Claims for damage to buildings can often be ascribed to defects resulting from poor maintenance or just wear and tear. John Ball explains how to spot the difference

A significant number of claims, often submitted in good faith by the policyholder, arise not out of an insured event, but out of general wear and tear, deterioration, poor quality building materials or workmanship.

With the almost universal availability of reinstatement policies, it is now unnecessary for claims handlers to have a detailed knowledge of the lifespan of building components. In the context of buildings claims, the areas where problems are likely to arise generally involve roofs, gutters, rendered wall finishes, chimneys, window frames, dampness in walls, wet and dry rot, burst pipes and collapsed lath and plaster ceilings.

If there has been a genuine storm severe enough to damage a properly maintained building, there is likely to be a significant numbers of claims. However, roof damage as a result of a storm is noticed usually when water penetrates.

It is important to establish the age of the roof, its construction, its maintenance history and whether it is particularly exposed to bad weather.

Frost action
Many slate roofs on houses and commercial buildings in the UK were constructed before the First World War. Unless subsequently renewed or extensively maintained, those slate roofs are now likely to be reaching the end of their useful life. This is mainly because of delamination of the slates and failure of the nails securing them to the battens.

Damage to tiled roofs as a result of wear and tear is less likely, although frost action on the tiles can cause them to thin and eventually require replacement.

Flat roofs are, relatively speaking, inexpensive, but if they are finished with mineral felt they are prone to failure, often after as little as ten years or sooner. Genuine storm damage to flat felted roofs is usually easy to detect and usually shows up as tears in the felt.

Gutter damage in a claim is often the failure of fixings. Cast-iron gutters are not always painted properly, leading to rusting, particularly around the fixing brackets, which can then fail. And plastic gutter brackets can become brittle as a result of exposure to ultraviolet light.

Properly prepared and maintained rendered finishes are very unlikely to be damaged by storms. The most common cause of defects is frost damage. If render is not maintained and if hairline cracks that can develop in the normal course of events are not filled and decorated, water can penetrate. When it freezes it makes the cracks bigger until eventually the render detaches. This will not be covered by the policy.

As with roofs and gutters, problems with chimneys are often attributed to storm damage. In reality, because chimneys are relatively inaccessible and often 'out of sight, out of mind', gradual deterioration can arise and problems are not drawn to the attention of the policyholder until internal damage is apparent.

Problems associated with chimneys include gradual failure of pointing, often as a result of frost damage; sulphate attacks arising out of condensation of flue gases; and failure of flashings, especially at the maximum point of stress, which is between the chimney and the upper slope of the roof.

Water ingress
Timber window frames are particularly prone to deterioration as a result of penetration of moisture. If gaps develop between the glass and putty water will enter and rot the bottom sills. Even metal-framed windows can suffer in a similar fashion. Such damage is not as a result of an insured peril.

Dampness on walls is sometimes attributed to water ingress, particularly through flat roofs. Investigation should be undertaken, particularly if there is any evidence of mould growth. The cause may, in fact, be condensation. It is a particular problem in rooms with more than one external wall especially those beneath a flat roof.

Enquiries should be made into the use of the property (for example the number of people living there, moisture producing activities) and establish what ventilation there is. It is not uncommon for air vents to have been blocked up and for windows to be draft-proofed or double-glazed, or for fireplaces to have been blocked up, all of which lead to inadequate ventilation and mould. This will not be covered by the policy.

It is important to check the policy wording in claims for wet or dry rot. Some policies specifically exclude wet and dry rot no matter what the cause of the rot might be. If it is not excluded, and if it can be demonstrated to have been caused by a peril insured by the policy, the cost of eradication will be covered. The costs can be substantial.

Moisture content
Dry rot thrives in dark humid conditions, and can remain dormant for many years, becoming active as soon as there is enough moisture for growth. It prefers a moisture content in timber between 30% and 40% but will also grow where there is only 20% moisture.

Wet rot requires persistently wet conditions in order to survive and enjoys optimum growth in timber with moisture content from 50% to 60%.

Wet and dry rot are unlikely to arise as a result of an isolated incident of water escape and are evidence of a long-term problem of dampness. The cause of the dampness must examined, followed by consideration of whether it constitutes a valid claim under the policy.

In most policies, the only frost damage that will be insured is the bursting or freezing of water pipes. Checking weather conditions should confirm whether temperatures fell to around freezing.

In older properties, lath and plaster ceilings can collapse for no apparent reason. Only if it is the result of an insured peril (for example, escape of water), should the cost of replacement be paid for under the policy. One of the most common causes of collapse is drying out of the nibs securing the plaster to the laths, usually as a result of the hotter, dryer atmosphere we are used to today, as compared to the cooler, damper conditions prevalent when these ceilings were constructed.

In summary, many apparently routine small building claims require detailed investigation, or at least some penetrating questions, before they are accepted.

Question 1
A claim is made for the recovering of a seven-year-old flat felted roof. Do you ...
a. Pay 30%
b. Pay 100%
c. Pay nothing
d. Investigate to establish the cause of failure

Question 2
A claim is made for staining of decorations on ceiling and walls. The cause could be ...
a.Failure of flashings
b.Failure of roof coverings
d.Any of the above

Question 3
What moisture content is required for the development of dry rot?
a.Less than 20%
b.30% - 40%
c.50% - 60% n
u John Ball is a past president of the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters and an examiner and director of the Society of Claims Technicians (SCT). He is also author of the study guide for the SCT's Practical Claims Handling and Property Claims exam published this spring.

The CPD page is edited by RW Associates, specialists in training, competence and compliance.


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