Subsidence – what it means for your insurance

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If your property has suffered subsidence, you need to claim on your insurance. But how do you spot subsidence, what causes subsidence and can you get insurance after you’ve claimed?

How to spot subsidence

Most properties have the odd crack here and there but subsidence cracks are quite distinctive. Look out for:

  • Cracks appearing from the corners of windows and doors. If the door or window becomes harder to open or close, that could indicate subsidence.
  • Cracks that are wider than a 50p coin. If they appear on both the inside and outside of the property, they’re more likely to be subsidence. If you can only see the crack on one side of the property (for example, on the inside wall), it’s probably fairly harmless.
  • Cracks that are diagonal. They are also usually wider at the top than the bottom.
  • Cracks that appear quickly. Most harmless cracks appear over the course of many months, whereas subsidence cracks tend to appear suddely.

SAVVY TIP: If you think your home has subsidence, contact your insurer straight away, they have specialist teams who focus on subsidence problems.

Causes of subsidence

Around 70% of cases of subsidence in clay soil are caused by tree roots being too near the property. With other soil types, leaking or cracked drains can be a major factor. If the problem is caused by trees, there are several solutions.

1. Remove or cut back the tree(s). This is the most straightforward option but it may not appeal to you. It may not be possible if the tree is in your neighbour’s garden or you live in a conservation area.

SAVVY TIP: Oak and willow trees are more likely than many other species to cause subsidence. Conifer trees and hedges can also cause problems, mainly because they’re planted closer to properties than most other trees. Trees shouldn’t be planted any nearer to your property than they are tall (and that doesn’t just mean trees in your garden, the same applies to neighbours’ trees and those in roads and pavements).

2. Install a root barrier. This is a plastic or geotextile (permeable) membrane that’s inserted into a trench to prevent the roots from growing near the property.

SAVVY TIP: It has to be carefully designed to be effective because holes usually have to be cut in the barrier so that drains, cables and pipes can pass through. If it’s badly designed, the tree roots will be able to grow through these holes.

Claiming on insurance for subsidence

Previously insurance companies were very fond of monitoring the development of cracks and could be slow to deal with subsidence claims, but claims move (forgive the pun!) more quickly these days. The insurance industry has realised that it’s much better to get on and deal with the cause of the problem and repair the property sooner rather than later.

The insurer should:

1. Send out someone who specialises in subsidence claims. They will establish that it is a subsidence problem. Once they’ve done that, they will look at what needs to be done to deal with the cause of the movement and recommend repairs.

SAVVY TIP: In the past underpinning was used to treat properties that had subsided. This involves strengthening the foundations of the building — normally by digging under them and filling the gap with concrete. The problem with underpinning is that it doesn’t necessarily stop subsidence from occurring in the future and other methods may be more effective. Don’t assume that because the insurance company doesn’t want to underpin the property that it’s trying to save money.

2. Keep you informed of developments. This is where problems can arise as insurers aren’t always brilliant at communication. And with so much at stake (both for homeowners and insurers, as claims tend to be expensive) the situation can escalate into a full-blown dispute.

SAVVY TIP: You can get a second opinion by going to a specialist service, such as Bureau Insurance Services or an engineer or chartered surveyor who specialises in subsidence.

3. Abide by the Association of British Insurers’ agreement on subsidence claims. This is useful if you’ve changed insurers as the agreement sets out which insurer will be responsible for handling any claim and most (but not all) insurers have signed up to it.

SAVVY TIP: If a claim is made within the first eight weeks of switching to a new insurer, the previous insurer will deal with it. Claims between eight weeks and one year will be handled by the new insurer with the cost split equally between them and claims after a year are dealt with and paid for by the new insurer.

Getting insured after subsidence

Your own insurer may continue to insure you after you’ve made a claim for subsidence, but it’s not obliged to.

  • Some insurers will insure the property until it’s sold. If there’s a new owner (or policyholder, if it’s rented out), the insurer may refuse to cover them as they treat it as ‘new business’.

SAVVY TIP: The insurer will inevitably impose a larger excess and your premiums may increase, possibly significantly.

  • Some insurers will insure properties that have subsided. However, it’s quite a limited market. Be careful about shopping around on price comparison sites because if you get turned down, you have to declare that when you next apply for insurance.

Useful links:

The Association of British Insurers has a guide to Protecting your home from subsidence damage, which has lots of useful information. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has a useful guide to subsidence, which you can download.

Related articles:

A flood insurance deal will cap insurance costs for flood risk properties

Choosing the right contents insurance policy – how to save money on insurance and get the cover you need

Can your insurer pay your claim with vouchers or can you refuse?

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