Uninsurable Thatch Cuts Architectural Diversity

By Pat Dodd Racher

Insurance cover is drying up. Owners of properties which have waters lapping through them from time to time know about insurance difficulties already, but the continuing agreement between the UK government and insurance companies means most[i] owners of flood-risk properties  should be able to obtain some cover, albeit expensively.

Thatch is a different matter. We tried recently to buy a small thatched cottage, but had to walk away just as the purchase contract was about to be exchanged, because we could not find any insurer willing to sell us a policy.

Thatch as a vernacular roofing is age-old, part of the historic fabric of these islands, but its future seems to lie in museums or in the hands of the very rich who can afford to take financial risks without worrying about the consequences.

The cottage is on the market again, so I will not identify it, but my advice to a potential purchaser is to find a willing insurer as the first step, not the final one, before signing on the dotted line.

Homes that cannot be insured cannot be mortgaged, either, and their value plunges. And even if there is an insurer somewhere who will sell cover today, what happens in future? The many dangerous effects of climate change include more and worse floods, and more fires, which for homeowners mean insurance climbing towards the unaffordable, or no insurance at all.

The cottage denied insurance is 18th-century, quirky and quaint. Our first call was to NFU Mutual, the vendor’s current insurers (and ours too). We are long-established customers, but the word ‘thatch’ was enough for the shutters to come down, unless we were willing to live in it all through the intended renovations. The thought of winter without a bathroom or wc, or any heating, was too much for my ageing bones. If we had been 30 years younger, this might, just might, have been a way out of the impasse.

Crown Insurance Services of Egham, Surrey, said they do insure thatched homes, through Heritage Insurance Agency of Sudbury, Suffolk. Hopes raised, only to be dashed by the requirement that there must be a fire station within five miles. Opening a fire station is way beyond our capabilities.

Adrian Flux Insurance Services of King’s Lynn also sells cover for thatched houses. This is from their website:

“Adrian Flux Home is one of the leading specialist home insurance brokers in the UK and one of only a few offering a full range of insurance cover to owners of Thatched properties.

If you live in a property with a thatched roof, you will probably have experienced problems getting insurance cover at a reasonable price. That’s where Adrian Flux can help. Our Home & Contents cover will make sure that your thatched home insurance is adequate in the event of a mishap, and at a price you’ll like.”

Well, the cottage did not qualify. The first hurdle, as with the NFU, was the combination of thatch with being empty during renovations.

The Thatched Owners Group, at Spalding in Lincolnshire, had a picture on their website of a cottage very like the one we were hoping to buy. Here we met barriers that we had never been far enough down the insurance road to encounter before. I was unable to answer a barrage of admittedly relevant questions. What is the exact thatching material? How deep is the thatch? When was the last time it received a fire-retarding treatment? When were the chimneys last swept? What is the exact distance between the top of the chimneys and the roof ridge? This distance must be an absolute minimum of 1.8 metres, I was told. Well, I had not been on the roof ridge at all, let alone with a measuring rule, so I could not answer, but knew just from looking that the distance was much less than 1.8 metres.

Endsleigh, very good for let properties, was reputed to offer cover for thatched homes too. “We’re very sorry,” they said, “we don’t offer that any more”. Insurers’ reluctance has increased because of a spate of roof fires caused by sparks from wood-burning stoves. The open fires that were the norm two hundred years ago did not generate nearly as much intense heat as modern wood-burning stoves, several insurers told me. Checking the Endsleigh thatched property insurance page today, I read: “Our thatched roof insurance is currently unavailable”.

Towergate Insurance still has a thatched home policy, but the terms illustrate the continuing obligations on owners. Before a property is accepted, thatch over 10 years old must be inspected and repaired or replaced, depending on the outcome of the inspection. Fire retardant must be applied, and the chimneys must be swept at least once a year. For an intending purchaser, who needs to insure before exchange of contracts, the cost of re-thatching a home you do not yet own is off-putting, to say the least.

To be on the receiving end of all these ‘No’, ‘No’, No’s’ was quite depressing, but indicative of the new world of limited or zero insurance cover.

So, goodbye thatch. Inevitably, thatched roofs will be replaced with slates or tiles, and an important part of the UK’s architectural history will be confined to folk museums.

[i] Late in June 2013 the UK government and insurance companies agreed to form a new fund called Flood Re, to offer flood cover to homes that the companies would normally refuse to insure. Annual premiums will be in the range £210 to £540 initially. A levy on insurers will finance Flood Re. The money will come, essentially, from higher premiums on home policies. There are exclusions – homes in the highest council tax band, H in England, and all homes built since January 1st 2009, are not covered.


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