May 29, 2019
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Are timber-framed properties more expensive to insure?
Timber-framed houses appear to be an attractive option to many buyers these days. In fact, these types of property have always been popular but not all insurers will be showering you with offers to provide your property with the non-standard home insurance it requires.
                     
As a non-standard property type, ‘timber frame’ basically means a system of pre-cut panelised structural walls and floors comprising of small sections fastened together with timber studs and clad with soft board products. The timber frame transmits vertical and horizontal loads to the building’s foundations. Types of timber-frame constructions include kit-built new homes but also traditional Tudor houses, thatched cottages, old barn conversions and even some newer eco homes.
 
Despite the growth that the timber-framed market is currently experiencing it’s important to keep in mind that no single system of construction is inherently better than another. Ultimately, it depends upon the requirements of a project and the preferences of the builder (or self-builder nowadays), as well as other factors such as the location and constraints of the site.
 
The benefits of timber-frame buildings are that they are quick and comparatively cost-effective to build as well as being versatile, meaning they ­can be clad in practically any building material.
 
However, the major appeal of timber-framed buildings right now is that they can be much greener than other building construction types. The wood can be ethically-sourced and they produce far lower CO2 emissions than a traditional brick construction.
 
Having said that, there are several factors to bear in mind if you’re thinking about buying a new home in the UK built using timber. Masonry materials like brick and concrete are used for the majority of houses built in the UK, but timber-frame construction raises very different issues and challenges for the home buyer or owner. This building wiki takes a more detailed look at the pros and cons of timber-framed homes. 
 

Is timber frame classified as standard or non-standard construction?

 
There are various categories of non-standard construction but the broad definition is that it applies to any building where brick, stone, or concrete blockwork are not used. In this case, the building is classed as non-standard construction by insurance and mortgage companies. If you’re considering a new build timber-framed house, it is usually fairly easy to secure insurance and a mortgage on these properties, but the standard online comparison sites are very unlikely to serve your purposes because you are looking for a specialised insurance product.
 
If you’re considering buying an existing timber-framed property, it is even more important to get specialist advice, as it will probably need refurbishment, which has implications for insurance estimates. Areas of non-standard construction can also cap the market price in terms of selling-on value.
 

Can timber frame houses be insulated?

 
When it comes to insulation, there is a significant distinction between masonry and timber-framed builds. The bottom line is that there must be a cavity between the inner timber structural panel and the skins of the outer cladding, and this cavity must be kept clear for ventilation purposes. With brick-and-block, the cavity is insulated to boost thermal performance, but with timber frame, the structural panel does everything: taking load by supporting floors and roofs, providing rigidity to stop the structure from a lateral twist and containing the insulation required for acoustic and thermal performance.
 
Where timber-framed houses are concerned, it is essential to ensure there is increased permeability through the panel components. Timber-framed properties should not be insulated with cavity wall insulation because air circulation is essential to prevent rot or corrosion. Fully insulating the cavity with a retro foam-blown insulation product increases the risk of condensation forming on the ‘cold’ side of the insulation and being trapped against the wooden frame, which could easily lead to wood rot. A tried-and-trusted way to insulate timber-framed properties is to position a ‘vapour check’ (for example, a polythene sheet) between the lining of the inside wall and the insulation, which will prevent any vapour from passing through. Foil-backed plasterboard is often used for this role. Nevertheless, builders warn that it is harder to fit once a timber-framed house has already been built, so be absolutely certain that the building is adequately insulated and damp-proofed before construction is completed.
 

What is the lifespan of a timber-framed house?

 
Timber is a living material. It expands when absorbing moisture and contracts when that moisture dries out. A greater or lesser lifespan depends to a large extent on the quality of the original workmanship and ongoing maintenance. Old timber-framed buildings will have been constructed very differently from modern ones and from very different timber, probably oak.
 
Timber frames are usually "guaranteed" by the manufacturer for a whole range of periods starting as low as 10 going up to 40 years. It seems to be a widely perceived opinion in the construction industry that 25 –30 years is a reasonable lifespan for a softwood timber-framed building.
 
Timber-framed properties have been around for centuries. In fact, some of our most valued historical buildings use timber-frame construction. These early buildings did not benefit from the modern preservatives used today, so it stands to reason that if the building has the same level of maintenance a masonry building would receive, its life expectancy is no different.
 

Are timber-framed homes cheaper than brick and mortar?

 
Most modern timber-framed houses use factory-cut timber panels, which are nailed together on site. Pre-designed timber frame kits are more expensive than brick and blocks, although this expense is mitigated by the stability of material prices - they are much more predictable and fluctuate less than the costs associated with masonry building material.
 
Timber frame construction costs themselves are slightly higher than conventional brick and breeze block. Architects and builders who are less familiar with timber-frame construction may increase what they charge due to the extra time they require to make sure the design is correct.
 
However, the time taken to construct a prefabricated house on site is considerably quicker than a traditional brick and block construction. The reason is that the timber frame is usually erected on site by the supplier’s own carpenters, generally in a matter of seven to 10 days rather than weeks. This estimate is a typical time from the arrival of the specialist construction team on site to the frame being in place.
 
So, while the costs of a timber kit house are higher, the costs are more predictable. Overall, finance costs may be increased slightly, because unlike a typical builder (generally paid after completion of work), prefabricated designers ask for money up front to cover the initial investment required. 
 

Can you get a mortgage on a timber-framed property?

 
The general issue mortgage lenders have with non-standard properties is resale if they have to repossess the property. Any lender needs to assess a property for risk so that if it comes to repossession, the sell-on value means they will easily be able to recover the loan.
 
When buying an existing property, it’s essential to have a structural integrity report carried out. Many lenders are concerned that the previous owners have used timber for the strength in the building, which may not hold the building up for the duration of the mortgage without needing substantial repairs. The risk is that you may not have enough cash to carry out the extensive work required to rebuild the affected area if part of the timber frame becomes structurally unsound.
 

Are timber-framed houses more expensive to insure?

 
Insurers need to bear a variety of risk factors in mind when they work out the premium a customer will pay for building insurance. These include:
 
  • The cost of rebuilding should it become necessary. This involves the size of the property and whether it’s free-standing or terraced and, most pertinently, the type of construction (method and materials) used.
  • The likelihood of a claim being made in the property. This means elements like the degree of risk posed by the property ­– for example, is it in an area with elevated flood risk or is the building susceptible to subsidence due to construction type?
  • The customer’s claim history. As in any insurance proposal, standard or non-standard, claim history plays a certain role in determining whether the insurance is granted or not.
 
Regarding non-standard home insurance policies for timber-framed houses, the two main risk factors are fire and subsidence.
 

Fire

In the case of timber-framed properties, specialist insurance is required because the risks are more complex to assess. The highest profile risk is that of fire. The insurer may ask for fire prevention measures to be installed. In the case of thatched cottages, this means measures such as fitting spark arresters to chimneys. If there is an open fireplace, these are one of the major sources of problems with timber-framed buildings and should ideally be lined with an insulated stainless steel flue liner. 
 
Strangely enough, timber beams are not a greater structural risk than steel beams in the case of fire. Steel beams will be more immediately structurally vulnerable when exposed to flames over a period of time. When a timber beam is sets on fire, the outer part burns immediately. But it then becomes charcoal, which does not burn and actually insulates against heat. This charring effect protects the centre of the beam from catastrophic damage for some time before it fails and collapses.
When we turn to modern-build timber-framed constructions, these are quite different to the older listed building type of construction. Entire houses are built from softwood (which burns easily and quickly) and there are specific regulations in place to prevent the spread of fire within these structures.
A house badly damaged by fire

Subsidence and heave

Subsidence happens when a property's structure shifts downwards due to changes in the soil around it. Conversely, heave involves an upward movement, which can occur when dry soil absorbs excess moisture, making it swell and shift the structure upwards.
Subsidence home insurance falls under non-standard home insurance, which covers properties against non-standard risks. This kind of specialised insurance can cover everything from subsidence to unoccupied homes. This also includes covering buildings where the main materials is something other than brick.
 
An insurance company’s initial response to a potential claim would be to instruct a loss adjuster to inspect the property. If movement is noticed, the loss adjuster identifies the underlying cause and then, after action is taken (for example, drain repairs or removal of trees), monitors the building over a period of time to ensure the problem has been eliminated.
 

Final thoughts

 
Compared with the majority of properties built with non-standard materials, timber-framed houses get an overall high score in terms of safety and risk management (click here for a RICS surveyor's opinion on timber-framed homes). Nowadays, they don’t present insurmountable problems when it comes to finding a lender to give you a mortgage, as long as the property in question is in good repair and has no outstanding issues.
 
Fire prevention methods such as extinguishers and smoke alarms can help bring the premium down in price and may be obligatory to get your insurance application approved. Furthermore, it may also be hard to find fully comprehensive insurance if the property doesn’t have solid foundations. This could mean that cover against subsidence and heave would be excluded from the policy.
 
It’s important to remember that timber-framed constructions are fully recognised by the NHBC (National House-Building Council). Furthermore, when it comes to insurance, Steve Birt of the Association of British Insurers says that: “Insurance companies generally draw no distinction between modern timber frames and brick and block construction.” Indeed, there is no significant deterrent to people buying timber homes and as recent research on buyer attitudes concludes: “If you offer someone a spacious, energy-efficient home at an affordable price close to local services, it doesn’t matter how that home is built.”
 
Perhaps an oversimplification, but at least it indicates that there is nothing to be too alarmed about if you are considering buying a timber-framed property. Nevertheless, because it’s classified as non-standard for insurance purposes, it’s important to find the best possible specialist for your needs. Get a quote for non-standard home insurance from Insurance Choice today and we’ll set you up with the right solution.