It’s stressful to experience damage to your home and then have trouble claiming on your insurance. If you complain about how an insurer has handled your claim, it’s our job to look at the facts impartially and make sure there’s a fair outcome.
Home insurance (sometimes called household insurance) is usually made up of 2 main parts: cover for the building itself and cover for the contents within.
What is home insurance?
Home insurance can protect you against damage to your property. Policies are usually split into buildings and contents cover, which can be bought separately or together. This kind of cover protects you against problems caused by:
- accidental damage
- weather, such as storms
- ground movement, such as subsidence
- underground pipes made from pitch fibre
What buildings insurance covers
Buildings insurance covers the structure of the building, as well as permanent fixtures and fittings, for example, baths or fitted kitchens.
If the item can be reasonably removed and taken to another home, then it’s usually part of the contents and won’t generally be covered by a buildings policy.
Buildings policies also usually include outbuildings, for example, garages or sheds, but it’s important to check with your insurer exactly what’s covered under your policy.
What contents insurance covers
Contents insurance covers your possessions, for example, your TV, furniture or clothes. In other words, items you’d take with you if you moved house.
We treat carpets as contents, even though they’re often fitted. Although most people would probably leave their fitted carpets behind when moving home, fitted carpets can be taken up relatively easily and re-laid. It’s the fact they’re transportable that means they’re covered under contents.
Contents, buildings or both?
It’s possible to buy a contents-only or buildings-only policy. Some people choose to buy only one type of insurance. For example, people who rent a property will only need to buy contents insurance. This is because the landlord will be responsible for arranging buildings insurance.
In some cases, policyholders buy contents insurance from one insurer and buildings insurance from another.
Even if you have contents and buildings insurance, the level of cover may vary. For example, an accidental damage claim might succeed under one section but not under the other. It’s up to the insurance company to make sure that the cover is suited to your needs and that they clearly explained the policy when they sold it to you.
When it’s not clear if an item falls under contents or buildings insurance
It’s not always obvious whether an item should be classed as buildings or contents. We’ll look carefully and fairly at each case, considering the facts and your personal circumstances.
Laminate flooring – contents or buildings?
If laminate wooden flooring is accidentally damaged, and you only have contents cover, we sometimes see cases where the insurance company refuses to meet the claim. They may insist that laminate flooring is part of the building.
We take the view that most laminate wooden flooring, where individual planks are glued together and fixed under a skirting board or beading, is a fixture and fitting, not contents.
Unlike a carpet, it’s difficult to remove intact. The flooring has, essentially, become part of the building.
But sometimes, we may regard reusable click-together laminate wooden flooring as contents because this type of flooring is no more fixed to a room than a carpet.
TVs – contents or buildings?
A TV is clearly part of the household contents, but what about the TV aerial that is fixed permanently to the roof of the house? Very few householders would ever think of climbing on to the roof and dismantling the aerial to take it with them when they move house.
Claims for these aerials are most likely to be made when the roof has been damaged by an external insured event (such as a storm or lightning) covered by buildings insurance.
We usually regard items that are fixed and have become part of the fabric of the property as buildings, while the rest are contents. Examples of items we’d usually consider to be covered under a buildings policy include:
- fitted wardrobes
- fitted kitchens
- built-in appliances
The contents policy would cover items of furniture and appliances that are free-standing or easy to remove if they’re screwed to a wall.
Read a case study about this type of complaint.
Types of complaint we see
Some complaints we see involve disputes over which items should be classed as contents or buildings for insurance cover.
It’s up to insurance companies to make sure the cover they sell is suitable for you and that you understand what you’re buying.
The following are examples of complaints we see.
- The insurer has done the repairs but they haven’t fixed the problem.
- The insurer says it can repair the damage but you think the item should be replaced.
- The insurer has decided the value of the buildings or contents that the customer has insured isn’t enough to cover the claim (also called underinsurance).
- The insurer says you carelessly, or deliberately didn’t tell them the true replacement cost of your home contents or the rebuild cost of your home, and has cancelled the policy.
- You’ve been offered a replacement by the insurer but it’s not the same as what you lost.
- You’ve been offered money by the insurer, but it’s not enough to have the repairs done or replace what was damaged.
The types of damage to properties that may have caused you to complain about a claim include:
Both buildings and contents insurance policies can include cover for damage that happens “accidentally”. Some policies might include it as standard, but other policies may require you to buy this as extra cover. An example of a complaint we see is when an insurer declines a claim for accidental damage because of a policy exclusion, such as wear and tear.
Policies generally cover loss or damage caused by a storm. Among other factors, we’ll look at whether the damage was caused at the same time as the storm and whether it’s consistent with what we usually see as storm damage.
Most policies don’t define what a flood is, so we often see cases that involve a dispute over whether a flood was actually the cause of damage. We also see complaints about the way claims have been handled. Other disputes we see include cases about the repairs carried out after the damage was done.
Sometimes, damage that’s been caused gradually, for example by bad weather over time, won’t be covered by a policy. This is called a “gradually operating cause” exclusion.
Ground movement (including subsidence)
Most household insurance policies and some commercial property insurance policies cover loss or damage caused by subsidence, the most common type of ground movement.
Damage to underground pipes
Most home insurance buildings policies cover accidental damage to underground water and drainage pipes that serve the insured buildings, as long as the pipes are your responsibility. But these policies often contain a number of exclusions, for example, wear and tear and faulty design. Some insurers may refuse to pay claims when underground pipes are made from pitch fibre.
What we look at
One of the first things we’ll look at is whether the complaint involves contents or buildings insurance and whether your insurer suitably advised you.
We’ll look carefully and fairly at the details of each complaint, including when:
- items have been temporarily removed
- the amount insured isn’t enough to cover the claim (underinsurance)
- the property is unoccupied
- incidents happened outside the home
- there are questions over poor maintenance
Items have been temporarily removed
Disputes sometimes arise over items that would usually fall clearly into the category of buildings rather than contents, but have been temporarily removed. Examples of this include:
- fitted kitchen units being stored in garage or shed while tiling
- furniture that has been put into storage while a house is being renovated
If items are lost or damaged while being stored, it’s not certain that you’ll be able to make a claim. This depends on the circumstances of each case.
In most instances, we’d consider that the insurer should cover parts of the building that have been temporarily removed. New items, such as fitted bathroom units that are being stored in a garage and haven’t been fitted yet, should be treated as contents, because they’re your personal possessions.
The amount insured isn’t enough to cover the claim (under insurance)
When you take out a buildings policy, the insurer will usually ask you questions about the rebuild cost of your home. When you take out a contents policy, the insurer will usually ask you questions about the value of the contents in your home. You may, for example, be asked about any high-value items you have.
You must take care to answer these questions truthfully. Insurers usually rely on the figures you give them rather than visiting your home themselves.
If you make a claim, insurers sometimes decide the amount (also called the “sum insured”), isn’t enough to cover the full value of the claim. This is called underinsurance.
In these cases, the insurer may reduce the amount it pays you, so you could be significantly out of pocket. Depending on the circumstances, the insurer may refuse to pay you anything at all.
When investigating a complaint, we may look at the amount you originally insured your home or its contents (or both) for. We understand that it can be difficult to estimate the value of the possessions in your home and the cost of rebuilding your property.
Your insurer may help you to calculate your contents or property values by referring you to an online valuation calculator.
We’ll also bear in mind what information your insurer asked for, by finding out the questions they asked you when you bought or renewed the policy, for example:
- “what’s the total value of contents held at your property?”
- “how much cover do you require?”
- “what sum insured do you require?”
We realise you could have answered these questions in different ways: the first is asking about the total value of the items at risk in the property, while the other two simply ask how much the customer wants to insure. For example, you may own contents at your property which would cost £50,000 to replace but you may only seek insurance cover of £30,000 because you think it’s unlikely you’d suffer a loss of more than £30,000 in one incident.
The questions that your insurer asks you when you bought the cover are important. We’ll look at whether the insurer asked you, for example:
- for the specific information they wanted to know
- what had to be included in the rebuild cost
We’ll also assess what guidance the insurer gave you for completing the application, for example:
- information that pointed you in the right direction to reach an accurate figure
- clear descriptions to help you value your contents
- clear descriptions to help you estimate the rebuilding cost
- information on the consequences of providing incorrect figures
- the need to review pre-filled parts of an online application form about automatically generated “sums insured”
The property is unoccupied
Most home insurance policies say that if you leave your home unoccupied for 30 or 60 days, you won’t be covered for certain “insured perils”. Examples of insured perils include theft and malicious damage. We’ll look, for example, at whether your dispute involves a property that’s being renovated.
Incidents happened outside the home
Sometimes, we see complaints involving incidents outside the home, for example, in the garden, driveway, garage or outbuildings.
- a ride-on lawnmower being stolen from a garage
- a lawnmower being accidentally damaged while stored in a garden shed
- a garden wall collapsing after heavy rainfall, damaging garden furniture
- construction materials being stolen from a garden
There are questions over poor maintenance
We receive many complaints about insurers rejecting claims for damage because it was caused by poor maintenance rather than by an “insured risk”. Insured risk is where you take out insurance against an incident such as burglary or flooding.
For example, if a poorly maintained roof is damaged during a storm, a company may say that, rather than having been damaged by the storm, it simply deteriorated due to:
- wear and tear
- lack of maintenance
In these cases, we have to look at the cause carefully, by applying:
the “but for” test
This involves asking “but for occurrence X, would Y have happened?” The answer should reveal the likely cause of the damage. But much will depend on the evidence presented to us, such as loss adjusters’ reports and expert evidence.
a commonsense approach
We look for the main or effective cause of the damage that you’ve claimed for. Sometimes the but for test produces an answer to the question “under what circumstances did the damage happen?” rather than the main cause. Applying common sense normally resolves the matter.
How to complain
Talk to your insurance company first. They need to have the chance to put things right. They have to give you their final response within 8 weeks for most types of complaint.
If you’re unhappy with their response, or if they don’t respond, let us know.
We’ll check your complaint is something we can deal with, and if it is, we’ll investigate to understand what happened and what went wrong.
Find out more about making a complaint.
Putting things right
When looking at a complaint, we have to consider the policy definitions and exclusions.
In each case we’ll look at what caused the damage, and whether it’s covered by the policy. If an insurer has relied on an exclusion to refuse or reduce payment, then we’ll look to see whether it has applied this fairly.
If we consider that an insurance policy’s definition of an item as contents or buildings was unreasonable, and led to an unfair result, we may ask the company to pay the claim.
If an insurer agrees that some or all of the loss or damage you claimed for is covered, it will have to decide how to settle the claim. Usually that’s done by:
- repairing the damage
- replacing something lost or damaged
- paying cash to cover the cost of repair or replacement
If an insurer is willing to repair damage or replace an item, or both, but you insist on having cash, the insurer will only pay the amount it would cost them. And as insurers get discounts from the suppliers and contractors they use, the amount it will pay will usually be less than it would cost at market rates – in other words, the amount you would probably need to spend.
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Information about Covid-19
For guidance specifically about Covid-19, please look at our dedicated page that contains information about complaints in relation to Covid-19.