If you live in a state that suffers from severe weather such as tornadoes or hurricanes, finding good homeowners insurance is getting more difficult as weather patterns grow more extreme.
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In the aftermath of weather-related catastrophes, insurers can face a flood of insurance claims and as a result of the expense eventually drop thousands of policies. For example, Alabama-based insurance company Alfa announced in June that it wouldn't renew 73,000 home policies after tornadoes battered the state in April. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, insurance giant State Farm stopped writing new policies in Mississippi. And following more recent hurricanes, 20% of homes on the Alabama coast are going without any wind insurance due to staggering rate increases. The state's four largest insurance companies have canceled 50,000 policies in coastal Alabama, according to Carl Schneider, partner at Schneider Insurance and member of the Coastal Alabama Leadership Council, or CALC.
"Insurance is available, but in many cases it is now becoming extremely expensive and may be from a state provider such as Citizens (Property) Insurance (in Florida) or Texas Windstorm Insurance (Association), or from a lesser-known provider," says Paul Berger, an insurance attorney with the Hurricane Law Group in Coral Springs, Fla.
"Moreover, many traditional carriers will not write new policies anywhere in the state, and the only option are smaller regional carriers such as Tower Hill Insurance (Group) or Florida Peninsula Insurance," he says. "These smaller carriers tend to have minimal financial reserves and are at risk of bankruptcy should a major disaster impact their coverage area."
What can you do if your area is at risk of insurance cancellations? Here are a few tips to help prevent or deal with cancellation.
Make your home attractive to insurers. The most important thing a homeowner can do to prevent insurance cancellation is to "take steps to protect the home against the major natural hazard that is likely to impact that property, whether it is windstorms, severe winter weather, wildfire, earthquake, hurricane or hail risk," says Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. "The better the risk, the more attractive a property is to insurers. This also means that proper maintenance and up-to-code plumbing, wiring and mechanical systems are important."
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By law, each insurance company makes their own individual decisions about how to evaluate the durability of each home it insures. "In general, they look at a home's ability to withstand the types of natural and manmade risks that are present where that home is located," Rochman says.
Write to your state legislators. While many states now offer state-backed insurance policies, that really isn't the ideal situation. "The reason state-backed carriers exist is because private carriers will not accept disaster risk in certain areas," Berger says. "As natural disasters become more costly, it is likely that many carriers will refuse to write insurance policies in disaster-prone areas, and state-backed or federally backed insurance may become the only option."
In some areas, concerned citizens are making a difference. In coastal Alabama, for instance, CALC has worked to educate state legislators about the increasing difficulty to obtain insurance. Their efforts seem to be working. In 2009, the Alabama state legislature passed a bill requiring insurance companies to give premium discounts to homeowners who take steps to strengthen their homes, says Ben Brooks, an Alabama state senator. In early 2011, new bills addressing coastal insurance reform began working their way through the Alabama state legislature.
Don't take it personally if your policy is dropped. "When a carrier makes a decision to leave a certain area, it usually affects all policies in that area," Berger says. "Carriers are heavily regulated, and this tends to be a regulated process. When State Farm dropped 125,000 policies in Florida, most of these dropped policyholders had been loyal State Farm customers for years and many never made a claim. Unfortunately, in the end it is an economic decision."
While you can try to fight the decision, obtaining a victory is extremely difficult. "The carrier must provide the policyholder a written reason for the decision to drop, and this reason is hard to fight," Berger says. "In most states you can file a complaint with the department of insurance, which may investigate your complaint, but this can be a lengthy and unrewarding process. Unfortunately, it is easier to find a new carrier than fight being dropped."
Search for a new carrier with an open mind. If your policy is dropped, start by finding a good multilines insurance agent. "Your agent should be able to find multiple carriers or at a minimum, one option for insurance," Berger says.
In addition to a good multilines agent, Berger suggests contacting your state department of insurance to find out who is writing policies in your area. Don't get too concerned if you've never heard of the companies that are your options. "Remember that while insurance companies spend billions of dollars on advertising annually, there tends to be minimal differences between insurance companies," Berger says. "Don't be disappointed if you do not get your 'name brand' carrier."