Check for cracks in your home insurance

Drought? In March? Seems crazy, especially as we had deep snow and freezing conditions barely a month ago – but the Environmental Agency has indeed declared that there is a drought in central, eastern and southern England.

That brings with it the threat of usage restrictions such as hose pipe bans along with calls to spend less time in the shower and turn off the taps when brushing your teeth. But the driest period for 30 years also spells real danger for homeowners in the form of increased risk of subsidence.

When it is unseasonably dry for a prolonged period, the soil shrinks and the ground subsides. This can disturb a building’s foundations and cause hugely expensive structural damage. Stricken householders can be forced into temporary accommodation while the cause of the subsidence is tackled and repairs are made.

Some soil types are more prone to subsidence than others – and the clay-based soils of the south east of England are particularly susceptible to changes in moisture levels. So with weather forecasters predicting a dry spring, subsidence could become a major problem for many homeowners.

But short of performing a rain dance, is there anything we can do to address the subsidence problem?

Sort out your insurance

If you own your home, you need buildings insurance to cover the fabric of the building, and contents cover for your belongings. If you had to make a claim for subsidence damage, your buildings insurance would come into play.

You can usually obtain a discount if you buy both types of cover from the same provider. You can check out the best deals at MoneySupermarket’s home insurance channel.

The first indication of subsidence is usually cracks that appear suddenly in the walls, or doors and windows that begin to stick. In many instances these will be cosmetic problems caused by normal “settling” of the building under its own weight – this is common in newer properties or where an extension has been added.

However, if you see a diagonal crack that is wider at the top than the bottom and is broad enough to slot a 10 pence piece into, the problem may be more serious. If in any doubt, tell your buildings insurer straight away. With subsidence, time can be of the essence, so the sooner action is taken, the better.

Your insurer will investigate the problem and decide on a course of action to stop the subsidence and repair any damage. If the problem is severe, underpinning may be necessary – this is where the foundations are replaced or deepened to make the building stable and secure. Most subsidence problems are resolved without the need for such drastic measures.

When remedial work is carried out, you might need to move to temporary accommodation. You should discuss this with the insurer – if they agree that your house is effectively uninhabitable, the policy will pay the bill.

What stings badly for many people who claim for subsidence is the size the excess – the amount you have to pay towards a claim. In most cases it will be £1,000, but if you live in an area that is prone to subsidence (or heave, where the land rises due to excess water), your excess may be as high as £5,000.

This subsidence excess is separate to the normal policy excess, which may be £100 or £200. The size of the subsidence excess reflects the fact that this sort of claim tends to be much more expensive than others, often running into five figures.

Again, MoneySupermarket can save you money by identifying the best policy for your circumstances.

What about moving insurer?

In the past, people sometimes experienced difficulty in making a claim because they had moved insurer. New providers would often say the problem must have been happening for some time and was therefore the responsibility of the previous insurer – but the previous provider would argue the opposite case, leaving the beleaguered policyholder in the middle.

To address this, the insurance industry has agreed that, if you claim within eight weeks of switching, the previous insurer will handle it. Between eight weeks and one year of switching, responsibility for handling the claim is shared between the old and new insurers. After one year, the new insurer takes on the claim.

New-build properties should be under warranty for 10 years via the National House Building Buildmark scheme.

This means switching insurer to get a lower premium remains a good idea – MoneySupermarket’s figures show you could save an average of £100.

Practical steps to lower the risk

If your region is suffering drought or even just reduced rainfall, consider pruning or removing vegetation close to your house. Trees, shrubbery and plants will draw moisture from the soil, and thirsty roots can exacerbate the problem by working into brickwork.

You should also check drains, pipes and guttering for leaks and blockages – escaped running water can wash away the soil that anchors your foundations. If the ground becomes saturated, you may have a problem with ground heave.

The Association of British Insurers has a subsidence factsheet with advice on prevention.

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.

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