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House fires: prevention, safety and claiming on your home insurance

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House fires can be one of the biggest risks to your home. Here we talk about how to prevent them and how to claim on your home insurance afterwards

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A house fire can be an extremely frightening and dangerous experience. We’ve put together this guide to help you prevent and cope with a fire – and explain what to do after a house fire from an insurance perspective.

Smoke alarms

A smoke alarm could save your life. Every home should have at least one smoke alarm on each floor, and every alarm should be tested at least once a month. Standard battery-operated alarms need the batteries changed once a year.

There are lots of different types to choose from and your local fire and rescue service will be happy to give you advice on which one is best suited for you. It’s a good idea to place each smoke alarm close to a potential source of fire.

Often, people place smoke alarms in the kitchen and then disconnect them because they cause a nuisance during cooking. Statistically, more fires start in the kitchen than anywhere else, but to avoid sensitivity to everyday cooking mishaps like burning toast, it’s best to place the smoke alarm just outside the kitchen. It’ll still detect genuine kitchen fires, including those from white goods like fridges.

A fire in a bathroom or garage is relatively uncommon. It’s much easier for fires to take hold where there’s a lot of combustible material such as carpets, curtains, bedding and clothes. It’s a good idea to have an alarm close to the bedrooms (such as on a landing), and in the living room.

In the kitchen

According to the Fire Service, around half of home fires are caused by cooking accidents. A good place to start is by keeping the oven and hob clean. Don't let food and fat build up on the oven, hob or grill or you risk them starting to burn and causing a fire.

Don't leave children in the kitchen alone. Turn saucepan handles towards the hob so little hands can't reach up to grab at them.

You should also be careful with loose clothing. Wear short sleeves or roll them up and don't leave oven gloves or tea towels hanging near the hob.

Buy a fire blanket for your kitchen. Be careful when deep fat frying as hot cooking oil sets alight easily. If oil smokes, it's too hot, so turn off the heat and leave it to cool. If a pan catches fire, though, don't take any risks – turn off the heat and if safe to do so, cover with a fire blanket. Never throw water over it and don't try to tackle the fire yourself. Just get to safety and call 999.

In the rest of the home

Don't overload sockets. Make sure high-powered appliances like washing machines and tumble dryers have a socket to themselves. Clear your washing machine and tumble dryer filters regularly to prevent build-up of fabric deposits and unplug them when they aren't being used.

Don't leave electrical devices switched on if they don't need to be, especially if they give off heat like hair straighteners and phone chargers. Leaving the television on standby increases chances of an electrical fire starting. Try to avoid leaving the washing machine and dryer on overnight too.

Don't leave electric blankets switched on while you're out of the house. Make sure you either store them flat or rolled up as folding them could damage the internal wiring. Regularly check them for wear and tear and never use them with a hot water bottle.

Keep portable heaters upright and secured against a wall and on a flat surface to stop them falling over. Keep heaters away from curtains and furniture, and never dry clothes on them. Make sure your furniture has a fire-resistant label. If you have an open fireplace, make sure the chimney is swept regularly. You should also use a fireguard.

Keep matches out of the reach of children. If you have matches or lighters in the house, make sure they’re kept out of the sight and reach of curious little hands. If you smoke, make sure cigarettes are stubbed out properly in an ashtray and never in a wastepaper basket, and don’t smoke in bed.

Be careful with candles. Lovely as a candlelit room may be, make sure to keep candles away from curtains and other upholstery. Put them out if you leave the room and make sure they’re all out before heading to bed.

Be prepared

Check your policy schedule. This lays out any precautions you must take – for example, you’ll need to install fire extinguishers if you live in a thatched property.

Plan an escape route for the family. Have a family meeting and discuss how you’d get out if the worst were to happen. Arrange a meeting point, whether in the street outside or in the garden.

Keep all doorways clear and keep exits clear of obstacles in case a speedy escape is required.

What to do during a house fire

Where possible, you can extinguish a small fire by starving it of oxygen with a fire blanket. Don’t attempt to tackle a large fire yourself. Raise the alarm straight away and call the emergency services as soon as possible.

Evacuate as quickly as you can, and notify neighbours if you think their property may also be affected – especially if the fire has spread to the loft space, or you have people living above you. Gather everyone, including any pets, and get out of the house as quickly as possible.

If there’s a lot of smoke, stay low if possible, as smoke rises. Place a wet towel over your mouth, which acts as a filter to help you breathe more easily. If you’re not on the ground floor, first try escaping down the stairwell – don’t use any lifts.

Renters living on the first or second floor should consider asking their landlord for a set of foldable steps that can be used to escape from a window.

Claiming on your home insurance after a house fire

A house fire is an extremely traumatic event, and damage to your home is likely to be significant – including damage from water used to extinguish the flames.

If your home is damaged by a fire, the first priority is your health. Don’t worry about contacting us until you’re physically and mentally fit to do so. When you’re ready, call our claims team on 0333 220 2034.

If you have a combined home insurance policy, you’ll be covered in two ways:

  1. The Building 
  2. Its Contents

Tips for dealing with the aftermath of a fire include:

  • Ventilate the property by opening windows and doors as best as possible to allow fresh air to circulate
  • Don't use the gas or electricity until they’ve been checked by a professional
  • Don't throw away anything until a full inventory of damaged items has been taken
  • If possible, take photographs of the damage
  • If the electricity is off, remove food from fridges and freezers and list all items
  • Unless the smoke damage is very localised, it’s probably best to leave any cleaning attempts to professional cleaners. For example, we can instruct a restoration company to handle the clean up
  • If the damage is extensive and there’s any danger of collapse, or if there are any health risks, vacate the premises, leaving it as secure as possible

Your home will be assessed by the fire service to see if it’s structurally sound. If so, we may assign a loss adjuster to assess the cost of repairs, and begin the process of rebuilding.

If not, your home may be condemned and require demolition. It may be entirely rebuilt or, if this is impractical, you may receive a cash pay-out equivalent to the amount it has decreased in value.

You’ll also be able to claim for replacement of any items damaged by fire or smoke on your contents insurance. The likelihood is your home will be considered uninhabitable while repairs and rebuilding are being completed. In this case, we’ll pay the cost of renting temporary alternative accommodation for everyone who normally lives at your home, including your pets.

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