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LONDON-Bad weather at the start of last year was the major factor in U.K. insurers paying out 17% more in property claims in 1996 than in 1995.

However, property insurers can draw some solace from the fact that severe winter weather at the end of last month appears unlikely to raise the number of claims above normal levels for this time of year.

Insurance companies paid out more than (British pounds) 2.70 billion ($4.37 billion) in property claims in 1996, compared with some (British pounds) 2.25 billion ($3.64 billion) in 1995, according to figures from the Assn. of British Insurers.

Mark Boleat, ABI director general, said a 19% increase last year in domestic property claims, reflecting increased fire- and weather-related payments, is a "worrying" figure. He warned that this would lead to pressure from underwriters for premium rate increases.

The main contribution to the increase came from a more than doubling of weather-related claims to (British pounds) 727 million ($1.18 billion) from (British pounds) 361 million in 1995 ($583.8 million), mainly because of the severe winter weather at the end of 1995 and the start of 1996. Of these claims, weather-related commercial property claims rose 115% to (British pounds) 202 million ($326.7 million).

However, insurance companies got something of a reprieve this winter after the February gales, which received a high profile because they caused 11 deaths in traffic accidents, turned out to have less effect on property than expected.

A spokeswoman for the ABI said of the anticipated level of claims, "I don't think its going to be too much more than normal" for that time of year. She credited a publicity campaign undertaken by insurers after the last severe storms to inform property owners on how to prepare for bad weather.

The Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters said a survey of its members revealed only a slight increase in the number of claims as a result of the February storms and that most of these were for relatively minor damage, such as roof tiles shifted out of place.

The ABI's property claims figures for 1996 show theft claims actually fell 3% last year to (British pounds) 745 million ($1.20 billion). This made it the fifth consecutive year the total number and value of theft claims decreased, though the average claim size has been rising over the same period.

Claims from fire damage rose 3% to (British pounds) 717 million ($1.16 billion) in 1996, with both commercial and residential claims showing small increases.

Business interruption payments rose 18% last year to (British pounds) 206 million ($333.2 million), with claims arising from weather damage more than doubling to (British pounds) 27 million ($43.7 million).

Subsidence claims increased by (British pounds) 5 million ($8.1 million) in 1996 to (British pounds) 331 million ($535.3 million).