Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida: How safe is your home insurer in 2017?
A potentially darker 2017 hurricane outlook hangs on a “knife’s edge” of pending weather factors, one forecaster says, but South Florida home owners are already doused with rising insurance rates and a wave of mergers and capital infusions to prop up insurers threatened with lower financial ratings.
One refuge: The updated and exclusive Palm Beach Post Property Insurance Guide, available today online with free access to subscribers. It lists multiple financial ratings for more than 100 companies, along with information about how to contact each company, its number of customers and complaint data obtained and analyzed by the Post.
As the 2017 hurricane season approaches June 1, premiums are rising 10 percent or more in some cases.
“When is enough enough?” said West Palm Beach homeowner Jim Finnegan, who gets windstorm coverage from state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
In the state with the nation’s highest home insurance costs, it’s an especially good year to take matters into your own hands and find out what the options really are.
Sitting back and waiting for mailed offers may not help much at this point.
A year after Florida’s 11-year hurricane dodge ended, offers from private insurers to take Citizens customers are slowing to a trickle. After about 1 million customers left Citizens in recent years, just over 12,000 have departed so far in 2017.
Only one company, Weston Insurance Co., plans to make offers — up to 12,000 — in June and July.
Let’s face it: It’s no piece of cake to shop for home insurance in Florida. It’s not like booking a hotel room or airline ticket or even buying car insurance, where an array of online marketplaces make it easier for consumers to harness the power of price competition.
Most of the companies writing new business are small, homegrown players. Plenty of insurers are not writing new policies at all.
Yet a competitive market still exists in many if not all parts of South Florida if you are willing to dig, said Clint Strauch, president of Boca Raton-based Florida Peninsula Insurance Co. and sister firm Edison Insurance Co.
His companies are trying to make it simpler for consumers to do their own research and get a realistic price quote online.
“Our main goal was to create a convenient, fast and easy way for Florida consumers to shop and compare coverage,” Strauch said. People can certainly reach out to an agent if they have questions, he said.
Ratings firm Demotech Inc. threatened lower financial grades on several Florida insurers heading into storm season, prompting a flurry of mergers, changes in ownership and capital infusions.
Avatar Partners LP, the parent company of Tampa, Fla.-based Avatar Property & Casualty Insurance Co., announced in March it agreed to acquire Tallahassee, Fla.-based Elements Property Insurance Holdings LLC and subsidiaries including Elements Property Insurance Co. Also announcing new ownership was Tampa-based Prepared Insurance Co.
Insurers under pressure added about $200 million in loss reserves and $155 million in capital contributions, Demotech said. A host of companies retained A grades but Demotech warned it remains “likely that insurers may face downgrades in the future.”
Meanwhile, the return of hurricanes to Florida isn’t even the only reason insurers say they need to raise rates. There’s a lot of fuss about what state legislators didn’t do in a session that ended May 8.
Lawmakers could not reach agreement to pass new laws restricting costs in non-hurricane claims that insurers say are inflated by contractors and attorneys.
These costs are often associated with “assignment of benefits,” or AOB. That’s when a contractor offers to clean up water from a plumbing leak, for example, and handle the claim with the insurance company if the customer signs a form.
Attorneys and contractors pushed back, saying insurers can fix the problem by paying claims quickly or winning bogus cases in court.
Insurance executives have sometimes cast the problem a little differently when talking to stock analysts. Homeowners Choice Property & Casualty Insurance Co. CEO Paresh Patel said in February AOB trends have featured “extremely elevated” levels of costs but also that they have “steadied out.”
“It’s too early to tell yet, but the actions we have taken make us very optimistic that at a minimum, the AOB problem for us has stabilized and at a maximum, it may actually go into decline because of some of the underwriting actions that we have taken,” Patel said.
Citizens officials have defined the AOB problem zone as Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, though Patel limited it to Broward and Miami-Dade in his company’s experience.
In February, the Post reported the state’s largest insurer and the biggest in Palm Beach and Broward counties said its average cost for AOB claims has been falling for two years.
“We saw a little bit uptick in frequency, nothing major,” Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. CEO Sean Downes told analysts on a fourth-quarter earnings call. “But the severity is down.”
Universal tried to impose a blanket 8.1 percent rate increase for 2017 in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties but regulators questioned its vague justification and the company withdrew it. Universal had about 577,000 customers statewide at the start of the year, the most in Florida, state records show.
Citizens, the state’s second-largest insurer with about 450,000 customers, expects to add policies in 2017 even as it raises premiums near its state-imposed rate cap of 10 percent a year.
One of the state’s top six insurers, Heritage Property & Casualty Insurance Co., emphasized with analysts it has moved away from writing new business in the tri-county region including Palm Beach.
So for consumers, it’s no time to sit and watch the mailbox. Take control and check things out with resources including the Post guide.
Floridians pay the nation’s highest home insurance costs, so it pays to be your own advocate. Check out multiple financial ratings and complaint information on more than 100 companies analyzed by the newspaper in The Palm Beach Post’s Property Insurance Guide:
Talk to agents. Go online. The state’s Office of Insurance Regulation offers basic information about price examples and availability by county:
Top insurers in Palm Beach County
Company/customers in county at start of 2017
1. Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. 71,777
2. Citizens Property Insurance Corp. 42,759
3. Federated National Insurance Co. 34,934
4. Homeowners Choice P&C Ins. Co. 20,642
5. Heritage P&C Insurance Co. 19,869
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