Don't let winter blow a big hole in your pocket
Protection against big freeze and burst pipes is key
I will never forget our first winter in Wicklow. In the second weekend of January this year, we moved from a terraced house on a busy main road in Dublin to a bungalow in the middle of the mountains. Within a week, we were snowed in. Our garden and driveway were a feet deep in snow. Our car wouldn't move.
As my husband and I both work in Dublin, panic soon set in. The lanes and roads leading to our home were treacherous. There was no chance the local council would grit them. Our only way out was with the help of our neighbour, a kind farmer who used his tractor to dig tracks in the snow for us. We couldn't get out of there quick enough.
Apart from the shock and inconvenience of being stranded, my husband and I were lucky during that bout of severe winter weather. Neither of us were injured – and our house and car remained intact.
About three years ago, when Ireland was hit with one of its longest ever cold snaps, not everybody was so lucky. Thousands of people had their homes damaged by burst pipes during that icy spell, according to Paul Kavanagh, managing director of the Cork insurance brokers, McCarthy Insurance Group.
"People headed away for a week over the Christmas only to return to be hit by a flood of water because either their water cylinder had burst, or the pipes into the water tank in the attic had burst or come away."
Unless your attic, water pipes and water tank are well insulated, you run the risk of getting a burst pipe or water tank when severe winter weather strikes. The bill for the damage could easily run into tens of thousands of euro.
"If the water pipes burst in a house, the contents of your house could be wiped out," said Brian McNelis, director of general insurance services at the Irish Brokers' Association (IBA). "A burst pipe could set you back as much as the damage it cost to your home – and it can cause maximum damage."
The longer a burst pipe is allowed to run, the greater the damage – so unoccupied homes are particularly vulnerable during the winter.
"With a burst pipe, you'll have water pouring through the ceilings, damaging electrics and so on," said Kavanagh. "You could be looking at anything from €20,000 to €40,000 worth of damage."
Heavy snowfall could also damage you home. If your roof buckles under the weight of heavy snow, it could cost as much as €25,000 to replace it, according to Edmond Walsh, managing director of Claims Management Services, a loss assessor based in Wicklow.
Blizzards, however, are not the only winter storms that could burn a hole in your pocket.
"High winds could pull off the roof on a home," said Walsh. "If a roof was so badly damaged and came off a house so badly that there was structural damage to the property, you could be looking at a bill of between €50,000 and €60,000 or more."
Lightning is another force to contend with. "About a year ago, I dealt with a case where two neighbouring houses in Carrigaline in Cork were hit by lightning," said Kavanagh. "Plugs were blown off the wall. The whole electrics had to be redone. The lightning left a big hole in the roof, which meant rain was pouring through the houses. Both homes had insurance claims of €150,000 in damage each."
If you're involved in a collision after driving in hairy conditions, your car insurance should usually cover you for any damage to your car. If you've signed up to a higher excess, however, to get a cheaper car insurance policy, you could have to cover most of the bill yourself – depending on the extent of the damage. You should also watch out for any exclusions or endorsements on a policy.
If, for example, you have a flat roof which is more than one-fifth of the overall roof area of your home, your home insurer could refuse to cough up for any damage caused by a build-up of snow on your roof. Similarly, there could be an endorsement on your policy which requires you to keep the attic door open or a central heating system running during the winter months – otherwise, you won't be covered.
Don't simply rely on your insurance to offset the cost of any financial headaches that winter can throw your way. There are some practical steps you can take to prevent winter damage occurring in the first place. "Make sure the water tank and pipes in your attic are properly lagged," said McNelis. "Find out where the stopcock is – and how to use it to turn off the water supply if your pipes burst. If you're going to be out of your home for a few days over the winter, leave the tap running a bit. If you've a holiday home that will be unoccupied during the winter months, drain the water system."
Perhaps mother nature will be kind – and give us a gentle winter this year. I sincerely hope so.