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Q&A: How does leaving a house empty affect home insurance?

At a glance

  • Whether going on extended summer holidays, or splitting time between houses, there are many reasons why customers might leave a home empty for a period
  • When leaving a property unoccupied, there are a variety of risks that need to be considered, from theft to escape of water
  • Stuart Weightman, Senior Technical Underwriter, discusses the insurance implications customers and brokers need to be aware of

Whether customers are heading off on holiday for the summer, or splitting time between homes, leaving a property unoccupied for an extended period presents additional risk and insurance considerations.

Here, Stuart Weightman, Senior Technical Underwriter at Zurich, answers some of the most important questions about leaving a property unoccupied.

What are the most common causes of loss relating to unoccupied homes?

Escape of water is the most common and most destructive. Theft is also fairly common, and for properties left unoccupied for extended periods, malicious damage and squatting can be an issue.

What security precautions should customers take before leaving a property unoccupied for an extended period?

The most important advice would be to speak to their broker or insurer first. The insurance market is competitive and each insurer might impose slightly different minimum standards. Insurers will also have slightly different approaches to unoccupancy and will be able to explain what their requirements are and whether they can be flexible.

Customers should take a common sense approach to home security. For example, storing valuables out of sight, asking a friend or family member to pick up post or arrange for outside bins to be emptied, investing in good quality locks, securing windows, and removing ladders and garden tools that might allow easier access to the property are all worth considering. Technology like smart lighting can also give a realistic impression that someone is at home.

Are customers required to tell their home insurer if their property will be unoccupied for a particular length of time?

Most insurers will have different terms for unoccupancy and their policy conditions will normally include a requirement for customers to inform them if the home is to be empty for longer. Failure to notify the insurer could result in a claim not being paid or not being paid in full.

Many policies exclude cover for particular risks (escape of water, or theft for example) if a property has been unoccupied for a specified length of time. This is typically 30, 45 or 60 days (although this may be longer on High Net Worth policies), unless the insurer has specifically agreed to extend the cover. For standard Personal Lines policies, Zurich will generally decline cover for properties that are disclosed as being unoccupied or that have extended unoccupancy at new business.

What if the policyholder gets a house-sitter in for all or part of that time?

Different insurers will have different policies on house-sitters, so it is a good idea to get in contact and confirm. Some insurers are able to consider policies on an individual basis, and may consider less restrictive terms if a customer has been proactive in trying to find a way to improve security at their property – particularly if the proposed house-sitter is from a professional and reputable house-sitting firm, or a trusted family member.

What if the property is unoccupied for lots of shorter periods over the policy term (e.g. a second home only occupied on weekends)?

Many insurers will only cover properties that serve as a customer’s primary residence and may decline a second home, but this is not always the case. Customers should therefore give a clear and accurate description of how the home will be used, for example main home, weekday, weekend, holiday or second home. If in doubt, customers should always speak with their insurer or broker.

Are there different policy conditions that apply if a property is frequently unoccupied?

Many insurers will not provide standard market products for properties that are frequently unoccupied. In this case, a customer may need to source specialist cover.

Insurers that do provide cover for homes with extended unoccupancy will normally request that the property meets certain conditions. This may include a certain level of security, regular visits by someone authorised by the owner and that heating is maintained or that water is turned off and drained to prevent escape of water during the winter months.

What do home insurance policies generally say about leaving a key with a friend, family member, or neighbour? 

Few insurance policies will make explicit reference to this in the terms and conditions. However, there’s normally a general requirement that customers do all they can to prevent or reduce damage or loss. Allowing a trusted friend or family member to check on an unoccupied property and pick up post would be a positive step in this regard. The best advice is to inform the insurer, who may be able to assess the situation on an individual basis.

Could ‘advertising’ that a property is unoccupied, by posting a holiday photo on social media, for example, affect (or even invalidate) a home insurance policy?  

Unless the policyholder is away for longer than their ‘unoccupancy period’ without informing their insurer, it is unlikely that posting holiday photos would affect or invalidate a policy. However, we would recommend waiting until returning home before posting photos, or ensuring that their social media security is set so that only friends and family can see them.

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please get in touch with your local Zurich contact.

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