Most buildings insurance policies include cover for damage to underground pipes, drains, cables and tanks (often called underground services).
Policies generally only cover problems with pipes the policyholder is legally responsible for. So insurers won’t cover problems with pipes owned by water companies or neighbours, even if they’re causing the problem.
Because the pipes are underground, policyholders usually only discover damage after they become aware the system isn’t working as normal.
Types of complaints we see
Most cases of damage we see are to water pipes. But we’ll check the policy to see exactly which parts of the water system and other underground pipes are covered, because we occasionally see cases about gas or oil pipes.
Damage doesn’t just mean physical damage, but also loss of function (something no longer performs the task it was supposed to). For example, a drainpipe could be physically damaged if it’s cracked or deformed. But it could also be functionally damaged if it’s blocked and water is unable to flow through it – even if there’s no physical damage to the pipe that’s causing the blockage.
In some cases you may have accepted the claim, but the dispute is about how to settle it, for example, which repairs should be carried out or how much you should pay.
Some reasons that insurers give for declining claims are:
- the pipe wasn’t damaged at all
- the pipe was damaged but not accidentally
- the pipe was damaged but a policy exclusion means they don’t have to pay (gradual damage and wear and tear are the most common)
- the pipe was made of pitch fibre
- the policyholder isn’t responsible for the pipe
- the policyholder had the pipe repaired before the insurer could inspect it
- the damage isn’t to a part of the system that’s covered
- the policy has no cover for underground pipes
When water leaks out of a pipe into the surrounding ground, this can lead to problems that include:
- uneven paving
- cracked paving
- damage to patios
- damage to walls
- damage to the entire house
Cover tends to be for the pipes themselves, not for any damage beyond the pipe that might result from a leak. But other parts of the policy may be able to cover that damage, for example, parts on cover for escape of water or flooding.
Cover doesn’t usually include cesspits or soakaways.
What we look at
Common types of damage to underground pipes we see are:
- displaced or open joints
- tree or plant roots in the pipe
- blockage or obstruction
- cracked or fractured pipework
- blistered or delaminated pipework (pitch-fibre pipes only)
- collapsed pipework
- misshapen pipes (also called ‘bellied’)
- the pipe is too flat (also called ‘insufficient fall’)
Often, when a policyholder gets in touch with you to report a problem, you’ll need to appoint a drainage company to check the pipes.
Drainage companies usually put a video camera in the pipework and move it around the system between the house and the property boundary. The recording is used to create a report about the condition of the pipe and make any recommendations for repair.
If the pipe is significantly obstructed or blocked, you may say you need to clear the blockage before you can check the condition, as part of investigating the claim. And in some cases that may resolve the problem.
If there’s no easy point of entry to the pipe, it will need to be broken to get a camera in. This means the surface above the pipe may be disrupted, for example, by digging up a driveway or patio to find out the pipe’s condition. In these cases, you may need to put right the damage caused, even if the claim is ultimately declined.
But it’s rare for us to need to see the video footage – in most cases, the drainage report will be enough.
What the drainage report needs to show
Sometimes the drainage report we receive is just a summary about whether the pipes are serviceable. But this is unlikely to be persuasive when we’re looking at a complaint, so you should provide the full version, including:
- enough detail for us to be able to understand the condition of the pipe
- a diagram showing the layout of the pipework around the building
- a list of defects found for each stretch of pipework (also called a ‘run’) and at what distance along the pipe the defects are
- the material the pipe is made from and where one material changes to another
Repairing damaged pipes
If you find there’s damage, you’ll usually arrange for the drainage company to carry out the repairs by either inserting a liner into the existing pipework to form a watertight barrier over any defects, such as cracks or open joints. Sometimes a drainage company may dig up the pipework and replace it.
Whatever method you chose to put things right, we’ll expect it to be a lasting and effective resolution to the insured damage.
If the policyholder has already had the pipes checked by their own drainage company before they make a claim, you may be able to use that to assess the claim. We’d expect you to consider any reports provided by the policyholder when making a decision.
If the customer fixed the pipe before you inspected it
Most policies will say the policyholder should let you know about a problem as soon as possible and that they shouldn’t carry out any work until you’ve inspected the problem.
If the policyholder has already had the repairs carried out before they contact you about a claim, you can’t see the problem first hand. But we don’t think this means that the claim should be automatically declined.
The customer can provide information from their drainage company. You may still choose to ask your drainage company to visit the property to check what work has been done or look at the condition of any original pipework. Or you may liaise with the company that carried out the repair to understand what was found, what the cause was and how it was put right.
But if the policyholder can’t provide any information – or only very limited information – that might mean they haven’t shown there was any damage covered by the policy.
They’ll have to show there was likely to have been insured damage. It’s reasonable for you to see the damage and judge whether that would’ve been covered under the policy. In these cases, the policyholder will need to provide evidence from their own drainage company, such as:
- a detailed report
- an itemised invoice
If the information replicates what you would have provided, there’s no reason why the claim shouldn’t succeed.
But if we think you’re asking for more than you need, or for things the policyholder simply doesn’t have, we might say your questioning is unfair and you must make a decision on what’s available.
What to pay out
If you accept there was insured damage, you may say you should only pay what it would have cost you to do the work – not what it cost the policyholder.
That might be fair if you weren’t given the chance to carry out the work at your own cost.
But we must be satisfied that the amount you provide is based on the work you would have needed to do to put things right – and what it would likely have cost you.
The clearer the information the policyholder’s drainage company can give about what work they did and why, the better.
If we can see the policyholder did get in touch with you first, but you took an unreasonable amount of time to respond, it might be fair to ask you to pay the full amount the policyholder paid.
And if the policyholder’s circumstances meant they had little choice but to carry out the work urgently, we may ask for the full amount to be paid. But we’ll make a decision on a case-by-case basis.
Read more about settling home insurance problems
When the policy doesn’t cover underground pipes at all
Some policies don’t provide any cover for underground pipes. This is unusual, so it should be highlighted to policyholders when they buy the policy. If the exclusion wasn’t appropriately highlighted, we’ll need to consider what the policyholder would have done if it had been explained. We consider that most policyholders would want this cover, and as most policies offer it as standard, they’d have been able to find other policies on the market, at a similar cost, that would’ve provided it. In these cases, it may be fair for the insurer to consider the claim.
When the damage is disputed
In some cases you may say that there’s no damage at all, because the drainage company reported that the pipe was serviceable (meaning it still transports water).
However, it’s possible for pipes to be damaged but still transport water, for example, if:
- there’s a minor obstruction
- the pipe has a small crack in it
- the pipe has an open joint but the water flows past it
We’ll look at the evidence about the condition of the pipe, which usually includes:
- the insurer’s report
- the policyholder’s own drainage company’s report or comments
- a conversation with the policyholder’s drainage company
- asking the policyholder about the problem, for example, when did it start; what alerted them to it; and what’s happened since?
We’ll then look at what the policy says and decide whether we think there’s anything that should be covered.
When there’s a policy exclusion
In some cases you’ll accept there was damage covered by the policy but an exclusion means you don’t have to pay for it. The most common exclusions are:
- gradual damage
- wear and tear
- poor design, construction or workmanship
If the pipework complied with relevant standards at the time of installation, we’re unlikely to say it was inadequately designed or installed.
For us to make our decision, we’ll need evidence such as drainage reports. It’s your responsibility to show the damage was most likely caused in one of these ways.
When the policyholder is responsible
Every house will have a system for bringing in fresh water from the mains network and a system for removing waste water.
In most cases the waste water pipes link up with the main sewers, which are owned by the water companies.
But in rural areas and when several houses share a single system, the waste water may be dealt with locally by pipes that:
- collect waste water in a septic tank which is regularly emptied
- transport waste water away from the house and it empties into a soakaway or directly into the ground
Soakaways aren’t usually covered by policies because they’re not pipes, drains or tanks but they can become blocked over time. This is because they’re often no more than a hole in the ground filled with granular materials which help the water trickle downwards into the ground.
Property boundary issues
You might refuse a claim if the problem is caused by a pipe that’s outside the boundary of the customer’s property. For example, if the water company’s sewer is blocked downstream of the property, causing the system to fail.
Find out more about property boundary issues:
The pipe is shared
We sometimes see cases where the pipe on the policyholder’s property is the source of the problem, but that part of the pipe is used by neighbours as well, so they’re jointly responsible. Here, you might say you’re only obliged to pay for the policyholder’s share of the cost, not the entire amount.
If the pipe is on the policyholder’s property and shared by a neighbour, you should still look into the problem. If you agree it’s covered by the policy, you might say you should only pay 50% of the cost or ask the neighbour to pay the other 50% before you carry out any work.
The pipe runs through the policyholder’s property but isn’t connected
Occasionally we see cases where a pipe runs through the policyholder’s property but doesn’t link to their house. In that scenario, you might say you’re not responsible for resolving the problem.
Most policies will specifically say the insurer will only pay for damage to pipework the policyholder is responsible for. But even if this isn’t specified, we wouldn’t expect you to deal with anything the policyholder doesn’t at least partially have responsibility for.
So it’s unlikely we’d ask you to deal with a claim for damage to a pipe outside of the policyholder’s property.
If the pipe happens to run through the policyholder’s property but they have no responsibility for it, it’s unlikely we would ask you to deal with a claim for damage to it.
The pipe is owned by a water company
If the damaged pipe is owned by a water company, you have no right to repair it. The policyholder or you can let the water company know about it. The water company is responsible and should carry out the work, if it agrees there’s a problem.
You can’t force the water company to take action, but to reduce the impact of the problem you could:
- provide a full report to the water company
- provide any other helpful information
- encourage the water company to fix the problem
- sort out problems with pipes inside the boundary of the policyholder’s property
Handling a complaint like this
We only look at complaints that you've had a chance to look at first. If a customer complains and you don't respond within the time limits or they disagree with your response, then they can come to us.
Find out more about how to resolve a complaint.