Owners of Ireland’s thatched cottages fear they could face extinction unless the State intervenes to help them secure affordable insurance cover.
hatched cottages have been a quintessential Irish symbol for hundreds of years, but it is estimated there are just over 1,000 still in existence on the whole island.
Some owners have been unable to get cover since the recession, while others have received quotes of up to €8,500 for building insurance and cannot afford to pay.
Irish companies that provided such insurance are no longer taking on new customers due to a “serious deterioration in the claims experience”, and UK underwriters that previously insured these homes have quit the market since Brexit.
High insurance costs have resulted in some taking the risk of living in an uninsured home, with the owners fearful of losing everything in the event of an accident.
Seán McLaughlin (78) from Malin Head, Co Donegal, bought his thatched home in the village of Culoort in the 1970s. The house was one of six thatched properties within 100 yards of each other, but now his is the only one left.
Mr McLaughlin’s home, which is around 300 years old, has become a popular attraction in the area, with tourists regularly stopping for photographs.
“The local people didn’t value these houses years ago as they reminded them of poverty and growing up in crap conditions, but now that it’s the only house in my particular village, they really appreciate it and they like the fact that I have kept it traditional and it brings people to Culoort,” Mr McLaughlin said.
However, despite the significant efforts to preserve his home, he has not been able to get insurance cover in the last 15 years. “I was insured for about 10 years. I didn’t have any claims or anything, but around 2007, when the big slump came, I got a letter from my insurers to say that the underwriters weren’t willing to underwrite any more. That’s the last time I was insured.
“There was a time when there were some possibilities (to get insurance), but it was so expensive that I couldn’t do it. Now there isn’t anyone who will insure houses like mine. There are also so many conditions and regulations now that it has stopped the houses from being traditional.
“When you think of Ireland, you think of a pint of Guinness and a thatched house, but it’s one aspect of our history that is rapidly disappearing.”
Some thatched houses have been in families for generations, but others have only been recently acquired. Due to insurance companies not taking on new customers, these people in particular have struggled to get cover.
OBF Insurance Group has been one of the main providers of cover in recent years, but a spokesperson said: “Due to the serious deterioration in claims experience on thatched properties, Lloyd’s underwriters have made a decision to refrain from writing new thatch home insurance.
“They are continuing to offer renewal and will continue to offer insurance to a purchaser of a thatched property where they already insure it for the vendor. If thatched property insurance was profitable other insurers would flood into the market. Underwriters have made this decision to protect their current thatched property policyholders.”
Jennifer Grace, from Dublin, bought a thatched house in Ballyedmond, Co Wexford, in 2019.
It was originally intended to be a holiday home, but she now hopes to live there permanently. However, efforts to get affordable insurance for the house have so far proved unsuccessful.
The house has been completely modernised inside and has had extensive work done to it.
She had the property rewired and the fireplaces blocked up to increase the chances of getting insurance, but the only quote she received was for €8,500. Other companies would not quote her at all.
“When I was purchasing it, Brexit hadn’t happened. We put down the offer in June 2019, but the sale didn’t go through until November. It was the new year when we started trying to get insurance. I wasn’t prepared for all of the stumbling blocks or the cost, I got a bit of a fright.
“If that house goes up in a fire, we will lose everything.”
In Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford, a village famous for its traditional thatched houses, some owners told the Irish Independent they struggled to get insurance due to the fact there are so many thatched homes in the one area.
Trish Donovan contacted numerous brokers and insurers and had to meet a number of conditions. She removed the stove from the house, there is no open fire and the chimney is sealed. Yet still no Irish company would insure her because there are other thatched houses within 50 metres of the property.
“It’s not as if I can up and move the house,” she said.
“We had to go abroad to a German company. Ours is over €2,000 and that’s for normal house insurance. For a three-bedroom house, that’s a lot of money.”
Thatched pubs in rural Ireland are also calling on the Government to help businesses get cover, with some paying up to €20,000 just for building insurance.
One woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said her family was forced to close their pub as they could not afford insurance. It was the last pub left in the area and some locals were unhappy about the pub shutting its doors for good.
“My father passed away in 2020 and it fell to my mother to source insurance. In 2021, she got a letter to say the company that had been covering her insurance all along was leaving the Irish market.
“The pub was closed for a long time and I eventually sourced insurance, but it wasn’t going to cover everything. Basically you were looking at potentially getting insurance for in or around €12,000 to keep a business hit with Covid restrictions open.”
There have been a small number of incidents where thatched homes caught fire in the last 10 years.
In 2015, three properties in Adare, Co Limerick, were seriously damaged after a fire broke out. Last month, a family home in Duncannon, Co Wexford, was also gutted by a fire. An ancient thatched cottage in Drogheda, Co Louth, was partly destroyed in 2020 in what is believed to have been an arson attack.
However, thatched property owners have argued the number of fires is not enough to justify high premiums.
A petition calling on the Government to address the disparity between regular property insurance and thatched insurance has so far received hundreds of signatures. “If this insurance situation is left to continue, then our heritage will suffer,” the petition states.
A Heritage Council spokesperson said it was hopeful the market deficit in insurance providers can be addressed, and “that a basis for premium calculation that works for all parties involved can be constructed”. “The Heritage Council will consult with the insurance and heritage sectors and will issue recommendations mapping out a way forward to a working group composed of Heritage Council and Department of Housing representatives, and heritage personnel from the local authority sector,” they added.
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