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How to best protect an unoccupied property during winter weather

Whether you are a landlord with an untenanted property or an executor responsible for the maintenance of a probate property, as the winter months become colder and darker, security and safety become a large concern for those of us with the burden of an unoccupied property on our hands.

Whatever the reason may be for the property being unoccupied during this time of year, it is well worth adopting some simple procedures to shield the property against winter’s harsh hand.

So why might a property be unoccupied?

  • The owner of the property has passed away.
  • It is a holiday home or a property which is not your main residence.
  • You are a landlord with a property which has a void in the tenancy.
  • The property is undergoing renovation which requires vacation.
  • Property sale is yet to complete.
  • You are travelling or away from home for an extended period of time.

Top tips for protecting your unoccupied property

Below are some top tips and tricks which you may wish to employ to best protect your property.

Insure the property

One of the most simple and effective ways to protect your interest in a property and ameliorate the financial risk of any unexpected circumstances is to put in place comprehensive ‘Unoccupied Property Insurance’. Whilst this type of insurance is generally more expensive than your average home insurance – as the unoccupied property is seen as high risk for floods, burglary and vandalism etc – it is often cheaper than an unforeseen repairs bill. If the house is unoccupied due to the owner passing away, then the insurance will be a liability of the Estate.

Pipes, Plumbing and Thermostats

During the icy winter months, a massive unforeseen cost on unoccupied properties is damage from burst pipes which expand when the water running through them turns to ice. In 2021 the average cost per incident for the damage done by burst pipes during wintertime was over £9,000. Yikes.

We all know that the cost of gas and electric is not one to underestimate and most of us are more eager than ever before to circumvent the central heating and slip on a ski suit and scarf to watch the telly in. However, unoccupied houses are the number one target for frozen pipes and plumbing and they need the heat. When a property is rarely visited, the water in the pipes sits still, without even the flush of a toilet to encourage a flow. Before you know it, the house is encased in a high-pressure ice maze which is liable to blow. The best and most worthwhile way to protect the vacant property from this kind of damage is to, against all our instincts, keep the heating on.

You have some options of how to heat the property:
  1. Set the thermostat to bookend the day with a couple of blasts of low-level heat. A couple of hours twice a day of heating, around 14-15 degrees a day should keep the internal temperature in the house above freezing and stave off any freezing in the pipes.
  2. Keep the heating on, at a very low level, (around 12 degrees Celsius) all the time. If you are conscious about cost check out the Energy Saving Trust website for further info.
  3. If the property is going to be unoccupied for a long period of time and the water supply will not be needed for the foreseeable, you may wish to take a more permanent approach and drain the pipes of their water entirely. This might seem like a no-nonsense and cost-effective approach (especially during these more financially trying times) but you should be aware that water can get trapped at various points in the pipeline, even after draining, and can freeze solid. You may only realise the issue when the water is turned on again, maybe once the house has been sold or preparing for a sale, which can cause unnecessary stress at an already stressful time.

Other things you can do to counteract the consequences of the cold:

  1. Open your loft hatch and cupboards where pipes may be hiding to encourage warm(er) air to make its way into these areas and increase the temperature of the pipes and the water within.
  2. When selling a property, condensation (and, subsequently, potential mould) does not look good. Maintain airflow in the property by opening windows for short periods of time or invest in a low-energy dehumidifier to plug in during particularly cold periods. Many dehumidifiers have a timer function which is great for energy saving and to thwart worries about leaving the property with appliances running- although dehumidifiers are designed to run for long periods of time without supervision.
  3. Insulate the home properly, by wrapping the pipes with insulation tubes. Depending on the energy rating of the property you may even be entitled to claim under the ECO (Energy Company Obligation) Scheme run by the government to increase the energy rating of the home paid for by the government. It is worth looking into as you may be entitled to free insulation such as cavity wall, solid wall or lost insulation etc under the scheme. Find out more here: Government announces £1 billion investment in energy efficient home improvements – but do you qualify for them?
  4. Keep your eye out for that pesky dripping tap or pipes that trickle from the bathroom sink or the outdoor garden. They will likely be the first thing to freeze and can advance from trickle to trouble in no time.
  5. Disconnect external pipes and insulate the outlet/inlet with insulated caps which you can find very cheaply online.
  6. When visiting the property, run warm water through the pipes for a couple of minutes, you can save this water in bottles or a mop bucket which can be used to water plants, for cleaning the windows or mopping the floors but it will do the world of good for the protection of the property.

Often insurance companies will have provisions in their terms and conditions in relation to how vacant homes should be looked after in winter. They will often state that they will only pay out if reasonable steps have been taken to protect the property from foreseeable damage through burst pipes and condensation damage etc, i.e. keeping the heating on at a low level. It is always worth checking with your unoccupied home insurance provider to arm yourself with the knowledge to protect the home and your insurance investment.

If you require further information about selling or renting properties during wintertime, or whether you have any queries about unoccupied probate properties which you are unable to visit regularly due to geographical restraints etc, do contact us on 01244 312 306 or emailing us at law@oliverandco.co.uk

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