Home insurance and subsidence – what you need to know

·5-min read
 (Unsplash)
(Unsplash)

Subsidence can be a nightmare for homeowners. As well as affecting the structural safety of the property itself, it can also have a big impact on the property’s market value.

For this reason, it’s crucial to ensure you have the right insurance in place and know what to do if your property is affected by subsidence.

What is subsidence?

Subsidence occurs when the ground beneath a building starts to sink. This puts pressure on the building’s foundations, resulting in cracks in the walls.

Subsidence can happen when the ground loses moisture and shrinks, such as after prolonged dry spells or if vegetation draws large volumes of water from the soil. The dry ground becomes unstable and can no longer support the property and its foundations.

Areas most at risk include regions with a high proportion of clay in ground soils, such as the south-east. Clay soils are prone to greater amounts of shrinkage during prolonged periods of heat and drought – and the south-east is also the area most affected by a lack of rainfall in recent years.

Buildings with shallow foundations can also be more susceptible to subsidence, as can those with trees or large shrubs in close proximity to the property. Homes built near former mines or quarries can also be unstable due to the material used to fill the sites shifting as it decomposes.

Properties can also be at risk of ‘heave’, which is when the ground swells, usually because of excess water in the soil due to flooding or the removal of trees and other vegetation. This can affect the foundations and structure of the building and result in damage along similar lines to subsidence.

What are the warning signs of subsidence?

Cracks appearing in the walls is the most obvious sign of subsidence and heave. These will usually appear around doors and windows and can spread quickly. Cracks typically run diagonally, are wider at the top than the bottom and are thicker than a 10 pence coin.

These dimensions are important as not all cracks should be attributed to subsidence and heave. New-build properties and extensions often experience cracking as the structures settle under their own weight. In this case, cracks tend to be uniform in width and narrower than 3mm.

Other signs of subsidence or heave include:

  • doors and windows sticking caused by frames warping

  • wallpaper ripping or crinkling at the wall and ceiling joints

  • cracks where an extension has been joined to your main home.

Is subsidence covered by home insurance?

The majority of home buildings insurance policies will cover damage caused to the structure of your property by subsidence or heave. But this will be on the condition that your home has not suffered from subsidence in the past.

Additionally, many buildings insurance policies will cover alternative accommodation costs if your home is temporarily uninhabitable while repairs are being carried out.

One point to note, however, is that the excess (the amount deducted from any claims payment you receive) for subsidence or heave claims will usually be steeper than for most other claims.

The excess for a standard buildings insurance claim might be £200, for example, while the excess for a subsidence or heave claim could be £1,000 or more.

Are there any exclusions?

Buildings insurance policies won’t typically cover the costs of preventing subsidence or heave from happening. Most will also exclude damage caused by one or the other when it affects:

  • garden walls

  • fences and gates

  • patios and driveways

The only exception is if the main residence is damaged at the same time.

Outbuildings and garages may also not be covered, depending on whether the insurer views them as part of the home. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) recommends contacting your buildings insurance provider to find out exactly what is covered under your policy and how much excess you will need to pay.

What should you do if your home has subsidence?

If you suspect your property has suffered from subsidence or heave, contact your insurer as soon as possible. You will be advised on the next steps to take, but this will often involve a surveyor being sent out to examine the damage to your home and determine its cause.

If the damage is minor and the movement of your home has stopped, repairs will usually be carried out straightaway. But if the situation is more severe and the problem is ongoing, the surveyor may monitor the movement of your home over an extended period to work out a long-term solution.

In the worst cases of subsidence or heave, your home may need to be underpinned. This is where the building’s foundations are strengthened or deepened to make it more stable and prevent further subsidence. Costs will usually run into thousands of pounds.

Getting cover after a claim

If you have made a claim on your buildings insurance policy due to subsidence or heave, the cost of future premiums is likely to increase significantly, along with the excess.

But the good news is the insurer handling the claim should, in most cases, continue to provide cover – so long as repairs have been completed and carried out under the insurer’s direction.

In situations where it is difficult to find affordable cover or your insurer has refused to continue providing cover, it is sensible to approach a specialist broker. You can do this by contacting the British Insurance Brokers’ Association who will be able to advise you about a broker who can help.

What happens if you change insurer?

Should you change insurers and then discover heave or subsidence damage at your property, there may be some confusion over which insurer is responsible for handling the claim – your previous insurer, or your current one.

To deal with situations such as these, the Association of British Insurers has put a claim handling agreement in place to state that, if the date of notification is:

  • within eight weeks of changing insurance provider your previous insurer will handle your claim.

  • between eight weeks and one year of switching provider, your previous and current insurers will share the cost of the claim.

  • more than a year after you switch insurers, your current insurance provider will handle your claim.

What if you sell your home?

If you are planning to sell your home, it is best to talk to your insurer. Many insurers will agree to continue insuring the property for the new owners.

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