Most home insurance policies say that if customers leave their home unoccupied for a period of time, usually 30 or 60 days, then they won’t be covered for certain insured events, such as theft, attempted theft, malicious damage or escape of water.
Types of complaint we see
Policies rarely define the term ‘unoccupied’, although it’s potentially ambiguous. For example, it could mean that the property is uninhabitable or that nobody was actually living in the property at the relevant time. And sometimes, where ‘unoccupied’ is defined, it might not be very specific. For example, it could say that someone needs to stay overnight regularly but doesn’t clarify the frequency of regularity.
Many of the disputes about unoccupied property that are referred to us involve properties that are undergoing refurbishment or renovation. These properties are usually visited frequently for work to be carried out. But they also tend to be uninhabitable, according to acceptable standards.
Handling a complaint like this
When you receive a complaint involving unoccupied properties, you should reply to your customer within eight weeks.
If you don’t reply within the time limits, or the customer disagrees with your response, they can bring their complaint to us. We’ll check it’s something we can deal with, and if it is, we’ll investigate.
We’ll expect you to be able to show us that you’ve investigated the complaint thoroughly and that you have reflected carefully on the circumstances.
Find out more about resolving a compliant.
What we look at
A person can occupy premises, sometimes for many years, without physically being in them.
In the disputes referred to us, we’ll look at whether you’ve been clear, fair and not misleading. If you haven’t provided clear definitions of terms such as ‘left unoccupied’, then we’ll interpret these using the natural and ordinary meaning, taking into account the overall purpose of the contract and clause/term in question and usually adopt the meaning that’s most favourable to the customer.
In some cases, that may result in our deciding that, as long as the insured property was visited on a reasonably frequent basis, then it was occupied, even if the policyholder wasn’t sleeping there every night.
We’ll always look at the facts of each case individually.
Insurers must not unreasonably reject a claim. We don’t consider it good industry practice for insurers to reject a claim where the policyholder's breach of a policy condition was only technical and not connected to the circumstances of the claim.
So, for example, if we find the event that caused the damage occurred within the first 30 days of the property being unoccupied, then you should normally meet the claim, even if the property wasn’t visited for a longer period.
In these cases, the fact that no one lived in, or visited, the property was probably irrelevant in terms of the loss or damage.
However we’re unlikely to support a policyholder who misrepresents the true situation when taking out or renewing their insurance. Nor are we likely to support a policyholder whose property has simply been abandoned, or has been so neglected that it could invite unwelcome attention.
Putting things right
If we decide you’ve treated the customer unfairly, or have made a mistake, we’ll ask you to put things right. Our general approach is that the customer should be put back in the position they would have been in if the problem hadn’t happened. We may also ask you to compensate them for any distress or inconvenience they’ve experienced as a result of the problem.
The exact details of how we’ll ask you to put things right will depend on the nature of the complaint, and how the customer lost out.
Insurer rejects claim because the house was left unoccupied
Property left empty due to owner’s illness but claim still rejected
A customer claims for damage to a property he was only visiting periodically
Business Support Hub
If you want to talk informally about a complaint you’ve received, you can speak to our Business Support Hub. They can give general information on how the Financial Ombudsman might look at a particular complaint. We also offer guidance on our rules and how we work.
Find out how to contact the Business Support Hub.