Victorian plumbing: a ticking time bomb for landlords?

Building damage and subsequent claims are part and parcel of the property industry. But it may surprise some to know that the cause of so many claims is rooted in centuries-old infrastructure that exists under their feet. It’s a tale of Victorian pipes, brown water and subterranean danger.

A recent study by researchers at Hamilton Fraser analysed thousands of claims records filed across the UK between 2010-2018 to discover the biggest cause of claims for landlords and developers.

By far the most claimed-for incident type was escape of water, defined as water that has entered a property from outside mains supply fittings such as pipes or tanks. This was particularly true in London, where escape of water incidents are typically clustered beside or near the Thames – particularly in areas served by Victorian plumbing infrastructure.

In Brixton alone, there were 27 reported escape of water incidents along Victorian plumbing lines in 2017-18, while Shepherd’s Bush saw 28 and Kensington 45 – amounting to 6% of total claims made in the Capital. When overlaying the data onto a Google map on which Victorian sewer lines are plotted, clusters along older Victorian pipes soon become evident – suggesting a correlation between London’s ageing infrastructure and the propensity for escape of water incidents.

“These figures show that one of the biggest potential threats to landlords’ properties is an issue that many of us aren’t even aware of,” says Melissa Choules, Senior Claims Technician at Hamilton Fraser Total Landlord Insurance. “This is especially worrying for landlords in the capital, who appear especially vulnerable to escape of water incidents.”

How widespread a problem is Victorian infrastructure?

Victorian infrastructure has long been an issue for property developers and landlords. The quality of infrastructure and potential degradation levels can be difficult to gauge, and information is not readily available on exactly which systems are in situ in any given area.

This is especially true of London’s sewerage and public plumbing system. Across the capital, cast iron pipes that were laid over 150 years ago have been working over-capacity for decades. Many are no longer able to handle the job at hand. “Although the original Victorian, cast iron mains have served us well, they’re old and more likely to leak or burst”, reads a statement from local supplier Thames Water.

By 2006, Thames Water was already reporting over 900Ml/day water loss from leaks and bursts. Yet despite an impressive 10-year project that saw the water company lay over 2,300km of tough new plastic replacement pipe across Central and North London – serving 300,000 homes and cutting leaks by 36 per cent – much of the city is still served by Victorian piping.

In 2018, industry regulator Ofwat released a scathing assessment of London’s water infrastructure, stating the firm needed to “up their game”. Thames Water responded in September with the announcement of a £200m leak detection programme aimed at improving infrastructure. But just one month later a burst Victorian cast iron main flooded homes and businesses in Hackney, sending thousands of gallons of water into the streets and leaving cars partially submerged.

“It’s encouraging to see Thames Water’s investment in improvement works, but London landlords are right to wonder if this will be enough to protect their businesses. If not, the organisation might have to look again at the problem,” says Hamilton Fraser’s Lorna Larke, Commercial and Claims Manager.

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What landlords need to know

Living with London’s Victorian plumbing is one issue. But planning to invest or renovate around it is quite another. As an often-circulated Spectator column once stated, Victorian South London plumbing is pure evil.

That’s not to say it can’t be overcome. Before purchasing in London, buyers should first investigate whether the property lies over a Victorian sewer system and whether there have been any issues reported in that area. We suggest contacting a local surveyor to enquire as to whether a full assessment of the neighbourhood’s plumbing and sewer system has been undertaken.

Alternatively, buyers can contact the local water supplier to see exactly what piping is in place, and whether there are records on its condition. If Victorian plumbing is still serving the property, ask if similar infrastructure has been removed anywhere in the vicinity and what the condition of that piping was. Also ascertain whether there are plans for replacement work in the area or if there have been requests from other residents for such work.

Finally, if Victorian piping is present, buyers should be extra careful to check landlord insurance policies for clauses around escape of water. Hamilton Fraser’s Total Landlord Insurance policies, for instance, cover as standard the claim and resultant damage arising from fixed water tanks, apparatus or pipes.

“As with so many other issues in buy-to-let property, landlords can protect themselves from escape of water incidents in two ways: through information and insurance,” says Lorna Larke; “Landlords must do their homework before investing in any building, then purchase the right level of cover for future peace-of-mind. That’s what we’re here for!”

Hamilton Fraser will also soon be releasing our full report with detailed insights into claims data from across the UK. It will include the types of claims that landlords and developers are most likely to encounter in different areas, as well as reporting how seasonal weather patterns affect claims and how to plan for them.