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Holiday home maintenance tips to avoid insurance claims

Holiday homes are particularly vulnerable to burglary, storm and frost damage during the winter months. Damage to holiday homes that are left empty for long periods during this hazardous time can go unnoticed for weeks, or months - with devastating effects.

Be aware that your second home insurance is not a maintenance contract. It will pay for unforeseen insured events, not general wear and tear that routine maintenance could prevent. There are many areas where property owners can reduce the likelihood of a claim or minimise the amount of damage if they do. Prevention is certainly better than the cure.

Below are 7 common winter home insurance claims and some simple holiday home maintenance tips to prevent them.

Is your insurance invalid when you need it the most? - see bonus tip at the end.

1. Storm damage

Storms and high winds can cause considerable damage to your property which can go unnoticed, especially if you lock up your holiday home over winter.

Before you do:

  • Check chimneys, roof tiles and slates are secure so you don't get water damage in the loft/roof space.
  • Don't forget to check that outbuildings are weather tight.
  • Are the satellite dish and TV aerial fixed securely?
  • Don't desert your garden during the winter months. A falling tree could damage your property or a third party. Keep trees well pruned, remove dead/damaged branches and ensure they are clear of buildings and cables. Garden furniture should also be stored away.
  • Gates, fences and window shutters should be well fastened to avoid damage, plus your neighbours won't appreciate loose shutters banging in the wind.

In case of severe storms or flooding, have an emergency kit standing by that includes food, drink, a first-aid kit, a wind up torch, candles and matches - it will be appreciated if the worst happens.

2. Water damage from burst pipes

As we have seen in recent winters, when temperatures plunge, pipes freeze and burst - particularly in the UK but also overseas. The damage from burst pipes can be horrendous, especially if the burst happens when your holiday home is unoccupied and the burst goes unnoticed for weeks. Collapsed ceilings, saturated furniture and electrical appliances can be the resulting damage.

Prevent bursts & leaks:

  • One of the main causes of frozen pipes is switching the central heating off completely when a house is empty. Leaving the heating on a low temperature (7-15°C) can minimise potential danger. (Boilers and heating systems should also have annual check-up, to ensure they are safe and in good working order).
  • Ensure pipes are well lagged, wrap exposed outside pipes with insulating sleeves and make sure that water tanks get insulation too. Open the loft trap door to allow warm air from the house to circulate around the loft and pipes.
  • Letting a tap drip during freezing weather conditions can prevent a pipe from bursting by providing pressure relief.
  • Simply turning off the water is not sufficient for a property that is to be left unoccupied for a long period - there is still a lot of water in the system, which can cause damage. Get a plumber to drain down the water and central heating system to remove the risk completely.
  • Washing machines, taps, showers, baths, dishwashers etc. should be checked from time to time for leaks, because even a few drops of water could cause rotting and dampness.
  • Know where gas and electricity supplies can be turned off and where your stopcock is, as speedily shutting off the water in an emergency could prevent a great deal of damage.

If all else fails make sure your holiday home is insured for such losses.

3. Blocked gutters and drains

Clear gutters and drains regularly from leaves and debris, as blocked gutters can overflow and flood the roof or cause damp problems. Consider investing in leaf guards to put over the gutters and prevent leaves from building up. If your holiday home is overseas, a flooded balcony may not affect your apartment but the apartment below yours could suffer water damage as a result of your negligence. Consequently you may receive a repair bill.

Keep an eye out for damp patches that could be caused water penetration or the climate. Keeping your holiday home well ventilated by opening doors and windows from time to time or using a dehumidifier will help to stop condensation and mould.

4. Slips and trips

If you are letting your holiday home or cottage throughout the winter, there is a danger that a guest could slip on leaves or fall on icy paths and decide to sue for injury. Your public liability insurance (if you have it) should protect you against such actions. However, keep driveways and paths well lit, clear of slippery leaves and make sure that you have a good supply of grit or salt.

5. Thefts - beat the burglars

Most burglaries are carried out by opportunists when a holiday home is empty, or when your defences are down after just after arriving. Well secured entry points will discourage all but the most determined burglars.

Some simple security measures include:

  • Fit mortice locks or bolts to all external doors and locks to all downstairs or easily accessible windows. Consider installing iron grilles (set into the wall) on windows, or roll-down, reinforced metal shutters.
  • Never leave keys in locks or in obvious places, such as under a doormat or plant pot. Instead consider fitting a key safe if you have to leave keys for guests. If posting keys, don't label them with your holiday home address.
  • Installing an alarm at your holiday home can deter opportunists, who are likely to choose an easier target. However, consider its effectiveness if your property is remote and there is no-one around for miles. Fitting grilles and shutters may be more effective.
  • Install security lighting to illuminate entry points and put internal lights on timers.
  • When you take possession of a new-build property have all the locks changed in case copies of the keys have fallen into the wrong hands.
  • Don't forget to lock outbuildings with proper security locks, after putting all your garden furniture, tools and ladders away, so they cannot be used to break into your house.
  • Ask trusted neighbour to check on the property from time to time and reward them for their troubles.

Some insurers exclude theft and malicious damage claims when a holiday home is unoccupied, or if security warranties aren't followed - so check your policy terms.

6. Electricity surges and power failures

Rural holiday homes are more likely to suffer from power failure due to storms, which could leave you with a freezing house if your electric storage heaters fail. Overseas properties frequently experience electrical storms and power surges, which could fry your electrical gadgets such as TV's, telephones, modems etc.

When you leave your holiday home unoccupied unplug electrical devices to avoid damage from power surges or electrical storms, or purchase surge protectors.

7. Fire risks and chimney maintenance

An electrical fire caused by wiring faults could reduce your dream home to ashes. Have a qualified electrician to check your wiring is safe.

Make sure your chimney top is sufficiently covered to avoid rainwater coming into the house through the chimney. Don't forget to have your chimney swept yearly to avoid chimney fires (this could be a condition of your French insurance).

Fit smoke alarms on each floor, making sure they can be heard throughout the property.

Bonus Tip - Don't invalidate your insurance

Exclusions and restrictions can render your holiday home insurance worthless, just when you are most at risk during the winter months. Ensure you understand your policy terms and your obligations regarding any security, heating and unoccupancy warranties.

For complete peace of mind choose insurance that protects your property from 'the ravages of winter' - such as holiday home insurance from Schofields.

With some sensible planning and maintenance, you can avoid nasty surprises when your holiday home is unoccupied. It's also wise to have a good plumber, heating engineer or handyman "on call".

For further guides and advice read our blog.

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