Home owners get hot under the collar

Last month was the hottest July since 1659, according to climate historian Philip Eden. The average temperature in England was 19.85C, with individual highs recorded at 36.5C, which is decidedly warm. Train tracks buckled, roads melted, commuters endured temperatures illegal for cattle transport and zoo animals cooled down by sucking blood flavoured ice lollies.

But this is nothing compared with the misery of some home owners. Those in the South-East with trees in close proximity to their homes are set to suffer. Forget Victoria Beckham’s over-sized shades, the big thing this summer will be subsidence. Whether it’s due to global warming or an environmental blip, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has warned there will be an upsurge in the number of buildings suffering this blight.

Subsidence occurs when houses are built on clay soil which shrinks and expands. When there is a drought the water table drops and the soil contracts. This effect is exacerbated by thirsty trees which can drink thousands of gallons of water a day, sucking more out of the foundations.

Subsidence can be time-consuming, costly and of course can affect the resale value of property. Houses built before 1965 in the South-East, especially London and a stretch along the east of the country including Bristol, are particularly vulnerable.

So how can you tell if there is a subsidence problem? RICS explains that movement in the ground beneath a property can manifest itself in new or expanding cracks in plaster work and outside brickwork, doors or windows sticking for no apparent reason and rippling wallpaper not caused by damp. If you spot these symptoms it’s best to get it checked out soon as most subsidence problems can be rectified – at a price.

The process is not simple and fixing the problem can take years – a scary prospect for anyone hoping to sell their property quickly. The process can include a chartered surveyor, a structural engineer and even specialist geological and drain surveys. Then solving the problem can take up to two years and cost anywhere between 5,000 and 50,000.

According to Which?, about 70% of cases are due to trees. But removal is not always the best option as trees can be protected. Pruning may be better. Also, removal can spoil a view which can knock up to 20% off the value of a house.

The worst case scenario is that foundations need underpinning. This is necessary in some 25% of cases but is a last resort. However, when done properly with reputable builders the value of the property can be protected.

In 2003, the last dry summer, subsidence claims jumped by two-thirds compared with the previous year. This year could see even more insurers and home owners getting hot under the collar thanks to parched foundations.