London was battered by flash floods last weekend, with train and tube stations submerged, a hospital partially evacuated and thousands of properties damaged as almost a month’s worth of rain fell on Sunday.
Similar scenes are being seen across the country as The Met Office issued yellow warnings for thunderstorms and rain in both England and Scotland this week.
Insurer Aviva says claims are now rolling in from customers affected by ‘flash floods’. These are caused by torrential rain which overwhelms drains, leading to what is more accurately known as surface water flooding.
Torrential rain battered London last weekend, causing damage to many homes
Aviva’s data shows that this type of flooding is on the rise, and it says that as many as one in five properties could be at risk.
Such sudden flooding can catch homeowners and businesses off-guard, as it is difficult to predict where and when localised rainstorms will be most intense and problematic.
Climate change is also increasing the occurrence of extreme weather events in general. For example, Aviva said it received 7,600 household storm claims in February 2020, the amount normally seen in a typical year.
Andy Bord, the chief executive of Flood Re, a Government-backed organisation which helps people at high risk of flooding get home insurance, says: ‘We know that climate change is making the planet warmer and wetter.
‘This means our towns and cities are more vulnerable to surface water flooding when unprecedented quantities of rainwater are unable to drain away quickly enough.’
Those unfortunate enough to be affected by floods will be more concerned with salvaging some of their belongings and finding somewhere to stay than making an insurance claim.
But taking a thorough approach to the situation will maximise the chances of getting full recompense, in order to get homes back to normal as soon as possible.
We asked insurance and property experts about the steps homeowners need to take in the event of a flood.
Ensure your safety – and your property’s
First and foremost, homeowners should do what they can to make their property as safe as possible.
Stuart Kerr, managing director of Restorations UK, a company which restores homes after flood and fire damage, says: ‘Safety is the most important factor when first facing a flood. Make sure the immediate area is safe with regards to electrics, gas and blocked drains.’
If your electricity was not turned off at the mains before the flood, get a professional to do this.
Be careful of standing water if your home has just flooded, as this can contain sewage and chemicals or animal waste, or even an electric current
Flood water can become electrified if it is in contact with electrical outlets or appliances.
The Environment Agency advises that flood water can contain sewage, chemicals and animal waste; so protective, waterproof clothing and a face mask should be worn if coming into contact with it.
Check your insurance policy
Once you have dealt with any immediate hazards, it is time to contact your insurers. Flood insurance is normally included as part of the buildings insurance taken out when you buy a home.
However, it will only cover repairs to the structure of a home, and not the possessions inside it. These are covered – all being well – by contents insurance, so more than one claim might need to be made if this is with a separate insurer.
It is a good idea for homeowners to check what their policy covers, and have the policy number to hand. This might not always be possible after a flood, so making an electronic copy and keeping it in one’s email account can be useful.
The first thing to look out for is the excess. According to Kerr, excess payments for flooding can vary depending on the insurer’s initial assessment of how much of a flood risk the home is, but are typically up to £1,000.
These scenes in Nine Elms, South West London, at the weekend were caused by heavy rain overwhelming drains and leading to ‘surface water flooding’
Homeowners will also want to check whether there is a limit on what their insurer will pay for repairs, or for replacing contents.
Kerr says the typical sum covered by insurers in cases of flooding can vary from a few thousand to tens of thousands of pounds, ‘dependent upon the extent of buildings damage and the level of contents affected’.
Check whether it is ‘new for old’ insurance, where damaged items are replaced with similar new ones, or indemnity cover, which would only pay the value of the items at the time immediately before the flood.
For example, new for old insurance would replace a 10-year-old sofa with a brand-new sofa of a similar type, even if it cost more than what the old one was worth.
Indemnity insurance, meanwhile would pay the owner the £150 value of the old sofa.
Generally, insurers will replace contents via their own suppliers, and appoint from their own network of contractors for cleaning and repairs. They may agree to let the homeowner choose other items, or use a different contractor, if the cost is similar or they pay the difference.
Look out for small print that might invalidate the policy, too.
‘Homeowners should also be aware that most policies expect the property is not left vacant for period of 30 days or more, so this should be taken into account if residents were away during the flooding,’ says Kerr.
Contact your insurers
Martin Milliner, claims director at LV= General Insurance, says: ‘When a flood hits, one of the first things a homeowner should do is contact their home insurance company.
‘The person on the end of the phone will want to know the situation, where the customer’s home is and what sort of alternative accommodation will be needed. They’ll also need to know the severity of the flood and the extent of the damage.’
On your first phone call with the insurer, ask if and when they will cover the initial cleaning, and whether they will provide you with alternative accommodation while your home is being repaired.
You will also need details of what they will cover in terms of repairs, or in the case of your contents insurer, replacing damaged items.
They will let you know of any additional information they need to support the claim, and how to move ahead with the clean-up and repair process.
‘The insurer will assess the needs of the customer and provide practical help, such as paying for accommodation if they can’t live at home along with instructing specialists to help with the clear up and drying of the home,’ says Milliner.
‘If the damage is significant, some homeowners may be out of their home for a number of months, so when looking at options of where to live, consider factors such as proximity to schools or the workplace.’
Within a couple of days of your first contact, the insurer will assign you a loss adjuster. It is their job to check that your claim is valid, that you have met the conditions set out in your policy and that the amount you are claiming is correct.
They will report back on this to the insurer.
They may need to visit your home, which should happen within seven days of the water receding – though you may have to wait longer if there has been widespread flooding in your area.
The whole process of restoring your home can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year, depending on how bad the damage is.
Document your losses
Even if a loss adjuster does come out to visit, the homeowner should carry out a thorough inventory of their property and possessions themselves to make sure nothing is missed.
Says Milliner: ‘If possible, homeowners should try and have a thorough look around their home to see what has been damaged, including tools or items stored in a garden shed or appliances in kitchen cupboards.’
Making a list: Documenting the items that have been lost or damaged during flooding, as well as taking pictures, can help your insurer to understand the severity of the situation
Taking photos and videos of the damage to your home and belongings can also help the insurer understand the severity of the situation, and help the claim get resolved quickly.
‘Take as many photos as you can and make lists of every item that is damaged and its value,’ says Megson. ‘It sounds like a pain but the insurer will ask for these. If you have receipts, then try and find these too.
‘Getting organised is the last thing you want to do in this scenario, but it will save you so many headaches and so much time down the line.’
As tempting as it is to get your soggy, broken belongings out of the house, these will need to be kept until the loss adjuster’s visit.
‘It’s important to also not dispose of anything from the property, even if it’s been damaged, as the insurer will need to see it to see the impact of the flood,’ Milliner adds.
The Environment Agency also suggests using a permanent pen to mark the level that the flood water reached in every room.
Think about appointing a loss assessor
A loss assessor is a third-party person that a homeowner can appoint to represent their interests when making an insurance claim – in much the same way that the loss adjuster represents the insurance company.
They will handle calls and meetings with the insurer and their representatives, prepare the claim and negotiate with the aim of getting the best possible settlement. They will also deal with situations where a claim has been refused.
Jamie Megson, director at Avail Mortgage Brokers, warns that some insurers will try and ‘wriggle out’ of claims if the homeowner has not disclosed that they are in a flood risk area, for example.
Some insurers will dispute flood claims if the policy holder did not warn them that the home was in a flood risk area – although they should have this information in their own records
But he says it is worth holding firm on this point, as insurers should have access to this information from their own research – and it will likely have been factored into the premium.
‘Some insurers will try and wriggle out of claims saying that the client hasn’t disclosed the property as being in a “flood risk area” for example – even though they have access to the flood maps from the Land Registry and other software they use, and they check these via the postcode of the property.
‘It is a way of not paying out claims to keep insurance premiums down, which is totally wrong.’
Having a professional in your corner could help in situations like this, although you may have to pay for a loss assessor’s services. They will charge in one of two ways.
Some charge you a percentage of the claim value, typically between five and ten per cent of the final payout.
Others do not charge you directly but earn a commission from the contractors they employ to carry out the required repair work.
Look for an assessor that is registered with the Chartered Insurance Institute.
Mitigate the damage
While you are going through the claims process, you will want to prevent any further damage to your home from any remaining water or moisture in the air.
Any residual damage that occurs after the main event is known in the industry as ‘secondary damage’.
‘Mitigating damage is essential, for example by hiring dehumidifiers,’ says Kerr. ‘These steps to reduce harm to your contents and home should also be documented for claims.’
Residual damage after a flood is known as secondary damage in the insurance industry
If there are rooms in your home, such as upstairs rooms, that were not affected by the floods, these need to be protected from the moisture and humidity caused by the remaining water.
‘When customers are at home, they should open all their windows to get air flowing through the house and stop moisture building up,’ says Milliner.
‘Closing all the doors to unaffected rooms can also help. Take extra precautions before doing this to protect any valuables, such as storing them in a locked drawer or a safe, or even removing them from the house altogether.’
How to clean a flooded home
If your insurer is covering cleaning and drying, it will appoint contractors to do so, and give you a timetable for the work.
If contractors aren’t being appointed to remove the flood water, you can start to remove it from your home with a pump and generator once it is safe to do so. This should only happen when the flood water outside your property is lower than it is inside, or it could cause structural damage.
After you have removed the water from your home, it will need to be cleaned to remove harmful substances left behind by the flood water.
‘Water can contain contaminants, silt, sewage and mud, and everything that has been in contact with flood water needs to be washed and disinfected thoroughly,’ says Kerr.
Ordinary household cleaning products and disinfectants can be used, as well as garden hoses – though the Environment Agency warns that high-pressure devices risk spraying contaminated matter into the air.
Furniture can be swab tested to ensure it is bacteria-free after being sanitised
It says that you should shovel mud away evenly from both sides of the walls, to avoid damage to the structure of your home.
Clearly, items such as beds and sofas are going to be difficult to properly clean as they will soak up the floodwater.
If you are determined to save them, Kerr says they can be professionally cleaned.
‘If needed, items can be swab tested to ensure they are bacteria-free after being sanitised. Odour removal can also be required to remove damp smells,’ he adds.
… and how to dry it
Once the home is clean, it needs to be dried.
Frustratingly this is usually the longest part of the process, taking as long as a few months in some cases, and most repairs can’t be carried out until it happens. In less severe cases it is possible to do this with open windows, dehumidifiers, and keeping the heating switched on.
If your insurer is not covering contractors to help with the drying process, this is the cheapest option.
The Environment Agency says that gas or oil central heating can be turned on if it has been checked by an engineer, and should be kept between 20 to 22 degrees to aid drying.
However, to speed up the process, or in more severe cases, contractors will use specialist equipment to extract moisture and prevent mould.
‘Vacuum systems and high-pressure drying are the most common techniques which ensure minimum disruption and low costs to what can be an already expensive and stressful time,’ says Kerr.
And don’t forget any important documents in the drying process.
‘Items like important documents or fine art will need to be evaluated, and the latter should be airdried or can be frozen to aid restoration,’ says Kerr.
Items that haven’t been damaged may need to be placed in storage while the drying takes place.
At the end of the drying process, the company will give you a certificate so you can prove that your home is ready for repairs.
Repair the damage
The final step in getting a flood-damaged home back to normal is carrying out repairs.
This could include almost anything depending on the location and extent of the damage, but common jobs include tiling, carpentry, plastering, plumbing, painting and installing new kitchens and bathrooms.
As with any repair job, make sure you get a variety of quotes – but be aware that a better-quality repair job might help avoid more damage in future.
‘Cheap repairs may end in further problems down the line so use reputable companies and not just the cheapest if you’re claiming,’ says Megson.
You should also take into account repairs that could protect your home if there was another flood.
Your insurer may be willing to help with the cost of these, if you can make a case that they will reduce any future claims.