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Subsidence: insurance, causes and cures

Subsidence can wreak havoc on your property: it may lose value and you could have to move out while expensive repairs are carried out.

But what does subsided mean, how do you spot the signs of subsidence and will it be covered by your home insurance?

Find out everything you need to know about those dreaded subsidence cracks with our guide.

A model house sinks into sand  
 

What is subsidence?

Subsidence happens when the ground beneath your house starts to sink. This causes parts of your house to sink, too, creating misaligned walls, cracks, and damage to the building.

 

What causes subsidence?

The 2 main causes of house subsidence are either too much or too little moisture in the soil beneath your home’s foundations.

There are many different risk factors that can change this moisture balance and increase the chance of subsidence in a home.

They include the following:

Nearby trees and shrubs

If there are trees and shrubs close to your home, their roots can suck up any moisture in the soil. This could cause the soil to dry up, crack, and sink.

Leaking drains and burst pipes

Too much water in the soil around your home, from leaks or burst pipes, can cause it to wash away and sink.

Mining

If your house is built over an old mine or near an old quarry, the ground beneath it could be structurally unsound.

Periods of intense weather

Flash flooding or summer droughts might change the moisture levels in soil. Clay soil is particularly vulnerable to subsidence, as it’s sensitive to moisture. This makes it expand when wet and contract when dry – not ideal with unpredictable British weather.

The age of your property

Subsidence is more common in Victorian and Edwardian houses as their foundations are shallower than the UK minimum (1 metre) required for more modern houses. As such, they’re more at risk of damage.

Clay

Subsidence is more common in areas with clay-rich soil, like much of south-east Britain. The Subsidence Support website has a useful map of areas at risk of subsidence.

You can check current subsidence claims on the Coal Authority’s website.

 

Is subsidence covered by insurance?

Subsidence should be covered by your buildings insurance, which means your home insurer should pick up the bill for any damage it causes to your home.

 

What does subsidence insurance cover?

Most home insurance policies should have some cover for subsidence. But subsidence claims may be excluded if your home has suffered from subsidence before.

Policies with subsidence insurance might cover:

As with any home insurance claim, you likely have an excess to pay before you’d get any payout.

Although insurance companies offer cover for subsidence-related damage, the scale of the repairs can often leave you facing an excess of up to £1,000.

 

Can you insure a house with subsidence?

If you're buying a property that has suffered subsidence in the past you may find it harder to get home insurance. In some cases you may need to consult a broker to arrange specialist subsidence insurance.

Alternatively, if you make a claim for subsidence, your insurer should continue to cover it, but your insurance costs are likely to go up when you renew your policy.

Compare home insurance quotes

 

How long do you have to declare that subsidence exists in your property?

There’s no limit on how long you have to declare subsidence in your property. No matter the time frame, if it’s been affected by subsidence in the past, you have to declare it when you come to sell your home. You also need to declare it on your home insurance policy.

 

How much does subsidence devalue a property?

How much subsidence impacts on your property's value depends on a few factors:

  • The level of subsidence
  • When it happened
  • What action was taken
  • The state of the property

On average, a history of subsidence risks knocking 10- 20% off a property's asking price.

 

What are the signs of subsidence?

House subsidence comes in many forms and there are several signs to show it’s happening in your home. If you’re concerned about dealing with subsidence, the first thing to do is check for the signs of subsidence.

Cracks in a wall are one of the most common signs of subsidence. But they could also be the natural swelling/shrinking of your home’s walls in response to temperature.

Exterior or interior subsidence cracks could also be the house settling into its foundations and naturally sinking down a little - this is more common in new build houses that are under 10 years old.

If you've recently had an extension you may also start to see settlement cracks after the work has been completed.

Other common signs of subsidence include:

  • Sudden cracks along your walls
  • Cracks that are visible on the outside and inside of your home
  • Doors and windows sticking for no apparent reason
  • Rippling wallpaper that isn’t caused by damp or moisture
  • Cracks around a particular weak point - where an extension meets the main property, for example

If you spot any of these problems it’s worth getting in touch with your home insurance company.

You could also have a qualified surveyor look at the problem to limit the damage.

 

How can you prevent subsidence in your home?

There are a few steps you can take to reduce the risk of subsidence damage to your home.

Plant trees away from your home

According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), tree roots can extend up to 3 times the height of the tree.

So, even if you think your trees are far enough away, they could still pose a risk. This is particularly true if you live in an area with clay-rich soil.

The Association for British Insurers (ABI), gives this guidance on how far from your home to plant certain kinds of tree:

Species Normal Mature Height (m) Safe distance (m)
Apple / pear
12
10
Ash
23
21
Beech
20
15
Birch
14
10
Cypress
25
20
Cherry
17
11
Damson
12
11
Elm
25
30
Hawthorn
10
12
Holly
14
6
Horse Chestnut
20
23
Laburnum
12
9
Laurel
8
6
Lime
24
20
Magnolia
9
5
Maple
21
20
Oak
24
30
Pine
29
8
Plane
30
22
Plum
12
11
Poplar
28
35
Sycamore
24
17
Spruce
18
7
Walnut
18
14
White Beam / rowan
12
11
Willow
24
40
Yew
12
5

So, you’re looking at a minimum distance of 5 metres to plant your tree, but the further away you go, the lower the risk.

Clean your gutters and drains

Regular maintenance on your home is generally a good idea, especially as you go into the colder, wetter months.

But it becomes especially important if your home is at risk of subsidence.

Make sure your gutters are free from debris so water doesn’t overflow into the soil. It’s also your responsibility to make sure that your drains are in good shape.

If you’re worried about drainage being a problem, you could get a CCTV drainage survey to make sure your waterworks are in good condition.

If your drains are watertight, there should also be less risk of tree roots getting in and causing further damage.

Check surveyor’s reports

Before you buy a house, you’ve got the option of having a building survey done of the property.

This report should tell you if there are any signs of subsidence. You can then make an informed decision as to whether you want to buy a house that has this risk. It may also be sensible to find out how easy the property will be to insure before you put in an offer.

Always follow building regulations

Before you carry out any work on your home, you must check if you need approval first. This comes under the Building Regulations 2010. If you use someone registered with a competent person scheme you should not need this.

 

What is the difference between subsidence and heave?

Heave is a separate problem which is often covered under the same insurance guidelines as subsidence.

Heave has the opposite effect to subsidence. It happens when the ground beneath a building becomes saturated with water and begins to swell, moving upwards and often sideways.

This can have similar symptoms, and cause similar damage to subsidence.

Sometimes, if you take out a tree to lessen the risks of subsidence, you could then experience heave.

This is because the previously dry soil suddenly has no tree roots to absorb it, causing waterlogged soil that swells and pushes the foundations.

 

Can you fix subsidence?

The potential fixes for subsidence depend on what has caused the problem.

If moisture-sucking trees are the culprit, you could have them removed. Then, monitor the property to see if taking the trees out has stabilised the soil enough to fix the issue.

If your drains are to blame, then fixing any broken pipework could be enough to sort out the problem without a ton of cost. Again, you need to monitor the property to make sure the subsidence stops and doesn’t get worse.

The most common ‘big fix’ for subsidence is underpinning your foundations.

This involves installing support beams, or a second concrete layer, to strengthen your foundations.

Having an underpinned home might be an indicator to insurers that your home is at risk of subsidence again, which may lead to higher prices.

That's why it's a good idea to compare buildings insurance quotes to find the best deals.