You think you're on safe ground but then subsidence strikes

Wet summers aren't all they're cracked up to be when insurance claims still roll in. Chris Menon surveys the danger signs and sees how to go about fixing the fault lines

In case you hadn't noticed, it's the height of summer – the time of year when warmer temperatures and drying ground often lead to subsidence. But given all the rain, might households be off the hook this year? Not necessarily: in 2007, one of the wettest summers on record, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) reported that its members would have to pay out £162m covering 31,895 subsidence claims.

A surveyor would define subsidence as the downward movement of the ground supporting a building, with particular problems occurring when that movement varies from one part of the building to another, producing cracks.

Homeowners who discovers subsidence may wish the ground would swallow them up, as it can take up to three years to resolve the problem even with helpful insurers. And if the cover is void for any reason, it could end up costing tens of thousands of pounds to correct.

The three main causes of subsidence are the underlying soil, the age of the house and the proximity of trees or shrubs.

Tony Fisher at the Building Research Establishment says: "The shrinkage and swelling of clay soils is the single most common cause of movement in relation to low-rise buildings."

Houses built before 1965 tend to have shallow foundations and so are more prone to being affected by subsidence. Yet trees re- moving water from under the foundations are what actually cause the clay to shrink. Figures from Halifax Home Insurance show that 60 to 70 per cent of valid claims for subsidence involve trees.

Another cause of subsidence is damaged drains, softening or washing away the soil under foundations.

"Subsidence mainly occurs south of a line between the Wash and the Severn," says Mr Fisher, "with the London area particularly prone as it has a large number of houses."

Cracks are usually the first warning signs, although most buildings have some cracks due to the natural expansion and contraction of bricks caused by changes in temperature. What you should look for are small, usually diagonal, cracks – especially around doors and windows. These will usually be thicker than a 10p coin and wider at the top.

There are some simple measures that can be taken to minimise the risk of subsidence. First, drains and pipes should be checked regularly to ensure there are no blockages or leaks. Second, trees should be pruned occasionally to reduce water uptake, and any new trees or shrubs should be planted at a safe distance from a property.

If, despite your best efforts, you suspect you may have subsidence, what should you do? The ABI says: "As soon as you believe there may be a problem, you should contact your building's insurer. A policy will normally require the insurer to be advised of any potential claim as soon as possible. That is sensible in any event because the sooner the problem is investigated, the quicker everything can be put right."

However, this is not the view of Roy Ilott, spokes- man for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors: "If you are not sure about the cracks, it is best, in the first instance, to get hold of a building surveyor, who can give you some independent advice.

He adds: "In my experience, insurers are only going to remedy damage that has already been caused, and are not interested in carrying out preventive work."

If the subsidence is caused by a tree, this can often be remedied by cutting it back so less water is extracted from the soil. But if the house has been severely affected, it may require underpinning – the deepening of the building's foundations.

It can take a long time to deal with bad cases of subsidence as the cracks may need to be monitored for a year by the insurer and only then will remedial work be carried out.

If you do have to make an insurance claim, there is usually a policy excess to be paid – often of around £1,000, according to Halifax Home Insurance.

All buildings policies differ in the extent of cover they provide, so check the small print and exclusions relating to subsidence. Don't, assume, for example, that outbuildings such as garages will automatically be covered.

Neil Curling, senior structural claims manager at Halifax Home Insurance, says premiums may increase if a claim is made. He also points out that any failure to disclose "material facts", such as a history of subsidence at a property or signs of cracking or bulging walls, could lead to the policy being declared void.

Russell Conway, a partner at Oliver Fisher Solicitors in London, comments: "Insurers will do everything they can to avoid paying out for subsidence as it often costs a five-figure sum to correct. We regularly get involved in trying to enforce policies as insurers try to slide out of them."

For those buying a property, Mr Ilott advises: "Have a full structural survey carried out as it will provide more time for the investigation of existing cracks."

Mr Conway agrees: "Never, ever buy anything without a full survey." He warns that searches won't necessarily pick up subsidence as the seller's solicitor can avoid providing a straight answer. "There is an art in giving replies to preliminary enquiries."

If a survey does reveal subsidence, obtaining buildings cover will be very hard.

A spokesperson for Nationwide Home Insurance confirms: "If subsidence occurs to an existing customer, we will continue to insure them. We will also provide cover to a new owner of the property subject to a satisfactory application. As is standard in the industry, we do not offer new policies to properties that have previously suffered from subsidence and not been insured with us."

'Our insurer spent £60,000 underpinning the house'

Paddy Boyle and his partner Jackie Summerfield own a Victorian house in the seaside town of Hastings, East Sussex. They were living there as tenants 10 years ago when the landlord found it was suffering from subsidence.

"We actually sat in on the talks between the structural engineer and the loss adjuster who was working on behalf of the insurer," Paddy recalls. "The engineer wanted extensive underpinning but the loss adjuster decided it was only necessary to underpin the bay window."

The landlord's insurer paid for the work and Paddy and Jackie bought the house shortly after.

Everything was fine until about two years ago, when a horizontal crack appeared in the living room. "We contacted the original structural engineer and our insurer, Zurich. We had to pay the £1,000 policy excess and Zurich spent about £60,000 underpinning the house," says Paddy. "It took about five months to complete and redecorate but we're very happy with it."

Hastings is built on clay soil and this is slowly drying out and causing shrinkage. "There has been no problem renewing our cover with Zurich," adds Paddy, "but other insurers have backed off when we've told them the house has been underpinned."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
People walk through Autumn leaves in St James's Park yesterday
tech
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits