Help, Advice and Support for Homeowners
If you are worried about cracks to your house, or think it may be at risk from subsidence, or you are unhappy with the advice you have received from your insurer, please contact us on 0208 208 0343. Office hours are 8:00 to 18:00 Monday to Friday. Alternatively, email us and we will send you an enquiry form. There is no charge for advice given over the telephone and many insurance policies will cover reasonable professional fees if you have a valid claim under the subsidence section.
About 40,000 homeowners report suspected subsidence damage to their insurers every year. In the majority of cases, the damage is found to be minor and unrelated to foundation movement. However, every house built on clay soil will move slightly over the course of the year due to shrinkage in summer months and swelling in winter. These "seasonal movements" will be larger where there are trees or large shrubs extracting moisture from the soil and will also be larger in a hot summer than in an average one.
As far as insurers are concerned, seasonal foundation movements are "subsidence" and any associated damage will normally be covered under the terms of the policy. However, determining whether seasonal foundation movements have caused or contributed to the reported damage (and are likely to cause future damage) needs careful evaluation and will often involve testing the soil for evidence of desiccation and monitoring over an appropriate period of time.
In some instances, the cause of the movement will be obvious (e.g. there may be just one large tree nearby); in other cases, there may be several trees within influencing distance, some of which may belong to neighbours or the Local Authority. Even where the tree belongs to the property that has suffered damage, it will not be possible to remove it immediately if you live in a Conservation Area or the tree is the subject of a TPO (tree preservation order).
Obtaining the appropriate permission to remove a protected tree or a third party tree is often complicated and usually requires professional help. In many cases, a third party tree owner may offer to reduce rather than remove the tree. This will reduce the moisture demand of the tree, but there is a range of opinion within the industry as to whether pruning can provide a satisfactory longterm solution to subsidence problems. Unfortunately, there are many homeowners who have to go through the disruption and stress of a second subsidence claim because they have received poor advice regarding tree management – either the wrong tree(s) have been removed or a pruned tree has re-grown to cause further damage.
Geo-Serv specialise in subsidence claims (we do nothing else!) and all our engineers are geotechnical specialists trained at the (BRE) Building Research Establishment who understand how trees affect soils. Our view is that pruning can work in some situations but not others. Accordingly, deciding whether to accept pruning as a solution should be based on the evidence that has been collected and especially making use of level monitoring.
If the implicated trees are not dealt with effectively, it may be necessary to underpin part of the property or implement another engineered solution, such as a root barrier.
Most major insurers are now prepared to fund a proper investigation of suspected subsidence damage that will typically include an inspection by a qualified building professional, a soil investigation and monitoring. In most cases, the insurer will have a blanket arrangement with one or more firms of loss adjusters who will then provide a "project-managed service" – i.e. the investigator will be a building professional employed by the loss adjuster. This system works well on many cases, but can leave the homeowner feeling isolated and unsure about their entitlement under the policy wording, which will include a number of exclusions. In complex cases, the homeowner may feel they need independent advice on third party trees, TPOs and the need for underpinning.
Although many insurers prefer the project management service, the policy may allow the homeowner to appoint their own engineer.
Geo-Serv is happy to offer independent advice to homeowners, either before they report the damage to their insurers or at any stage during their claim. Consultancy services are normally charged at an agreed hourly rate and provided through our sister company, Best Answer Subsidence Engineering.