TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Dec. 10, 2018 – Between hurricanes and a hullabaloo over water claims, home insurers dropped the policies of more than 87,000 Floridians in the third quarter of 2018 alone, state records show.
The stakes for household budgets run high in the nation’s most expensive property insurance market, but it’s no simple shopping chore as big national companies have largely pulled back and left the field to smaller, state-based insurers. As another hurricane season ends, it’s one more reason for consumers to arm themselves with knowledge about their options in the updated Palm Beach Post Insurance Explorer. The online guide offers multiple financial-strength ratings and complaint information analyzed by the newspaper for more than 100 property insurers serving the state.
“I don’t know anything about these companies,” said homeowner Matt Wolfe in Palm Beach Gardens. Two Florida-based companies have dropped him since he filed his first claim in 17 years last year, involving water damage from a washing-machine mishap, he said.
He said he is paying more than he ever has with the state’s last-resort insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. Citizens has proposed an 8 percent premium increase for 2019, postponing final action until a meeting this month.
The newspaper’s guide is “useful because it provided a lot of information on companies I otherwise would not have known anything about,” he said.
The guide provides information helpful across the state, not just one region, said Apopka insurance agency owner Dexter Chase. “I use the Explorer all the time and refer my clients there so they don’t have to take my word for it when reviewing a company,” Chase said this year. “It’s a great tool.”
In no state is shopping around more important. Florida ranks No. 1 in home insurance costs with an average premium of more than $2,000, nearly double the U.S. average. Plenty of folks near the coast pay double or triple that, or more.
Florida’s three largest counties rank dead last in a home insurance affordability index from the Florida Chamber Foundation’s TheFloridaScorecard.org, with partner companies Milliman and Rating Dynamics.
The index compares average premiums to household income. Miami-Dade Co. ranked least affordable at No. 67. Broward County followed at 66 and Palm Beach County at 65. On the west coast, Sarasota County checks in near the middle at No. 31, Hillsborough close by at 38 and Pinellas on the pricier end at No. 58. Polk County ranks No. 22. Duval County in the state’s northeastern end ranks a relatively affordable No. 8.
The most affordable county for home insurance? Sumter County, near the state’s center.
Hurricanes including Irma and Michael have generated more than $15 billion in claims between them in Florida in the past two seasons. But the end of the 2018 hurricane season, Nov. 30, did not shut down all the headaches.
Citizens officials also cite “the impact of skyrocketing non-weather-related water loss claims in South Florida.”
That means plumbing leaks, roof problems and other claims not directly tied to storms. Citizens and other insurers say the costs of such claims are increasingly inflated by lawsuits and assignment of insurance benefits (AOB) to contractors, public adjusters and attorneys, who in turn shoot back that insurers are unfairly denying or underpaying claims.
Insurers want state legislators this spring to change rules they say make it too easy to go to court for bigger payouts, but that fight has resulted in a stalemate for more than half a dozen years.
Meanwhile, consumers are left to sort out their options. In tens of thousands of cases, their policies have not been renewed, either because the insurer dropped them or the customer chose to move on, sometimes after rate hikes or claims tussles.
Half of the state’s top 10 property insurers served fewer customers at the start of October than they did a year earlier, state records show. The churn gets more intense in insurance hot spots. In Palm Beach County, eight of the top 10 insurers shed customers in that period.
Statewide, Florida’s largest insurer, Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. of Fort Lauderdale, gained a net 24,000 customers to more than 636,000 over a year, but it did not renew the policies of more than 16,000 customers in the third quarter of 2018, records show.
The No. 2 insurer, Citizens, trimmed down to about 438,000 customers from 452,0000.
Within Palm Beach County’s market, People’s Trust Insurance Co. of Deerfield Beach, for example, served more than 10,000 customers a year ago but fewer than 8,000 by Oct. 1 of this year.
That’s creating opportunities for other, sometimes smaller companies to move up. Olympus Insurance Co. of Palm Beach Gardens ranked 20th in Palm Beach County market share with about 6,700 customers at the end of 2017’s third quarter, but climbed to No. 12 with more than 9,700 a year later, according the records with the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
For consumers, the challenge can be taking the measure of insurers who don’t necessarily come with familiar brand names, big advertising budgets or their own set of exclusive agents.
Subject to approval by state regulators, Citizens has been considering a raise in the average cost of its standard HO3 homeowner’s policy to about $2,800 statewide in 2019. The projected increase would push the average annual policy cost to more than $3,000 in Palm Beach County and nearly $4,000 in Monroe County.
That’s why consumers need all the information they can get. More than a few homeowners might be able to sympathize with how Wolfe felt after two insurers dropped him: “Angry and a little bit panicked.”
Copyright © 2018 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.), Charles Elmore. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.