How to avoid burst pipes in your rental property - Total Landlord Insurance

February 29, 2024
How to avoid burst pipes in your rental property - Total Landlord Insurance

Read an interactive and user-friendly version of this guide below.

The cost of burst pipes

Total Landlord has seen a steady decline in the number of insurance claims over the past few years. This could be down to a range of factors, including landlords being better educated about the importance of taking care of property maintenance and forming good relationships with their tenants.

But although there has been a reduction in the number of claims year on year, the cost of claims related to 'escape of water' has consistently risen, with one major contributing factor being increasing labour and material costs, making repairs more expensive. Despite landlords’ best efforts to protect their property, sometimes claims are inevitable due to factors outside of their control.

Escape of water is consistently the most common reason why landlords make an insurance claim across the UK, and over a third of all claims paid out by Total Landlord are for escape of water. Defined as ‘when water has entered the property by the mains water supply and caused damage’, escape of water refers to water damage arising from within the property such as leaking pipes or fixed water tanks, baths, sinks or toilets, or a leaking dishwasher or washing machine.  

Around three quarters of escape of water claims at Total Landlord are down to a burst pipe. What’s more, claims arising from a burst pipe have been increasing steadily while other claims involving water have declined sharply.

The consequences of burst pipes

The consequences of burst pipes can be devastating, leading to flooding and mould. A burst pipe in the main system can affect neighbouring properties, leaving a significant number of people without water and even homes. A more contained leak can still be a headache for your tenants and a hassle for you as the landlord, causing emotional, financial and physical stress to all concerned. Possible consequences of burst pipes include:

• Structural and cosmetic damage to your rental property and potentially neighbouring properties too

• Damage to furniture, fixtures, fittings and appliances in the rental property and potentially in neighbouring properties affected

• Expense and hassle of repair/restoration work and relocation of tenants

• Stress and inconvenience for landlord, tenants and neighbours

• Loss of rental income due to a vacant property while repairs are carried out

The cost of burst pipes

Even a small pipe fracture can release huge volumes of water if left unchecked, resulting in heavy insurance claims and sometimes £100,000+ repair bills for water damage to buildings, contents and drying out.

The average claim paid out by Total Landlord between 2019 and 2023 was £2,596. But some claims have reached eye-watering figures. In one case, a slow leak underneath a bath rotted most of the flooring in the landlord’s property, resulting in a pay out of £145,855. Claims for burst pipes are consistently amongst the highest we receive.

The highest claim we’ve settled in the last three years was in 2020. In this case the tenants arrived back from holiday to find their flat in two inches of water after a water tank had burst. The water had to be pumped out of the property, which took several weeks to dry, with the tenants having to move out while the ground floor was stripped out. The claim was settled at an eyewatering £82,889.

Even landlords who do all they can to maintain and protect their properties cannot eliminate risks entirely, which is why landlord insurance is a must. But what can landlords do to prevent burst pipes and avoid the hassle of having to make a claim, not to mention the disruption and damage that results from a burst pipe? Here, we’ll consider the causes of burst pipes, offer our tips for preventing burst pipes in your home and advise you what to do if the worst happens.

What causes burst pipes?

During the winter months, water coming into the property from outside is much colder than it is during the rest of the year. The colder water can cause a contraction in the pipes, which sometimes leads to leaks where the pipe has weakened over time. This is why escape of water claims increase during the winter months, when pipes freeze and begin to leak or burst.

The most common causes of burst pipes are:

• Water freezing in pipes during cold weather

• Increased water pressure

• Wear and tear

• Ageing pipes

Controlling the temperature of water coming into the property is clearly not a practical option. But there are a number of steps you can take, such as preparing your pipes for cold weather, carrying out routine maintenance on your pipes, and communicating with your tenants, all of which will help lower your risk.

Practical tips to prevent pipes from bursting

Prevention is definitely better than cure when it comes to burst pipes. Here are some practical measures you can take to reduce your risks.

Use heat tape – there is a product called heat tape that can be installed and will warm pipes as needed during cold weather. Contact a plumber for more information

Seal leaks – identify and seal any air leaks that allow cold air into your property where pipes are located, for example around electrical wiring, dryer vents, and pipes

Isolate the water supply to any outside taps with an internal shut-off valve – outside taps and associated pipework are always a problem in freezing weather

Replace the washers on dripping taps – if they freeze the pipes will block

Lag pipes and insulate – this will provide extra protection against frost. Pipes in unheated areas, including lofts and basements or those fixed to the inside of external walls are most at risk from freezing. Pipes should be lagged using insulating foam sleeving – the thinner the pipe the thicker the insulation should be

Insulate old water storage tanks – although all new water storage tanks must be insulated, older ones will benefit from a hot water jacket. Take care not to place loft insulation directly under heater tanks though, as this stops heat rising from below

Service your boiler and central heating system annually before winter – to prevent breakdowns during cold spells when it is working its hardest. For more detailed guidance, read our comprehensive guide, How to prepare your boiler for the winter months.

Carry out routine maintenance on your water pump and bathroom fixtures – to prevent burst pipes due to water pressure. Carry out regular inspections of the pipes and associated plumbing so that you can identify problems early. Encourage your tenants to contact you immediately if they spot any issues, for example a blocked toilet

Tips for tenants to reduce the risk of burst pipes

Be sure to share these tips with your tenants when they move in and during cold weather, to help minimise the risk of frozen and burst pipes in your rental property.

• Make sure tenants know where the stop cock is located and ask that they turn off the water mains at the stopcock if they are going to be leaving the property vacant

• Keep the heating on at a minimum temperature of 13°C when they are away. This will prevent temperatures dropping below freezing in any areas of the property where water pipes are located

• Leave cupboard doors under the kitchen sink and bathroom cabinets open to allow warm air to circulate

• Keep one or two taps running slowly for some time each day if it is extremely cold outside. Water moving through the system should prevent freezing and a build-up of pressure

• Encourage them to contact you immediately if they spot any issues such as a leak

• It’s also a good idea to provide your tenants with the details of an emergency plumber. This information could be shared in a welcome pack when they move in.

Steve Barnes, Head of Broking at Total Landlord, adds:

“Being prepared for the winter months by carrying out regular maintenance and repairs, is key to preventing burst pipes. But it’s equally important to communicate clearly with tenants so that they know what to do to reduce risks too. Make sure tenants know to let you know immediately if they spot any problems, before they escalate. Most landlord insurance policies, including ours, require tenants to inform their landlord if the property is going to be vacant for an extended period, so make sure this is indicated in the tenancy agreement.  It’s also a good idea to include a clause which advises tenants of their responsibility to leave the heating on a constant setting at 13°C if the property is to be left unoccupied.”

Case study: frozen pipe bursting over the Christmas period

This case study from mydeposits illustrates the importance of effective communication with tenants, both to protect yourself and to reduce the risk of burst pipes, particularly if your tenants are going to be leaving the property vacant during cold weather.

Suzy Hershman, Resolution Department Lead at mydeposits, explains:

“We had a case involving a burst pipe which happened after the tenant had left the property empty for three weeks, without either leaving the heating on or turning off the stop cock. As a result of extreme weather, a pipe froze, burst and flooded the property, damaging flooring and the washing machine.
Due to a clause in the tenancy agreement which related to frozen pipe risk and damage, coupled with a letter and email which had been sent to the tenant to turn off the water and leave the heating on if going away over the Christmas period, it was felt the tenant had failed in their ‘duty to take reasonable care to safeguard the property from damage’ and that they were in breach of the agreement.
As a result, the landlord was awarded the full deposit which, although it only partly paid to repair the damage, was better than not getting anything at all.”

This case study, which you can read in full here, illustrates the importance of making sure tenancy agreement clauses are clear on heating the property adequately, but also of making sure that your landlord insurance is up to date, as the damage can be costly to repair, and the tenant’s deposit may not cover all the damage.

Of course, tenants may be trying to reduce their energy costs, and this may mean they decide not to keep the property heated as well as it needs to be to prevent pipes freezing. Read our guide on the cost of living crisis for landlords which contains lots of useful advice to help support both landlords and tenants during difficult times.

What extra precautions should you take if your rental property is unoccupied for long periods?

Landlords with holiday homes or rental properties that may be vacant for long periods have a responsibility to prevent burst pipes and avoidable insurance claims and need to take extra precautions.

1. Leave the heating on – this may cost a little more in bills but will help protect your property from the expense of repairing damage should pipes burst. As already mentioned, it is recommended to leave the heating permanently on at least 13°C, especially during very cold periods, rather than for short bursts at a higher temperature.

2. Turn off the stop cock – this is essential during frost or if you have certain types of heating systems such as storage heaters, which do not provide the continuous levels of heat that are required to prevent pipes from freezing.

3. Drain down the heating/water system – if your property will be vacant over winter and cold weather is expected, the safest thing to do is to drain down and shut off the water/ central heating system so that there is nothing in the pipes to freeze. It is not enough to simply turn off the water as there will still be water in the system and tanks, which can cause damage in the event of a burst pipe. Seek the advice of a plumber or heating engineer on how to drain down the water and central heating system.

4. Allow warm air to circulate – during freezing temperatures leave the loft hatch door open to allow the warmer air from your holiday home to circulate up and around the water tank and water pipes.

5. Ask someone to check on your property – during a particularly cold spell it is useful if you can arrange for a neighbour or housekeeper to check your property regularly. This will increase the chances of detecting frozen or burst pipes early and minimise damage.

What should you do if faced with a burst pipe?

Knowing what to do if the worst happens can help reduce both the spread of water damage and the size of your claim. Follow these steps:

1. Close off the water supply – turn off the water mains at the stopcock (often found under the kitchen sink).

2. Turn off the electricity – if there is a risk of water reaching electrical equipment, turn off electricity at the fuse box. Keep away from light switches and sockets.

3. Move any furniture and belongings away from the affected area – your insurance will not cover your tenant’s possessions.

4. Survey for damage – check the property for water damage, for example a bulging ceiling which could indicate that water is pooling above.

5. Contain excess water – collect the water into large containers and mop up any excess water to help prevent secondary damage.

6. Use a dehumidifier – provide your tenants with a dehumidifier as this will help remove any water or dampness from the property (which will also help prevent condensation, damp and mould).

If the moisture is contained within a specific room, close the windows and doors as dehumidifiers work best in enclosed areas.

7. Contact an emergency plumber – if the pipe is concealed a plumber may be needed to locate and repair the leak.

8. Collect evidence – if making a claim take lots of photos of the damage.

9. Make sure that guests or tenants have an action plan – in case of an emergency make sure you provide your tenants with information on how to turn off the water and who to contact (agent, housekeeper, plumber).

Prevention is key but in the worst case scenario early detection of a burst pipe is vital

Prevention is the key to minimising the likelihood of pipes bursting. By carrying out regular maintenance and inspections of your rental property, you will reduce your risk and mitigate against the extent of damage in the worst case scenario that you are faced with a burst pipe. Our guide, property maintenance tips for all seasons, offers lots of useful advice to help landlords carry out key maintenance checks all year round. And in Get winter ready: everything you need to protect your property, you will find detailed guidance on the specific measures you need to take to prepare for the colder weather, saving you time and money, as well as promoting a good relationship with your tenant.

But despite thorough preparation, burst pipes can and do happen. And the sooner you are able to rectify the issue the better. It is vital to urge tenants to inform you as quickly as possible if they spot any damp patches, leaks, bulges or blockages that could indicate that there is a problem, and that they are clear on what to do in the event of an emergency.

If a pipe bursts in the ceiling or floor it can take time before the problem becomes apparent. The first thing your tenants may notice is when a bulge appears in the ceiling or water is flowing down the walls.

The potential water loss from burst pipes can be as much as 400 litres, the equivalent of two full baths an hour. In a full day that equates to 9,600 litres of water or 48 full baths of water in your property from burst pipes.

Clearly prevention and early detection are key to minimising damage and protecting your property from costly and disruptive water damage that can occur from burst and faulty pipework. Steve Woods, Managing Director, Aqualeak advises that there are two main ways in which you can limit water damage to your property:

“The first is by being vigilant and spotting potential problems with pipework early. The earlier you identify potential problems, the quicker you can address them before they become catastrophic. The second, in the event that a leak does occur, is taking action as quickly as possible to minimise the amount of water that escapes to reduce the impact. However, this can be difficult for residents to do alone without assistance.”
“Landlords, in particular, may not access their properties regularly and tenants may not be as attentive as you would like. That is where technology can help. In our experience, leaks are manageable, and even avoidable, with the correct leak detection and prevention devices in place.  They can shut off water supply immediately when a leak occurs and alert you to the problem via your mobile phone. Smart meter technology can also help identify dripping taps and leaking tanks, allowing you to resolve the problem, reducing unnecessary water waste that can lower bills and make your property more environmentally friendly.”

– Steve Woods, Managing Director, Aqualeak

As a landlord it may be worth investing in a leak detection and prevention device and smart meter technology.

What should you do if you discover your property has been damaged by a burst pipe?

If you discover that your rental property has been damaged because of a burst pipe and you need to make a claim, it is important to notify your insurers at the earliest opportunity so that they can rectify the damage as soon as possible.

At Total Landlord our claims team report a higher incidence of ‘escape of water’ claims in winter, when pipes freeze. Escape of water continues to be the most pressing concern for landlords across the UK.

Making sure that you have comprehensive landlord insurance in place provides peace of mind that you are protected in the event that your rental property is damaged by a burst pipe this winter. A policy like Total Landlord Insurance’s Premier policy will not only cover the cost of repair work but also loss of rent and alternative accommodation.

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