When Garberville resident, and former editor of this paper, Susan Gardner received her home insurance renewal form recently, she was shocked to discover that her carrier wouldn’t be renewing.
“We have had the same insurance ever since we bought the house 25 years ago,” said Gardner by email to The Redwood Times. “We were told we live in a brush area and therefore they cannot insure us anymore.”
The announcement came from her long-time insurance company Grange Insurance Association of Seattle.
“We took a very detailed look at our coverage areas in the foothill sections of California,” said Frank McConnell, vice president of product development at Grange Insurance Association. “And found that our concentration of policies, especially in areas prone to wild fire, put our company at great risk.”
McConnell explained by phone on Monday that, in the worst case scenario of a busy wild fire season, if each of those policies had to be paid out in a single year, their small company could be forced into bankruptcy.
“So we elected to diversify in order to keep serving all of our customers,” McConnell added, also confirming that they continue to provide insurance in this state.
“It’s not uncommon for insurance companies to switch priorities, or to change underwriters,” explained Nancy Kincaid of the California Department of Insurance. “The sophistication of fire metrics is now so advanced that insurance companies can see a clearer picture of risk than they ever did before.”
Californians feeling the sting of increases on their home insurance rates isn’t a new story. Since 2014, news reports of home owner insurance rates have been a mainstay of local news outlets.
“Home owners can no longer assume that their rates won’t change,” said Karen Miclette by phone to The Redwood Times. “The rates have been inching higher and higher each year.”
Miclette, of her eponymous Garberville insurance company said that a home owner who might have paid $2,000 five years ago is today looking at a $4,000 or $5,000 bill for the same home.
“The underwriters said we lived in a forested area with bad access (yes, it is a dead end road, but very well-traveled), with no fire hydrant within 1,000 feet,” added Gardner. “We actually live within two miles of the Garberville Volunteer Fire Department, four miles from a Cal Fire station and four miles from the Redway Fire Department. We are not even out in the boonies.”
Kincaid said that the way insurance companies used to parse out rural insurance risks was to set a sort of neighborhood amount that each home owner would share equally.
“They don’t do it like that anymore,” Kincaid said by phone. “Today, insurance companies can zero in on the risk to a specific home and price the policy specific to that address.”
Kincaid said that they’ve even seen homes in the same neighborhood experience vastly different rates due to things like where your home sits in a valley, or more importantly, where it sits in relation to a potential fire path.
“When there is a change in climate, there is a change in home risk factor,” Kincaid said.
McConnell also mentioned the persistent drought in California as a key measure of their internal analysis.
It should also be noted that fire maps have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Up until about 2007, insurance underwriters relied upon Sanborn Maps. These maps detailed cities and areas of the country and were typically the single source for such information. Not anymore.
Cal Fire has been making their fire maps public since the early 1990s and though insurance companies aren’t recommended to use their maps to determine risk factors, it’s easy to think they might.
A glance at the latest statewide fire hazard zone maps published by Cal Fire indicates that Garberville and Redway are two of many federally responsible and locally responsible unincorporated areas of the county. Though the map posted on the CalFire site is from 2007, the interactive google maps on Calfire’s website picks up the data in 2011.
Cal Fire mapping expert Dave Sapsis explained that their maps are not intended to be used by insurance companies. “CalFire and the Office of the Insurance Commissioner do not support the use of FHSZ for insurance underwriting,” said Sapsis by email.
Insurance companies with their own resources map their own risk zones, but smaller insurance companies also rely on ISO Fireline resources.
“And each company is different,” Kincaid said. “For the consumer it can be daunting because one company’s risk zone is not the same as another company.”
Kincaid explained that taking full advantage of risk mitigating products is one step to keeping your insurance rates from continuing to climb.
“Enclosed eaves,” Kincaid said. “It’s important to consider enclosed eaves, especially as we begin to learn more about the science behind ember behavior.”
So what can consumers do?
McConnell encouraged any former Grange customers to source alternative markets through their agents. He notes that while the alternatives might be more expensive, he hoped no former customers felt left behind.
“If your agent didn’t provide you with an alternative market,” McConnell said. “Ask again.”
For customers coming into the rural market, Miclette recommended understanding the rules of insurance, especially if you’ve inherited a property or are thinking of buying new in the area.
“Insurance cannot be assumed, even in the case of inheritance,” Miclette said. “Study your options before purchasing or decided to assume that property.”
She also recommended tapping into the FAIR program built to ensure Californians get home insurance. www.cfpnet.com
“FAIR can be picky,” Miclette said. “But don’t give up, we can find you insurance, it might take longer than normal but we’ll find you insurance.”
Gardner eventually found an insurer but the price was extreme, then a co-worker reminded her of her family’s military insurance, “I called USAA and within 30 minutes I had homeowner’s insurance at over a third less than what we were paying before.”
She said it went into effect two days later, and while it’s a stop gap for this year, she might have to do it all again next year.
“For the moment we can breathe a sigh of relief,” added Gardner.
Cal Fire’s Sapsis expects to have a new fire map up for the state by next year as well, but as Kincaid warns, “What we learn about ember behavior might change rates yet again.”