ABI Warns UK Homeowners of Subsidence Risks from Drought

March 14, 2012

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) is urging homeowners not to worry unnecessarily, but to be aware of the ongoing drought conditions currently afflicting the UK. The extremely dry weather, with little or no rainfall across many parts of the country this winter, has increased the risk of soil subsidence, which in turn causes cracks and other damages to property.

The ABI noted that “worried homeowners may be looking out for tell-tale cracks that could be the first signs of subsidence.”

However, the association said that “knowing what steps can be taken to reduce the risk of subsidence and what to do if you suspect it is happening can ensure that you do not end up with a problem.”

The ABI described subsidence as the “downward movement of the ground supporting a building caused by changing moisture levels, usually when the soil dries out or ground water levels drop. The movement is uneven, causing damage, such as cracks in walls, floors and ceilings. Heave, the upwards movement of the ground which can occur when dried-out soil becomes saturated, can also cause damage, as well as landslip, the sideways movement of foundations.”

The principal causes of the condition were listed as follows:

  • Trees – are a major cause as they remove moisture from the ground, sometimes sucking it from under foundations. A large deciduous tree can require more than of 50,000 liters a year. Problems tend to arise if trees are too close to buildings, or grow too big. Before planting trees or large shrubs in the garden, homeowners can get advice on recommended distances from the ABI website. A tree surgeon can advise on what to do with existing trees near the home and homeowners can begin a program of pruning to control the amount of foliage produced to reduce the tree’s water intake.
  • Escape of water – for example from damaged drains, can also cause foundations to weaken. Regular maintenance of your home and outbuildings is key to detecting such damage early on.
  • Clay soils – contract and expand with changing moisture levels. Most shrinkable clay in the UK is located in the South East, the area most affected by lack of rainfall and most prone to subsidence.

The ABI also advised homeowners not to become unduly alarmed if minor cracks appear, as they may be “due to other causes, such as settlement of soil in new built homes, and the drying and shrinking of building materials. These cracks can usually be dealt with by routine maintenance and decoration.”

However the ABI also noted that cracks – wider than 5mm [about 1/4 inch], which a 10 penny coin can be slotted into “are usually the first sign of subsidence. They tend to be visible from both inside and outside the building, tapered and extend below the damp proof.”

In addition homeowners should also look for “distortions “– such as doors that may no longer shut evenly and windows slanted in appearance, which are also signs of subsidence

As far as insurance coverage is concerned the ABI urged homeowners to contact their insurer as soon as possible if they notice larger cracks or distortions. Subsidence damage is covered as standard under home building insurance policies.

“Your insurer will send out a specialist to investigate the cause of damage and arrange for repair work. Some investigations can take some time to ensure proper and lasting repair work is carried out.”

It also advised homeowners to seek the advice of a specialist on removing trees near to the home, which it said could be useful, but is not a requirement from most insurers.

“Standard subsidence excesses (the first part of the claim that you pay yourself) tend to be £1,000 [$1,571] under most buildings insurance policies. Most leading insurers sign up to an ABI agreement so that your subsidence claim can be handled by the most appropriate insurer with minimum fuss if you have recently changed your insurer or moved home.

“Your insurer should also continue to offer you cover once you have made a subsidence claim and it is good practice to offer to insure new owners when you sell your house.”

Nick Starling, director of General Insurance at the ABI commented: “There are steps homeowners can take during drought conditions to avoid potential subsidence damage. Regular maintenance of the home and outbuildings is key to preventing any damage and detecting signs, such as cracks, early on.

“Many minor wall cracks may not be caused by subsidence and can be dealt with by routine decoration. Insurers will be able to make a correct assessment of suspected subsidence and homeowners can also seek specialist advice on trees near to the home.”

Source: Association of British Insurers

IJ Ed. Note: The UK is not the only country hit by drought conditions. Virtually all of Europe received well below average rainfall during the winter, and the prospects are not expected to change. The UK has already limited water use, i.e. no hoses are allowed, in southern and eastern parts of the country.

French farmers have warned of imminent crop failures in many regions due to lack of water, and restrictions on water use are scheduled to come into force before the summer. Many other European countries are considering similar restrictions on water use.

Source: Association of British Insurers

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