The ultimate guide to protecting your property from damage to underground services - Total Landlord Insurance

March 27, 2023
The ultimate guide to protecting your property from damage to underground services - Total Landlord Insurance

Underground services claims are not common, but they can be costly. Damage to underground services isn’t an issue that crosses the minds of most property owners, many of whom aren’t even aware that they are liable for the repair costs of the underground services that run from the street to their property. Yet unfortunately, because the pipes are underground, damage tends to only be discovered when it is substantial and expensive to fix, not to mention inconvenient.

In this guide, we’ll cover everything landlords need to know about protecting their property from damage to underground services. We’ll explain how to make sure you have comprehensive cover, what’s not covered, how to prevent damage, what to do if there’s a problem and who is responsible for repairs. But first, what are underground services?

What are underground services?

Underground services are the pipes, cables, tanks, drains - and their inspection covers - that serve a property by bringing in water, gas and electricity and taking away sewage and waste.

Are you covered for damage to underground services?

Although most buildings insurance policies include cover for problems with underground services that are the responsibility of the policyholder, it’s worth making sure that underground service cover is included in your insurance policy and finding out how comprehensive that cover is. Steve Barnes, Head of Broking at Total Landlord Insurance, explains:

“Insurance policies are not all equal when it comes to the cover they provide for underground services. While most will provide a basic level of cover, it’s important to check how much you are insured for and also what the cover includes. For example, the cost of investigating the source of a problem can be considerable, but some policies may only cover the cost of any repairs, not the cost of finding the source of the problem. In the case of something like a leak, early detection is key to minimising costs further down the line.”

Our Premier policy covers the costs of repairing accidental damage to underground services serving the buildings. This includes cables, underground pipes and drains (and their inspection covers). In addition, we cover the costs of locating the source of escape of water or oil, up to £5,000 for any one building, and up to £25,000 in total during the period of insurance.

How common are claims for damage to underground services?

The vast majority of underground services claims – 93% - are for collapsed drains, with the rest being related to underground pipes. Only around three per cent of all our claims are for underground services, but when they do happen the damage caused is often very disruptive and costly to repair.

In one recent claim the drains at the insured property collapsed, causing water to come up through the flooring, affecting the entire ground floor. The tenants had to move out and the property had to be desanitised and dried out before repairs to the drains and kitchen could be carried out. We paid out £68,805 for this claim - a significantly higher sum than the average claim amount for underground services, a not insubstantial £2,782.

What is covered and what is not covered by underground services insurance?

The cause of damage by underground services is usually down to external influences such as movement of the subsoil, intrusion by tree roots, or something like unrelated excavation works.

Comprehensive cover protects you from accidental damage to underground services caused by these outside influences, but anything that can be seen as natural deterioration or ‘wear and tear’, such as old age or corrosion of a pipe, will not be covered. Anything caused by misuse will also not be covered - one of the most common of which is blockages caused by putting wet wipes down the toilet (more on this later). Pipes that are not the responsibility of the policy holder will also not be covered, even if they are responsible for the problem.

Who is responsible for pipes owned by water companies or neighbours?

Even if they’re responsible for the problem, insurers won’t cover problems with pipes that are owned by water companies or neighbours. Water companies are responsible for repairing and cleaning the pipes that carry wastewater from the street to their treatment works.

Property owners, on the other hand, are responsible for the maintenance and repair of pipes and drains within their homes and connecting to the water company’s sewers. But it is not always clear where the demarcation is.

Sometimes there is a stop tap outside the property which indicates where the drains, water pipes and plumbing fixtures on your property become the water company’s responsibility. But there isn’t always a tap and even when there is, it’s not always clear who is responsible for what, so it’s a good idea to get in touch with the local water company to find out who is responsible for any damage to the underground pipes.

What are the most common causes of damage to underground services?

We’ve already identified that damage to underground services is often caused by external factors, and some of these may be out of your control. But by being aware of the steps you and your tenants can take to minimise the risk of damage to underground services you can avoid unnecessary expense. What are the most common causes of damage, and what can landlords do to minimise their risks?

Damage caused by blockages

Blockages prevent wastewater from being able to flow away, causing it to come back up through the toilet or sink, and potentially flooding your property. Left unchecked, blocked drains are a common cause of flooding that can cause serious damage to property.

Signs of a blockage to look out for:

  • Toilet not flushing properly
  • Sink or bath emptying more slowly than usual
  • Odour coming from the drains

Insurance can cover accidental damage caused by tree roots or subsidence, but it will not cover blockages caused by neglect or misuse, which includes flushing anything other than human waste and toilet paper down the toilet.

According to a report from Water UK, baby wipes make up a staggering 93% of the material that causes sewer blockages in the UK, costing the country £100 million every year. Sanitary protection items are another major cause of blockages.

Blockages can be avoided, so long as anything other than human waste and toilet tissue is put in the bin instead of being flushed away, and fat, oil and food scraps are binned and not put down the sink. Make sure that your tenants know not to pour leftover cooking oil down the sink or flush baby wipes and sanitary protection items down the toilet, as the damage will not be covered by your insurance policy.

It's usually fairly easy to tell whether a blockage is down to something within the property or the responsibility of the water company.

Signs that a blockage is the property owner’s responsibility:

  • No flooding in the local area
  • Only one property is affected
  • The property doesn’t share a drain with any other properties
  • If the upstairs facilities are affected but downstairs is working this suggests an internal blockage
  • If the drain is clear upon inspection by lifting the manhole cover outside the property, it usually means the blockage is within the property

Signs that the blockage may be the responsibility of the water company:

  • The problem is outside the boundary of the property
  • More than one property is affected

What if damage occurs gradually over time?

Damage to underground services can happen gradually or it can be due to a single, unanticipated event. When damage happens gradually over time, it is known as ‘gradually operating causes’ and is generally included in the policy exclusions, meaning that it is not covered.

Damage caused by an external and visible means from a single event, for example accidentally bursting a drain pipe with a garden shovel, would generally be covered by insurance. But damage caused to drains by corrosion over time would not usually be covered. The insurer would need to weigh up all the evidence and decide whether the damage was caused gradually, whether the insured would have been aware of the damage, or whether it was caused by a particular event. In this situation, expert reports and photos would be important sources of evidence.

Lack of maintenance or wear and tear

Anything that can be seen as natural deterioration would not be considered to be accidental damage and is therefore not covered by insurance. This should be clearly indicated in the policy exclusions and includes damage caused by wear and tear and old age. As corrosion occurs and leaks form, underground services inevitably suffer extensive wear and tear over time, so it’s worth carrying out regular inspections and cleaning to keep drains in good condition and reduce the risk of premature collapse or corrosion caused by wear and tear.

What can landlords do to prevent damage to underground services?

We’ve seen that insurance won’t cover damage to underground services caused by natural deterioration, neglect or misuse. But how can landlords and tenants be proactive about preventing damage to underground services?

  1. Regular maintenance

It’s worth arranging for a professional company to come and carry out an annual clean and inspection of drains and pipes. Any solid matter can be removed before it blocks the drain and becomes much more expensive to repair. Early spring is a good time to do this as leaves and other debris that have accumulated over the winter months can be removed. Our seasonal maintenance guide contains lots of useful tips – for example, it’s also a good idea to clear the gutters in late autumn, when the trees have shed their leaves but it’s not so cold that water is freezing in the gutters, which can cause them to pull away from the building. Periodic inspections are a good opportunity to check for any blockages or damage to drains and pipes and to remove any tree roots that are growing near a drain.

  1. Make sure tenants know what they are responsible for

It’s really important that tenants are aware of their responsibilities throughout the tenancy, and you can include specific details – such as not putting cooking oil down the sink or wet wipes down the toilet - in the tenancy agreement. The tenancy agreement is an opportunity to lay out clearly your expectations, in writing, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings and disputes further down the line. Read this  mydeposits guide to tenancy agreements for more information.

It’s a good idea to provide tenants with a drain guard for the kitchen and bathroom plugholes and ask them not to pour food scraps, cooking grease or coffee grounds down the sink.

Here is some additional guidance for tenants which you can also include in a welcome pack:

  • Only flush human waste and tissue paper down the toilet. Dispose of nappies, wipes and sanitary products in the rubbish bin
  • Collect cooking grease in a container and put it in the rubbish bin
  • Put coffee grounds either in the bin or add them to the compost
  • Use a drain guard to prevent hair and scum from clogging up the pipes in the shower and put any hair or scum in the bin
  1. Ask tenants to report any problems as soon as possible

When it comes to pipes and drains, it’s always best to nip any issues in the bud by taking early action to prevent them from escalating. It’s worth spending time with your tenants when they move into the property, explaining to them what to look out for and encouraging them to report any problems they notice as soon as possible. Ask them not to carry out any remedial work themselves as this could invalidate your cover or even make the damage worse.

Here are some of the most common issues you should ask tenants to look out for:

  • Raised water levels or an overflowing toilet is a sign that there is a blockage
  • Gurgling sounds suggest trapped air in the drain
  • Slow drainage can be a sign that water is having to filter around a blockage and creating a sluggish flow
  • Brown stains on the walls or ceilings could mean hidden leaks or moisture
  • Discoloured water can be a sign of rust or corroded pipes
  • Bad odours coming from drains can be a sign that food debris stuck in the pipes is causing a blockage

What can you do if there is a problem with your underground services?

If you or your tenants spot a problem connected with the underground services, your next steps will depend on the nature of the problem.

  • Do not try to unblock drains or a toilet yourself as this could make the damage worse
  • You may need to turn the water off at the mains and make sure that the tenants do not use any of the fixtures feeding the drains
  • If the problem is with a drain, call a drain specialist to inspect the damage
  • If the property has suffered water ingress from the drains or from toilets backing up, then you should appoint companies to both pump out the water and sanitise the property
  • If there is damage to electrics appoint an electrician to have them made safe
  • Take time-stamped photos if it is safe to do so
  • Contact your insurers to notify them of the situation and begin the claim process. They will advise you on the next steps to take

If you or your tenants smell gas or suspect a gas leak at your property, then call the National Gas Emergency Helpline immediately on 0800 111 999

It’s important to make sure you are adequately insured for the costs of both investigating the source of any problem involving underground services, and repairing any accidental damage to underground pipes and drains serving the property. But remember that your insurance will not cover you for damage caused by blockages or wear and tear of underground services, so you and the tenant must be diligent. Prevent any damage from escalating by carrying out regular maintenance and make sure that you and your tenants don’t dispose of things like cooking oil, sanitary items and baby wipes by putting them down the sink or the toilet.

Make sure that you are covered for damage to underground services

Regular maintenance and repairs will help to extend the life of the underground services that serve your property. But unfortunately, no matter how diligient you are, the unexpected can still happen. So, make sure that your insurance covers damage to the underground services servicing your rental property.

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