I’ve finally cracked and put the heating on.

I did my level best to hold out till November, but Storm Ciarán pushed me over the edge. There’s a point where cardigans and blankets just don’t cut it any more.

Across the UK, I know many of you are in a similar position. Worryingly, for pretty much everyone, it’s the high cost of energy that’s making us reluctant to crank up the boiler. On that note, check out my columns on energy and your rights on the Mirror Online website.

Oh… and our campaigning is working too. Just this week, Ofgem has announced that it’s tightening the rules so energy firms are easy to contact (including by email) and offer appropriate debt plans if you’re struggling. From December 14th the way they handle complaints will be published, via the Citizens Advice star ratings too. Whohoo!

But back to the subject! I turned on the boiler and… well, I was not rewarded with the heat I was seeking. It turned out my boiler needed repressurising, a task that I’ve carried out endless times over the years. But one I have to learn all over again (because I forgot how to do it safely).

While I waited for the radiators to warm up, I was struck by the number of emails and messages from readers who have experienced far more concerning problems with their heating systems. From rubbish boiler repairs to cracked pipe disasters, there are some pretty major horror stories. Half the people getting in touch wanted to know if they should take out home emergency cover in future. The other half wanted to complain about it.

So what is home emergency cover and is it worth it? Here’s my guide.

What is a ‘home emergency?’

For insurance purposes, a home emergency is a type of cover that you can buy to help you if your boiler packs in or your pipes break or leak. These policies are designed to get you through the emergency itself. If there are ongoing structural works or repairs then you may find you’re foisted on to your home and contents insurance to make a claim.

Calling out a plumber or specialist can be expensive, and sometimes may increase depending on demand. Costs can also vary quite a bit depending on what’s gone wrong. So many people take out a special insurance policy to cover their boiler breaking or a broader home emergency policy designed to cover a wider range of problems. You can buy ‘stand-alone’ policies or ‘add-on’ ones for your home and contents insurance. In return, you can expect someone to come out quickly in an emergency and to sort out the problem – or at least come up with a temporary fix while the wider issue is corrected.

How expensive is home emergency cover?

So how much do these policies cost? I’ve conducted a sample of the deals available and found most were priced £150 to £400 for all-round cover, though that doesn’t pay for everything. There are some suspiciously cheap policies too, which make me question how effective they are in an actual emergency. Checkatrade lists the average cost for a boiler repair to be £300, £410 for an emergency boiler repair and £55 an hour plus materials for a gas engineer callout. Annual boiler servicing can be between £60 to £100.   All of this might make you consider paying extra for a specialist boiler or home emergency insurance policy.

But hold that thought. Because there’s no standard definition of what an ‘emergency’ service is. I’d argue that not having heating in the Winter should result in your callout being addressed within 24 hours, with priority for people who may be more vulnerable. Whereas if my pipes are leaking and water is running down the walls, I want someone there as quickly as possible. Sadly, my inbox is filled with horror stories from people who have claimed on home emergency policies and waited for much longer for an engineer. Others have had their boilers dismantled only to be left waiting for a month or more for ‘replacement parts’.

A few years back home emergency cost £300 or more, which meant that there was a good argument for putting that money to one side to save you some more money in the long run. However, as I mentioned, you’ll find some policies covering just your boiler for as little as a couple of pounds a month. Watch out though, because you get what you pay for. Some of these policies charge over £100 on top of the monthly fee just for a callout. Others have severe limitations on the policy too.

Is it worth buying home emergency cover then?

I must confess, I’m on the fence on this one. Having experienced a genuine boiler meltdown in the past, and spent three hours holding my elderly neighbour’s leaking pipe to keep it sealed until the plumber arrived, I’d argue that paying for some home emergency cover can give you some peace of mind.

But it’s important to pin down the insurer about what they offer. Get them to confirm in writing how quickly they’ll get someone out to see you in an emergency. Explain your situation too – especially if you might need to be prioritised.

Aside from the type of contract you’re considering and the emergency call out fees, I’d ask if the business has a 24 hour, 365 days a year emergency helpline. Keep an eye out for the initial ‘no claims’ period when you can’t make a claim (usually around two weeks after signing the contract). There are also limits on the number of call outs you can make with some policies and caps on parts, repairs and labour.

If your boiler is over seven years old, you might find your policy might not cover you. And if you already have home and contents insurance in place, ask your insurer how much an add on home emergency or boiler policy might cost as they’ll already have the details of your home and might be able to give you a better deal.

But ultimately, you might decide it’s more cost effective to put some cash to one side for emergencies. If you chose this option then get to know your local tradespeople so you know who to call if something goes wrong. Get recommendations from your neighbours and check out online reviews too.

Can I complain about a home emergency policy?

Lots of things can go wrong with home emergency claims. Say, for example, your home insurance company tells you they can’t get anyone out to you for two weeks. I’d get some quotes from local specialists and would say to the insurer that you are forced to use an alternative engineer or plumber and you’ll be seeking the costs back for doing so. This gives them chance to object if they think a quote is too high.

Complaints about leaking pipes can degenerate in to a blame game about who is responsible for the pipe (the insurer or the council). These complaints often relate to damage to the property when identifying or repairing the leak. As with the boiler example, keep a record of your additional costs for when you make a complaint.

It’s important to check before you sign up if your policy is actually an insurance contract. It’s not so common these days, but some policies are actually ‘service contracts’ – agreements between you and a business to carry out repairs. These policies look very similar to insurance companies. But the big difference is you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) about an insurance contract. You can’t about a service contract.

If you’ve had a problem with a claim then spell out what went wrong, the impact on you and if you have incurred extra costs. If the business doesn’t resolve the matter to your satisfaction, then the Ombudsman can take on your case – and it’s a free service.

Featured in Mirror – Martyn James


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