This article was first published in May 2019
Few nations love a sizzling summer heatwave quite like the British.
Sales of beer, barbecues, and burgers hit record levels in 2018 as the country basked in scorching sunshine – fuelled by a glimpse of World Cup glory. But hot weather also comes with risks attached, and not just from sunburn or insect bites and stings – your property also needs protection along with your body.
Insurers reported a 20 per cent rise in subsidence claims last July as properties literally cracked under the pressure of the joint hottest summer on record. But your home crumbling from beneath isn’t the only thing to keep in mind in the event of another extended period of hot weather. Increased risk of fire, theft – especially for unoccupied properties left empty during the summer holidays – and the proliferation of pests brought out by the warmth are also potential hazards for homeowners.
So before the temperatures start to soar, it’s worth checking that you have the best home insurance to protect you from summer risks, and take a look at these top hot weather risks and how to combat them.
Long, dry summers can be bad news for the structure of your home, especially if your property is built on earth rich in clay. Nearby trees and shrubs need all the water they can get during dry spells, and will thirstily suck the moisture from the soil via their roots to facilitate photosynthesis. Larger trees with roots near to properties can extract sufficient moisture to cause the clay soil to shrink, which can lead to buildings shifting on their foundations. More than 60 per cent of subsidence claims are caused by the influence of tree roots, with a mature deciduous tree capable of using more than 50,000 litres of water a year. Different types of tree have different “zones of influence”, which relate to its recommended distance from a property.
Clay soil is found extensively in England and Wales, with the greatest risk in the south east. A simple test for clay soil can be done by giving it a squeeze; if it stays in the shape you’ve made with it and doesn’t crumble, it’s probably clay.
How to spot subsidence and what to do about it
Just because there’s a crack in an internal wall or ceiling doesn’t mean you have a subsidence problem. It’s more likely to be the result of the walls and ceilings swelling and shrinking over time because of changes in temperature, natural settlement in a new home, or newly-plastered walls or ceilings drying out.
You need to start looking closer if the cracks are:
- Wider than 3mm
- On both the inside and outside of a wall
- Wider at the top than the bottom and diagonal
- Near a door or window or where an extension joins the main structure
You should also watch out for doors or windows that are suddenly difficult to open and close. If you suspect you have subsidence then the earlier it’s caught the cheaper any repair or remedial work will be. You should contact your buildings insurer, who will arrange for a surveyor to carry out an assessment. Different insurers place varying excesses on subsidence cover, so it pays to compare home insurance to get the best deal.
Even though it can make rooms even warmer, people’s natural instinct is to open the windows when the mercury rises. Burglars know this. It’s fine, as long as you remember to close and lock the windows if you leave the house unattended, and when you go to bed – especially those on the ground floor. An even greater risk is leaving your home unoccupied if you go away on holiday for a week or two. Holiday season is also peak burglary season, and thieves seek out homes that look unoccupied for easy pickings.
How to keep your home safe for summer
As well as remembering to cancel the milk and papers (a build-up on the doorstep or inside doormat is a sure sign of an empty house), there are other things you can do to keep your house secure if you go away on holiday. You could consider getting a house-sitter, either a family friend or using a site like Trusted Housesitters, to look after your property – and any pets – while you’re away. If that’s not an option, take note of the following advice:
- Make sure all windows and doors are locked
- Keep any keys you are not taking with you well out of sight, preferably locked away themselves in a lockable key cabinet, drawer or desk
- Fit motion-detecting security lights at the front and rear
- If you have trustworthy neighbours, tell them you’re going away and ask them to keep an eye out for unusual activity, and maybe ask them to park their car on your drive – if you have one – from time to time
- Keep anything that could give a burglar a helping hand, like ladders, out of sight and locked away
- If you can afford a burglar alarm, fit one, and don’t forget to set it when you you leave
- It’s tempting to post messages on social media in the build up to your holiday, and endless photos while you’re away. But remember, burglars use social media too
- Lights, and even TVs, can be set to go on and off on a timer switch to give the impression there’s somebody at home
- Consider setting up a Royal Mail Keepsafe account, which will delay delivery of your post until you return, preventing that build-up of mail on your doormat.
Obviously things burn easier when they’re tinder dry following a long period without rain, but the biggest fire risks in a golden summer are caused by the ever-popular barbecue and out-of-control bonfires. That’s not to say that other freak accidents don’t happen – they do, like when a glass ornament left on a windowsill in direct sunlight last July magnified the sun’s rays on to curtains, causing them to catch fire.
The screens of smartphones and tablets can also crack if left in direct sunlight, but it’s the barbecue and bonfire that can quickly get out of hand in right – or wrong – circumstances. Most fires caused by barbecues take hold because it’s placed too near – or even inside – the home, or too close to flammable material like tents, gazebos, sheds, trees or bushes. Sparks from a barbecue can also find their way through nearby open windows and set fire, unnoticed from the outside, to curtains or furnishings.
There’s also a risk of burns to third parties attending a barbecue at your home, which could lead to a claim for personal injuries. And those looking for cheap home insurance could be caught out, because insurers can take a dim view of homeowners who have made claims as a result of a poorly-managed barbecue.
Tips for safe barbecuing
Never use a barbecue in a structure that could easily catch fire, like a gazebo
- Place the barbecue at least 10 feet from your home, and well away from any sheds, bushes or trees
- Keep a fire extinguisher or water-filled container close at hand
- Try to save the alcohol until after you’ve finished using the barbecue
- Never use petrol or lighter fluid on a barbecue
- Don’t wear loose clothing, and if you have long hair, tie it back
- Allow charcoal to completely cool before removing it, and place in a non-flammable metal container
- To prevent leakage, store gas cylinders upright, and always check the hose attachment for cracks prior to using.
Summer bonfires can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than barbecues, because they can also cause a hazard to third party properties and nearby traffic. There’s nothing illegal about having a bonfire on your own property, but there are laws about the nuisance it can cause to others. As well as the obvious fire risk to your own and others’ homes, you are not permitted to burn household waste if it will cause pollution or harm people’s health, while you could be fined if you allow the smoke to drift across a road, causing a danger to traffic. If you do have to have a garden bonfire, similar safety advice for barbecues above should be followed.
Just like us humans love it when the sun shines and the temperature rises, so do a host of crawling, flying, stinging or nibbling pests. Wasps, bees, ants, and rodents all come out to play in the summer, and can all cause damage to your home or garden, as well as leave your skin crawling…
While wasps cause damage to your home by chewing wood materials into pulp to create a nest, masonry bees burrow into crumbling mortar between brickwork. If left unchecked year after year, this can cause structural issues that could be expensive to fix. While some ants live in gardens, building nests beneath soil or patios, others build nests in your home, marching to and from the pantry from their hiding places and swarming over whatever food they can find. While wasps and bee problems will almost certainly require a call to a pest control company, you can have a stab at ridding your home of ants in a number of ways yourself.
The most likely to cause serious property damage are brown rats, which need to gnaw to keep their constantly growing incisor teeth worn down. They can damage woodwork, plastic, bricks and lead pipes, and will strip insulation from electrical cables, potentially causing fires. Insurers estimate that rodent damage to wiring is responsible for a quarter of all electrical fires. Flooding can be caused by rats chewing through water pipes, while they can also gnaw their way through gas pipes, with potentially fatal consequences. In homes, they can live in roof spaces, wall cavities or under floorboards, or under sheds. It’s vital to control them, not only to preserve the structure of your home, but because they can pass on a range of diseases to humans, including Leptospirosis or Weil’s disease, Salmonella, Listeria, Toxoplasma gondii and Hantavirus.
How to prevent a brown rat infestation
Keep gardens clean and tidy, with no overgrown areas or piles of wood or debris
- Keep drain covers in a good state of repair
- Keep all rubbish in dustbins with the lid closed, and cover compost heaps
- Completely seal gaps around pipes entering the house, and close off any gaps under sheds
Not all home insurance policies provide cover for damage caused by pests, so before the summer gets into gear, it’s always worth checking the wording on your policy to make sure you have the best cover for your circumstances.