Feeling the pinch of high home insurance rates? It's not getting better anytime soon
MIAMI — Many in Florida are finding homeowners' insurance unaffordable, and it's only getting worse.
Gregg Weiss lives in an older neighborhood in West Palm Beach. His home and many others are nearly a century old. It's a great place to live he says, except when it comes to buying homeowners insurance. Two years ago, he was shocked at a notice he received from his insurance company.
"The windstorm portion of our insurance went from about $10,000 a year which is not cheap," he says. "But it doubled and went up to $20,000." He called his insurance agent and got some surprising advice. "She said honestly, my recommendation is: pay off your mortgage and self-insure yourself."
Weiss, who's currently serving as Palm Beach County's mayor, says he and his wife took her advice. They paid off their mortgage and dropped their insurance. And he knows others who are doing the same.
But for homeowners in Florida who have mortgages and are required to carry insurance, there's little recourse except to cover the steep increases. There are reports that because of the high insurance costs, some are being forced to leave the state.
In many places, including California, Colorado and Louisiana, there's been a steep rise in the cost of homeowners' insurance. But it's particularly staggering in Florida, a state that already has the highest insurance costs in the nation. Many Floridians have seen insurance premiums go up by more than 40% this year.
And despite efforts by lawmakers to stabilize the market, costs are likely to keep rising.
Officials have heard the complaints. After a recent hearing at the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida's insurance commissioner, Michael Yaworsky, said, "Everyone is in this together. It is a very difficult time for Florida homeowners."
The cost of homeowners' insurance in Florida is more than three-and-a-half times the national average. There are lots of reasons — among them, the three hurricanes that battered the state in the last two years. But policymakers and the insurance industry say excessive litigation has played a major role in driving up prices.
Yaworsky says reforms passed by lawmakers last year and signed by the governor have begun to limit lawsuits. "After years of trying to get it done," he says, "the governor and others finally pushed it through. And it should improve the situation over time."
But state Sen. Geraldine Thompson says nearly a year after the bill was signed, homeowners in her Orlando district are still waiting. "We find now the litigation has gone down," she says. "It has dropped. But the premiums have not dropped."
Another inexorable factor driving up insurance costs is climate change. Sophisticated modeling by big reinsurance companies has led the industry to take a hard look at the risk in places like Florida, which is struggling with sea level rise as well as more dangerous storms. Benjamin Keys, a professor of real estate at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "What we have is a real changing landscape in insurance markets, a recognition that risks have increased in recent years. Disasters are occurring with more frequency and severity than previously forecast."
The rising cost of construction — up nearly 40% over the last five years — is also driving up premiums. In Florida's challenging market, seven insurance companies became insolvent over the last year. But, following the recent legal reforms, Mark Friedlander with the Insurance Information Institute believes the market may be stabilizing. "Companies that were not writing business are opening up again and starting to write risk. And companies are starting to see some positive light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Five new insurance companies have been approved to begin writing policies in Florida. Even so, Friedlander says, homeowners shouldn't look for relief anytime soon.
It's a similar outlook in California, Louisiana and many other states seeing double-digit increases in the cost of insurance. Real estate professor Benjamin Keys says if private insurers keep backing away from what they see as high-risk markets, the federal government may be asked to step in. "Will we see a national wind insurance program? Will we see a national wildfire insurance program?" He says, "I think that those are possibilities."
There is a precedent. More than 50 years ago, because private insurance wasn't available, the federal government created the National Flood Insurance Program.
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