Home insurance: Check home policy now – or face a chilling bill

INSURERS are reporting a spike in home insurance claims as Scotland counts the cost of property damage caused by snow and ice.

But homeowners have been advised to check their insurance policies to ensure they are not left out of pocket as a result of rejected claims.

The cost of repairs to water pipes and boilers can escalate quickly but more people are discovering to their cost that the damage isn't covered by their insurance.

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Some one in 20 homes will be damaged by bad weather this winter, at an average cost of 600, insurer Direct Line has estimated. And although the worst may be yet to come, another insurer, Axa, said claims on home insurance policies doubled in the first week of December, with half of all claims related to snow damage.

During similar conditions last winter the level of claims for burst pipes and escape of water by Scottish households rose by 80 per cent, according to AA Insurance.

Ian Crowder, public relations manager at AA Insurance, said: "Claims were primarily for burst water pipes or roof tanks.

"However, there was a big jump in claims for buildings damage due to snow and ice build-up."

The impact of the snow and ice caused collapsed gutters, the loss of roof tiles and slates and branches breaking off nearby trees and damaging the home or other structures. This winter threatens to wreak even more havoc, but some homeowners may find to their cost that their claims do not result in a payout.

The harsh conditions resulted in a rise in complaints to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) about home insurance. The increase was due primarily to insurers using exclusion clauses to reject claims for damage caused by snow and ice to guttering and external buildings.

Objections are usually based on the insurer's definition of what constitutes damage and what is just wear and tear.

A spokesman for the FOS said: "Sometimes people argue that damage has been a result of the weather, whereas the insurer will say the problem is one of existing wear and tear."

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This underlines the importance of knowing what you are getting when you buy any kind of home insurance.

Crowder said: "With the advent of price comparison sites, often benefits are stripped out to achieve a more competitive premium; or excesses increased."

This means elements including accidental damage; cover for contents outside the home; and legal expenses may not be part of the cover and must be bought as an "add-on". Also remember that few policies include complete cover for outside items, including contents of external buildings such as sheds and garages that can be damaged by cold weather-related incidents.

"You also need to watch out for flat roof extensions as some insurers don't like them; what your home is made of; or timber-built homes. If your home is listed there may be some insurance issues as well," said Crowder.

The difficulty when looking for insurance is that the level of cover can vary dramatically between policy and insurer. Phil Patterson-Fox, head of home services at gocompare.com, said the differences were typically between both the levels of cover provided and the extent of exclusions. While the standard policies are broadly the same between different insurers, the availability of "add-ons" is where the variation occurs.

"A lot of it is about common-sense. For example, gates and fences are often not covered in the event of floods and storms, and snow damage falls into that category," said Patterson-Fox.

You can reduce insurance costs and in some instances make all the difference between being accepted for cover and being rejected by taking simple steps to protect your property against weather-related problems.

"One of the biggest increases in claims has been in escape of water so insurers are getting keener to look at the steps taken by policyholders to prevent or minimise problems."

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Yet more than seven in 10 homeowners who have been flooded previously don't believe they need to protect their property against a repeat occurrence, according to the online household insurance provider homeprotect.

David Walker, managing director of homeprotect, said: "With the soil already saturated from the autumn, combined with the melt-water from the recent heavy snowfall, surface water and groundwater flooding will again become a very real threat."

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has advised homeowners to contact their home insurance provider for advice on preventing damage caused by burst pipes.

Nick Starling, director of general insurance at the ABI, said: "Damage caused by burst pipes can be widespread, traumatic and expensive, but taking some simple steps before going away can prevent the issue."

How to avoid having to claim

• Leave your heating on at a minimum of 12C to stop the water in your pipes from freezing.

• Know where your stop cock is so you can turn off water quickly in an emergency.

• Check the insulation on your water pipes and the lagging on your cold water tank. If there isn't any, get some. Also insulate your loft.

• Leave the loft door open and the heating on at a constant low temperature to help prevent pipes in the attic from suffering damage.

• Repair any leaky taps and radiators.

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• Seal any holes that let in cold air, including those left by unused computer and TV equipment.

• Drain your water system if you're going away for an extended period.

• If you go away, regardless of for how long, ask someone to check on your property for any signs of damage.