Some of the complaints people contact me about are ubiquitous. It won’t surprise you when I tell you that difficult retailers ignoring the law and rubbish delivery companies top the list now and at pretty much every point during the year.
However, some complaints are seasonal – and by far the most mentioned over the last few months has been home emergency and boiler cover, with one company in particular driving most of the enquiries.
The problem with this sector is how we define ‘emergency’. Now I’d argue that being left without heating or hot water for anything longer that one, possibly two days, constituted an emergency. And people who are more vulnerable or at risk should be identified from the very beginning for urgent support.
However, you can experience all kinds of emergencies around the home – and things don’t always go as smoothly as they should. Here’s my guide to the top four most complained about home emergencies and how to sort out problems (and avoid them).
Boiler cover and ‘home care’ policies
Words really do matter, especially when it comes to contracts for goods and services. So it’s notable that over the last decade, home emergency policies – agreements where a business will come out to fix your boiler, cracked pipes and other heating-related scenarios – have subtly removed the world ‘emergency’ from the product name.
There have always been problems with home emergency products. In the past, it was the fact that many of the policies in the market weren’t actually insurance contracts. In fact, they were ‘service contracts’ masquerading as insurance. This was a subtle but important difference that meant you couldn’t complain to the Financial Ombudsman about them. That, and a seperate mis-selling scandal, forced the Financial Conduct Authority to clamp down on the industry. So the good news is you can go to the ombudsman if you can’t sort things out.
And you should. Because I’ve seen some shocking examples of home emergency cover claims lately. In fact, my parents have been forced to take their complaint about to the ombudsman after being told when their heating broke during the coldest point in the year that an engineer would not be available for two weeks. The business then offered them a derisory £80 in compensation. Sadly they are not alone. One older lady I spoke to was left with a boiler that didn’t work for one month after an engineer began tinkering with it then realised he didn’t have the part needed to repair it – which meant she went from infrequent heat to none at all.
Sometimes the solution to these problems is to counter an unacceptable situation with an alternative solution. If you find yourself being given an unrealistic timescale for an emergency engineer appointment, call around to see if you can find an engineer in your local area who can attend, get some quotes and put your proposals to the insurer. If they can’t deliver, they should be willing to consider reasonable quotations instead (though there isn’t a law that requires them to do this).
If they refuse, then ask for your premiums back on the grounds that they have not provided the service you are paying for. Get the business to investigate the situation as a formal complaint and go to the Financial Ombudsman like my folks, if you don’t get anywhere.
Of course, the wider issue is whether these policies are worth it at all. You could, for example, put some cash aside each month in a bank account to cover callouts for emergencies. I’d factor in how old your boiler is though. You may also want to pre-emptively build a relationship with a few engineers and plumbers in your local area – maybe getting them in for an annual service check-up – so you know who to contact if things go wrong.
I recently realised the value of this when my elderly neighbour’s cold-water tap fell off at midnight on a Tuesday. Plan for the worst, just in case.
Storms and floods
In other cheery news, it’s that time of year when floods and storms wreak havoc across the land. If you’re affected by a weather event that damages your property, rest assured: insurers are generally good at getting loss adjusters and support staff out to areas affected quickly. Loss adjusters assess what work needs to be done as a priority, along with the subsequent repairs that may arise.
However, some of the most complex and protracted complaints I tackle involve storm and flood claims. This is because of the time it can take to sort things out. If your property has been structurally damaged, it can take a long time – on some occasions years – before the property is habitable. During that time, you may find yourself in alternative accommodation for a prolonged period. I’m currently helping two families – one in a caravan and one in a cheap hotel – who are trying to get back in their homes months after damage occurred.
Complaints of this nature often originate over problems with the contractors the insurer uses to sort out weather damage, from loss adjusters to builders and specialist tradespeople. Don’t forget, your contract is with the insurance company, so if you’re unhappy with a contractor, your insurer should sort it out. They should also keep you updated throughout the process, with timescales, accommodation options and information about the repairs required.
I always think that it’s important to explain the impact on you personally if you’re going through a storm damage claim. If you have specific needs or a young family or vulnerable dependants, don’t assume the insurer will know – tell them.
If you live in an area prone to flooding, don’t wait for a problem to occur. Check your contract, speak to your insurer and ask if there is any work you can carry out now to reduce the impact of flood damage.
When vital services stop working
We tend to focus on energy when we think about services we can’t live without. But you can also find your water supply disconnected through no fault of your own. And broadband is increasingly essential, not only so we can gain access to online resources, but so we can communicate in emergencies. The analogue phone service is due to switch over to digital in 2025, which means we’ll all need a back-up plan if broadband goes down or the energy cuts out. Oh, and seeing as water prices are due to go up by the highest increase in decades, it’s time we started holding the water businesses that we are stuck with to account.
The fact of the matter is you are entitled to compensation automatically for a range of supply problems, from being cut off to missed engineer appointments. I recently wrote about your compensation rights when you are cut off from your water, energy and broadband supplies in Times Money Mentor here: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/money-mentor/article/refunds-energy-rail-broadband-council-compensation/ Don’t assume that the business will do this though. Become more acquainted with your bills and check to see that you’ve been compensated.
I’ve already mentioned about the value of finding good tradespeople in your local area. Speak to your neighbours and share details of people who have provided a great service. But it makes sense to prepare for service outages. When the spectre of rolling power cuts loomed large before Christmas, I suggested preparing a ‘doomsday box’. Avoid the rather deranged ‘prepper’ websites and have a think about what you’d need in an emergency. For example, have provisions of bottled water in the cupboard under the stairs, batteries, a torch and some candles can get you through many of the worst situations. But most importantly, reach out to your more vulnerable neighbours if the power goes out.
Renting and ‘fitness for habitation’
If you own your own home, most of the disputes over the structure of your property will come down to discussions with your insurance company over claims (watch out for wear and tear).
However, if you rent or live in an apartment complex then things can become unbearably complicated. I speak from experience. I’m currently stuck between a landlord and a management company over a leak from my roof that has rumbled on interminably for years – and I solve problems like this for a living!
Millions of private renters will know that the law is full of gaps when it comes to taking on your landlord. After all, most contracts allow for ‘Section 21 or ‘no fault’ evictions where a landlord can reposes a property without having to establish fault on the part of the tenant. While the Government’s Renter’s Reform bill proposes abolishing no fault evictions, it’s not come in to play yet – and countless numbers of people who rent contact me every week to say they are afraid of complaining about appalling housing quality in case they get kicked out, at the exact point when rent has reached stratospheric levels.
Despite this, as my fellow broadcast expert and legal mastermind, Gary Rycroft, tells me, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 makes it clear that landlords have a legal duty to make sure your rented home is fit for habitation. As a tenant you have to ensure that you’ve met the terms of your contract and looked after the property. But things that affect the structure – including black mould – should be dealt with by the landlord.
Go easy though till the law changes. Ask for reasonable things like dehumidifiers and maybe a slight discount on your rent for energy costs in order to run them. Nudge the landlord with polite offers to get quotes for external repairs from contractors (that they pay for). Though don’t forget the mantra ‘ventilation, ventilation, ventilation! And have a discreate conversation with your local council’s Environmental Health team to find out about your rights if things aren’t going anywhere.
Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James