Subsidence claims heat up after record temperatures
Undermanned industry is overwhelmed as five times as many homeowners get that sinking feeling, reports Marianna Hunt
Homeowners suffering with warped walls and sinking floors are finding that the creaking subsidence insurance industry is struggling to cope with what is expected to be the highest number of claims in the past quarter of a century, experts have warned.
The number of monthly subsidence claims since August has been five times higher than in the first half of 2018 as Britain begins to feel the full effects of this summer’s heatwave, according to a report by loss adjusters Crawford & Company.
This comes at a time when the subsidence sector is short-staffed because of job losses after a series of wet summers. As claims were low, insurers culled their subsidence management teams.
Michael Lawson, chief executive of surveyor Property Risk Inspection, said: “We have the smallest amount of manpower in a decade, and the most claims.”
This summer was the joint hottest on record, with daily temperatures in parts of the country consistently exceeding 86F (30C). But while householders soaked up the sun in their gardens, many failed to notice fences starting to shift, deckings distorting and ponds caving in.
In high temperatures the ground under your home can dry up, causing floors to sink, windows to warp and foundations to weaken or even collapse completely. This is known as subsidence. Spells of hot weather have historically led to sharp increases in subsidence claims, with the years 2003 and 2006 particularly bad.
Sne Patel, head of subsidence at Crawford & Company, predicted that insurance claims for subsidence damage in 2018 would be double last year’s figure. “Subsidence always occurs where there is vegetation. The warm weather loosens the ground, but it is the drying effect from plant and tree roots that causes one part of the property to move down faster than the rest, leading to cracks,” he said.
While the impact of storms and floods on a property is immediately evident, it often takes months to notice the fractures in walls caused by subsidence. Homeowners should look out for diagonal cracks that are thicker than a 10p coin, particularly around doors and windows – telltale signs that the foundations are sinking.
High-risk areas are those with clay soil, which shrinks and swells depending on moisture. Mr Lawson said there were around 15 million homes in low-lying parts of England on shrinkable soil.
Ian MacLean, a subsidence consultant, said: “In most instances, the extent of the damage is a few small cracks, but there are some dramatic cases. I had a client who was walking in his garden and suddenly found the ground was sinking underneath him.
“Another had an extension built, not realising that it sat on a spot that used to be a pond. The extension began to move and wobble around.” Top three causes of subsidence 1. Hot summers cold snap such as Warm weather the “Beast from tends to be the East” that followed by froze and cracked sudden spikes drain pipes across in subsidence Britain earlier this claims, as the year. dried-up ground destabilises building foundations. This is exacerbated when the hot spell follows a
2. Nearby trees
The bigger the tree, the more moisture it will absorb from the soil. Avoid planting oaks,
Increases in subsidence claims may also have been influenced by years of financial austerity, leading the Government to cut budgets for managing urban trees. “Most councils have reduced their tree pruning programmes, allowing thousands of urban trees to grow far larger than is desirable, exacerbating the risk of subsidence,” Crawford & Company’s report stated.
Repairing damage caused by subsidence can sometimes be achieved by removing trees close to the house and rehydrating the ground.
More serious cases may require the willows, planes and other large trees with long roots close to your home. Evergreen hedges such as cypress also suck up a lot of water.
3. Bad extensions
The parts of a house most commonly affected by subsidence are conservatories, bay windows and porches. There are fewer checks on the quality of these add-ons than on the building of an entire house, so their foundations are often of much lower quality and more prone to subsidence.
building to be underpinned. David Harbour of chartered surveyor e.surv said this could cost tens of thousands of pounds. He said: “Always seek a professional opinion when you find a crack. If the problem is minor, such as weak lintels, this will cost just a few hundred pounds to fix. But if there is an issue with the foundations, things get very costly very quickly.”
Most buildings insurance policies cover subsidence, but the claims process can take months. Brian Brown of financial information company Defaqto said: “Insurers sometimes insist on monitoring the building for a period of time before deciding on a course of action. This can be frustrating for the homeowner.”
Customers may find themselves waiting longer than usual this year. Mr Lawson said: “It’s not just that the number of claims has shot up: more of these claims are being upheld. In an average year six in 10 claims turn out to be other problems that cost a fraction to resolve. This year, in nine out of 10 cases homeowners have serious subsidence damage.”
The increase in claims could cause insurance premiums to rise. Mr Brown said: “The insurance industry has already started adjusting premiums to be able to cover the likely expensive costs of repairs.”
But what about when it comes to selling the property? Mr Harbour warned: “In the worst-case scenario, subsidence could render the property unmortgageable, making it saleable only on a cash basis until it has been fully repaired.” Some prospective purchasers may not wish to buy a property with a history of subsidence.
Buyers should request documents describing the repair work done, proving to lenders that the property is still a secure investment.
The Government is accidentally underestimating the extent of the leasehold problem because official figures exclude millions of homes, according to new research.
Many leasehold properties require expensive and unfair payments to be made to the freeholder.
These can include a yearly ground rent that rises over time, leaving properties unsellable, as well as other high charges.
In December 2017, Sajid Javid, who was the Communities Secretary at the time, said the Government would set ground rent on all new long leases to zero. But in a consultation last month the Government watered this down. It now wants these to be allowed, but capped at £10 a year.
Campaigners for leasehold reform want stronger protections and now claim that government figures underplay the scale of the problem.
Official figures published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last month said there were 4.3m leasehold homes in England, or 18pc of the total housing stock.
However, according to statistics due to be published by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership (LKP), a pressure group, the true number is 6.5m, 51pc higher.
Martin Boyd, of the LKP, said a third of all leasehold homes, or 2.21m, would have some sort of issue with unfair terms.
Mr Boyd said the government methodology was “total horsefeathers” and led to figures that underestimated the problem.
He said: “Unless you’ve got the right numbers, how do you plan properly?”
The main reason for the gap is because the Government excludes many leasehold social homes.
Government figures say there are 244,000 of these, whereas the LKP says there are as many as 1.9m.
Government statistics also said there were no new leasehold homes built in 2016-17. The LKP said there were around 50,000.
Jo Derbyshire, of the National Leasehold Campaign, an action group, said elderly and social leaseholders were among the most affected.
As Britons sunned themselves, as in Lyme Regis, many of their homes were suffering