens. Direct Line, the insurance company, estimates that, as a nation, we have £12.2bn worth of valuable items in our gardens, or just over £300 per household.

And garden makeovers are increasingly popular, even though they cost, on average, between £3,000 and £6,000.

Higher spending on gardens is also fuelling higher insurance claims. Direct Line's research suggests that damage to gardens so far this year is valued at £423m. This is a significant increase on the average for the past three years of £374m. Much of the damage is caused by parties and barbecues. Young children, Direct Line found, are especially destructive.

Householders are probably unaware of the costs of replacing garden items or putting right damage, and they might not be covered by insurance. Londoner Hamish Kuzminski, a marketing consultant, accidentally set fire to a borrowed marquee at a party two years ago. As it was not insured, he had to pay for a replacement.

Another person had a £400 barbecue stolen from their back garden. Such losses are increasingly common, according to Simon Ziviani, from Direct Line. The company has recently increased its cover for items in the garden from £500 to £1,000. Norwich Union offers cover of £1,250, along with £2,500 of cover for re-landscaping. But some insurance companies offer lower cover levels, or no cover at all.

Even where insurance companies do cover gardens, the rules vary widely. It is also hard to put a value on much of what is in a garden, as it will have been built up over time.

Direct Line will cover items such as barbecues, garden furniture and even decking, but not rooted plants. Only plants in pots are protected. Norwich Union's garden cover insures garden items and also children's toys.

Insurers also take different views on items in sheds. Direct Line estimates that the content of the average shed is worth £1,100. Usually shed contents come under household contents, rather than garden cover, but again insurers' rules vary widely.

Theft from sheds and even gardens has been a problem for a number of years. "A lot of sheds and garages are not adequately protected," says Malcolm Tarling, spokesman for the Association of British Insurers. Better locks, door and window frames and even a shed alarm can help.

But insurance industry statistics suggest that it is exuberant partygoers, rather than criminals, who account for a growing percentage of losses.

Cutting thefts from gardens is relatively easy. Ziviani suggests storing potentially attractive items, such as top-of-the-range barbecues, in the shed or even indoors. Good locks are also a sound investment.

Claims following theft from a properly secured shed are usually dealt with under the household contents policy.

Accidental damage is harder to prevent. Ziviani points to a £1,100 claim for property damage by one Direct Line policyholder; barbecue coals burned part of the garden decking. Decking is viewed as part of the home contents. But had the policyholder damaged shrubs or trees, they would not have been covered.

Direct Line suggests that the longer we spend in the sun, the more likely we are to cause damage to our gardens. One in 10 homeowners admits that garden parties have damaged their neighbours' homes, and close to one in five people that their guests have suffered injuries at garden parties or barbecues.

Damage to neighbours' properties, and any financial consequences of garden accidents, will almost always come under a regular household insurance policy, whether or not it has specific cover for gardens.

The Association of British Insurers does expect more of its members to introduce specific garden cover to their policies, possibly as an add-on option in return for an additional premium.

Such policies will cover more garden items than a standard household insurance policy, but they are still unlikely to insure rare, valuable or treasured rooted plants.