Why won’t my home insurance cover repairs to cracks in my walls?

Property Clinic: It won’t cover settlement cracking – but should cover subsidence

Wall cracking: ask a building surveyor to make an initial assessment of the damage. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Wall cracking: ask a building surveyor to make an initial assessment of the damage. Photograph: iStock/Getty

 

I’ve recently noticed fresh cracking on my house. I had understood that repair work would be covered by my home insurance, but my broker says that, although I am covered for repairs required because of subsidence, I am not covered for repairs required because of settlement. I am confused by this, as I do not know what caused the problem and whether I’m covered. Can you cast any light on this?

It can be alarming if you notice new cracks in your home. Stories about expanding pyrite, shrinking floor insulation and failing concrete blocks can add to concern. But all new buildings settle under their own weight – the components they are built from are heavy.

This typically results in cracking. Settlement cracking happens at weak points in the structure, such as at the openings formed by windows and doors. Most modern construction provides for this movement with movement or crack-inducing joints. This means cracks should form at predetermined locations. Initial settlement, aka bedding down, of a property should finish within 10 years of its construction.

But expansion and contraction of building materials can continue beyond this. Thermal movement, for example, happens as buildings expand when heated by the sun and then contract when temperatures fall. Most people will be familiar with the sound caused by the structure moving.

It used to be common for houses to be built without joints that provide for thermal movement. In the absence of these joints, settlement cracks can accommodate this normal thermal movement. This explains why filled cracks typically reappear: the building is simply expanding and contracting along the line of the settlement crack.

Also, concrete shrinks with age and clay bricks expand. This can result in stresses and strains building up – stress that can be released through cracking.

Sloping sites can leave properties prone to “differential settlement”, meaning that some parts of the structure settle to a greater extent than others. This should not be significant in normal circumstances but, again, can lead to cracking.

As settlement cracking is normal as a property ages, insurance will not cover any repairs it necessitates.

But subsidence is different. With subsidence, cracking occurs when the ground that supports the structure moves away or is eroded. This can happen if a water main bursts or a drain leaks, for example, and erodes the earth below the structure. Subsidence is common in areas where mining has occurred. It can also happen when the supporting subsoil gets much wetter – during flooding, say – or drier. Repair of subsidence is typically covered by home insurance.

But you will need to satisfy your insurance company that the cracking is the result of subsidence rather than settlement. This typically involves an initial assessment by a building surveyor. There are telltale signs to look out for, such as the location and pattern of cracking. Have doors started to jam? Has cracking formed rapidly? Has there been an issue with drains? Has there been an excessively dry spell?

If your surveyor concludes that subsidence is the cause of the issue, then there may be a need for more detailed investigations. These can include the placement of monitors on cracks, to record the degree and direction of movement. An assessment of the ground below the foundations, and testing of water mains and drains, may also be needed.

I would not be unduly worried about cracks in buildings. But as your cracking appears to be new and sudden, some movement of the ground may be occurring. I would suggest that you engage a suitably qualified professional to inspect and monitor the property. A surveyor will either give you piece of mind or let you know if you have an issue that needs further investigation. – Noel Larkin

Noel Larkin is a chartered building surveyor and member of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland

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