Cause and Effect
Because houses and flats are built in a wide variety of methods and materials, they are likely to respond differently to seasonal changes. The recent heavy morning dews have prevented the topmost layer of soil from developing the deep cracks of last summer. However, it is what is going on deeper down that is a concerning feature of this second year of drought. I noticed that one of my 8 inch square timber gate posts was loose with a one inch gap all round between it and the surrounding soil despite having being set about 4 feet in the ground. By chance I had a tape with me and measured the post. I found that it had shrunk by about a quarter inch all round. So this prolonged drought is causing both soil and timber to shrink by dehydration.
Little wonder that people are noticing cracks appearing, doors and windows binding and paving becoming uneven. Insurance companies are already reporting a significant increase in claims from property owners. I know that many people, finding a crack, assume that it is settlement or subsidence and feel that because they are insured they might as well make a claim. Please resist the temptation!
Firstly, the crack may not be due to settlement or subsidence but your insurers will set in motion a procedure which will almost certainly treat it as such. Secondly, you will become liable to pay the excess quoted in your policy as a contribution to the work. Thirdly, the work may not be appropriate to the problem and finally, your property will be permanently stigmatized and could be difficult to sell.
You may ask, quite reasonably, why insurance companies should be so ready to accept a claim and organise the work. Simply because it puts them in control. On receipt of a claim they will probably send a loss adjuster to check that there is a problem but no attempt will be made to analyse the cause. Next, one of the insurer’s appointed building companies will inspect and agree the extent of work with the insurer – not you – you are just the owner who is going to shell out anything between £1,000 and £5,000 fixed excess. Remember, the building company has a commercial incentive to do the work and will already have agreed discounted bulk rates with the insurer so they are not going to spend time analysing possible alternative causes. They will however do the minimum work so that wherever possible the bulk of the cost is covered by your excess.
Countless times, I have seen houses that have been the subject of localised underpinning subsequently suffers serious cracking elsewhere. It stands to reason. Foundations move naturally in response to the seasonal changes in the surrounding subsoil. If only one small area of foundation is underpinned by creating deeper foundations in that particular area the subsoil at that lower depth will not respond to seasonal changes as quickly as that around the shallower foundations. This will cause stress and result in structural cracking and distortion.
Based on experience I find that more than half of the cracks thought to be due to settlement occur for other reasons and are often sorted out for less than the cost of the excess. Insurance companies make great efforts to represent themselves as benevolent uncles offering to take on responsibility for sorting out your problems. What they never tell you is that you have the right to remain in control, to seek independent advice and to choose who you want to do any necessary work.
If you think your home is suffering from some structural problem ask a chartered surveyor to inspect. Yes, it will cost you a fee but if there is settlement or subsidence the fee will be repaid by your insurers. If the surveyor says it is not settlement or subsidence the fee will have saved you the excess and a future sale of your home will not have been jeopardised by unnecessary work.
The writer is an independent chartered surveyor and has no connection with any firm of estate agents or surveyors. For reasons of client confidentiality he writes under a pseudonym. Comments and enquiries are welcome and may be sent c/o Wealden Advertiser Property, Gardens & Interiors.
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