Did you know that insurance discounts are available in California for homeowners who live in recognized "Firewise" communities? Contact FIRESafe MARIN for help organizing your neighborhood!
Many insurance companies routinely cancel policies for homeowners who live in Marin's most fire-prone neighborhoods. Without insurance, you could lose your mortgage and your home. FIRESafe MARIN can help you work with your local fire department and insurer to get your policy renewed. Contact us for assistance.
ARE YOU FINANCIALLY PREPARED FOR A WILDFIRE?
In the North Bay fires of 2017, nearly 9000 homes were destroyed. 74% didn’t have enough insurance coverage.
INSURANCE CAN PROTECT WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU
A home is generally your largest asset. Protect it. Insurance is the critical back-up plan enabling you to rebuild your home after a wildfire. Federal catastrophe grants are not enough to rebuild a home. Make sure your family’s financial safety net is in place, in case disaster strikes. Follow these tips as part of your Ready, Set, GO! wildfire preparedness plan:
Tips 1: Conduct an Annual Insurance Check Up
Call your agent or insurance company annually to discuss your policy limits and coverage. Make sure your policy reflects the correct square footage and features in your home. Get an estimate of the cost of re-building after a wildfire from a local contractor, and be skeptical of estimates less than $300/sq ft. In Marin, most rebuilding estimates should start at $400 per square foot or more depending on construction quality and home features.
- Purchase building code upgrade coverage.
- Save money with a higher deductible, not lower coverage.
- Don’t underestimate to save money.
- Don’t rely on the purchase price or appraised value of your home.
Tips 2: Know What Your Policy Covers
The details matter. Ask for a full replacement cost policy that pays to replace all your items at current market price rather than an actual cash value policy that takes depreciation into account and pays less for aged items.
Tips 3: Update Your Policy to Cover Home Improvements
If you make home improvements, be sure to call your agent or company to update your coverage. Make sure your insurer knows about the changes, so the new countertops, floors or room are covered if you must rebuild.
Tips 4: Maintain Insurance
If your home is paid off, be sure to maintain homeowner insurance. Without insurance, do you have the money to rebuild your home? Check with loved ones whose homes are paid off to be sure they continue to carry homeowner insurance.
Tips 5: Get Renters Insurance
Renters can lose everything in a fire and be left to start over. Many insurers bundle renters insurance coverage with an auto insurance policy at affordable prices.
Tips 6: Get 2 years of Living Expense Coverage
Get at least 2 years of “additional living expenses” coverage, becauset hat's how long it may take to rebuild after a fire.
MAKE A HOME INVENTORY
Recovery is easier if you have an accurate home inventory. Document the contents of your home before a fire occurs. Use your smartphone to video your belongings. Keep your inventory & photos outside home or in the cloud.
Tip 1: Video or photograph each room of your home.
Remember to document drawers and closets.
Tip 2: Describe your home’s contents in your video.
Mention the price you paid, where and when you bought the item.
Tip 3: Remember to note important or expensive items.
Video your electronics, appliances, sports equipment, TVs, computers, tablets. “Schedule” valuable items with your insurer before a fire strickes!
Tip 4: Save receipts for major purchases.
Store key documents in the cloud or fireproof case. Keep home inventory offsite or in the cloud.
Tip 5: Video the Garage
Don’t forget to video or photograph what is inside your garage.
Dropped by your Insurer? Where to go for help in California
The following information is provided by United Policyholders (www.uphelp.org)
If you are one of the many Californians whose insurance company had notified you they will not be renewing a policy on your home, don’t panic, but start shopping ASAP. By law they have to give you 45-days notice, and you may need that much time to find a replacement policy you can afford.
In most parts of the state, you still have buying options and insurance companies are still competing for your business. But if you live in a brush-heavy or forested area that’s been hit by recent wildfires, it may be hard to find a company willing to insure your home. When you find a replacement policy, it will probably cost more but provide less protection than your old policy. It may be through a “non-admitted” insurer.* These types of companies are picking up customers that “admitted” (well-known brand) insurers are dropping.
United Policyholders is here to help you shop and deal with this unfortunate situation, and we are working on initiatives to fix it. To learn more about the reasons why so many insurance companies are reducing the number of homes they’re insuring in parts of California, visit the Advocacy and Action section of uphelp.org.
1) TRY AND GET YOUR INSURER TO REVERSE ITS DECISION AND RENEW YOU**
Contact your current insurance company and ask them if there are improvements you can make to your home that will qualify you for a renewal. Give them your best arguments for keeping you as a customer. If you bought your expiring policy through an agent, ask him/her to go to bat for you with the company.
Contact your local fire department, Fire Safe Council or elected officials and find out if there is an inspection, fire risk reduction certification or brush clearing assistance program available in your area.
NOTE: If your insurer did not give you 45 days notice, or their reasons for dropping you seem unfair, seek help from the California Department of Insurance (CDI) at 1-800-927-HELP, www.insurance.ca.gov.
Limited circumstances where an insurer must renew your policy:
1. You have a policy with a guaranteed renewal provision. A few companies offer this. Some AARP members who bought through The Hartford have this protection.
2. You lost your home in a declared disaster within the past two years: CA Insurance Code at section 675.1 gives disaster victims the right to one or two renewals when their policy comes up for renewal.
3. Your home was damaged in a declared disaster with the past two years.
2) DON'T PANIC, START SHOPPING
Contact the insurance agent you’ve been using, or ask trusted sources for recommendations to an “independent” insurance agent. Independent agents have relationships with multiple insurance companies. A “captive” agent that sells for companies like State Farm, Farmers or Allstate probably can’t help you, as they’re limited to only one insurance company.
Visit UP’s website, www.uphelp.org and click on the “Insurance Finder” link on the right side of our home page. Try using the Match UP Insurance Finder.
Try the California Department of Insurance’s shopping tools. They offer a list of CA home insurance companies with toll-free phone numbers, and a list of companies that sell “DIC” (“Difference in Conditions”) policies that fill gaps in Fair Plan policies. www.insurance.ca.gov
If your best coverage and price option is through a “non-admitted” (also called “surplus lines”) insurance company, check their financial strength rating with Demotech, A.M. Best, or another agency before you buy. This is important. If a non-admitted insurer runs out of money to pay claims, (becomes “insolvent”) their customers are not protected by the same safety net*** that “admitted” well-known brands have under them, and the CA Dept. of Insurance has less oversight power over them.
3) SHOP SMART
Your policy should cover what it would likely cost to rebuild your home in compliance with current building codes if it were to be completely destroyed by a natural or manmade disaster of any kind. But many policies don’t. Don’t blindly trust that your agent or insurer is selling you a policy that will fully protect your assets. UP surveys show that 2/3 of U.S. homes are underinsured. Shop for a policy that will adequately insure your dwelling for a total loss fire, (including building code upgrades) then add coverage for flood and quake protection if you can afford it. Ask the right questions and take good notes while shopping.
- Aim to insure your property for Replacement Cost Value, not depreciated Actual Cash Value.
- Coverage for building code upgrades and an extended replacement cost rider are worth paying for.
- Your dwelling coverage limit should match local construction costs (per square foot) for a home of similar style, age and quality, plus an “extended replacement cost” feature for extra protection.
- Choose the highest deductible you feel comfortable with to keep the cost of your coverage manageable.
4) THE FAIR PLAN IS A LAST RESORT
If you strike out in the “normal” marketplace, you can buy home insurance through the California Fair Plan. Call them at (800) 339-4099). www.cfpnet.com The CA FAIR Plan is a state-run home insurance program for people who can’t find a better option. Fair Plan policies provide only basic fire protection (no liability or theft) and cost more than a traditional policy. If you end up having to buy a Fair Plan policy, we recommend two things: Shop again in 6 months. New options may be available. And, if you can afford to, add supplemental coverage for what a Fair Plan policy excludes. Not all insurance agents are familiar with these options, so visit www.insurance.ca.gov/01-consumers/105-type/5residential/carriersDICpolicies.cfm for more info.
Discounts are available on the FAIR plans for homeowners who live within nationally recognized Firewise USA Sites. FIRESafe MARIN can help you achive Firewise USA recognition! Marin is the fastest growing Firewise county in the nation!
*“Admitted” insurers are fully regulated by the CA Department of Insurance and their customers are protected by CIGA, the CA Insurance Guarantee Association if their insurer becomes insolvent (runs out of money). “Non-admitted” insurers are not.
**With a few exceptions, your insurance company can drop (non-renew) you as long as they give you written notice at least 45 days prior to the date your old policy will expire, and as long as they are following their own guidelines and not discriminating against you. Their guidelines must be objective, have a substantial relationship to the risk of loss, and be applied consistently. Common reasons include wildfire risk, the age or condition of the property, lack of defensible space, type of roof or construction. The 45-day notice must contain the reason or reasons for the nonrenewal, the telephone number of the insurer's representatives that handle consumer inquiries or complaints, and a statement that you can have the insurer's nonrenewal decision reviewed by the CDI.
***CIGA – the CA Insolvency Guarantee Association pays up to $500k per home if the insurer goes insolvent.
Download a printable version of this information.
Home Insurance Inspection Alert for California Residents
ALERT: “Fire-Safe” Inspections and Repair Requirements by Insurers
There’s been an increase in insurance companies doing inspections before they will renew a policy or insure a new home. This is happening most often in neighborhoods known as “urban-wildland interface zones” and areas considered to be at risk for wildfires. Some insurers are having their own staff do the inspections. Others are hiring inspectors who prepare a written report when they’re done. After the inspections, insurance companies are requiring repairs or improvements that must be made before they will insure or renew coverage on the home. Some of these requirements are appropriate and affordable. Others are not. In some cases they are exceeding local and state building and safety codes.
Not all insurers are doing this. Some insurers are saying they are looking for signs of deferred maintenance, aging roofs, overgrown trees, brush close to the home, etc. Some homeowners report that they’ve been asked to do things that seem nitpicky such as repaving a driveway that is old but perfectly fine, or things that can’t be done like clearing brush beyond their property line.
This is not an entirely new phenomenon. UP has been guiding nervous property owners on dealing with non-renewals and insurance-buying challenges in California, Colorado, New York, Florida, Louisiana and elsewhere for many years. (See, e.g., "The Industry’s Crisis Du Jour” in our 1996 newsletter). Many insurers, including the CA Fair Plan (see below), routinely inspect homes in forested/heavy brush areas.
What is new is the increase in detailed inspections and correction requirements by some brand name insurers, plus wildfire risk scoring by data vendors and growing concerns over climate change and drought.
Are there limits to what an insurance company can inspect and ask you to do?
Yes but they need updating. There are legal limits to how much brush an insurer can ask you to clear, but not on the types and extent of repairs/improvements they can ask you to make as a condition of buying insurance. Common sense says you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home. If you feel an inspector is being intrusive or overly probing, you are free to ask them to leave, decline an inspection and take your business elsewhere. If there aren’t a lot of insurance options in your area and you want to be insured by a company that’s insisting on a home inspection, do your best to cooperate.
Contact your local fire department and/Fire Safe Council to understand local rules and options. In some communities fire department officials will visit homes and help homeowners by certifying the adequacy of their brush clearance for an insurance company.
What can a property owner do?
1) If you can’t or don’t want to make the repairs or improvements the insurer is requiring you to make, try explaining your position and working things out directly with them. If you can do some but not all the work they’re asking you to do – that may be a compromise they can accept. If you have an agent or broker, seek their help. If that doesn’t work, start shopping for a different insurer.
2) If the insurer is asking you to make improvements or repairs that seem unreasonable or unrelated to fire risk; such as replacing an old but perfectly good driveway or composite or tile roof, file a complaint with the California Department of Insurance.
3) If you can’t find an insurer that will insure your home as is, and you can’t afford required improvements, you may have to buy to a policy with special exclusions or limitations. The classic example would be a policy that only pays “ACV” (actual cash value) to repair your roof instead of the full cost of replacing it. Avoid this if you can.
4) If your insurer non-renews your policy and isn’t willing to reverse their decision, regardless of improvements or repairs, be sure they gave you the legally required 45-day notice and are complying with the law (see Dropped by Your Insurer in California, Where to go for help?) The same applies if you receive a mid-term cancellation notice.
Don’t be afraid to shop and switch.
There’s little to be gained by staying loyal to an insurer that no longer wants you as a customer. Start shopping. The Internet and UP’s Buying Tips Library make comparison shopping easier than ever. Our library offers tools and guidance on picking a good agent or broker, comparing policy coverages, exclusions and deductible options, and insuring your property to value. You’ll want to look for a financially solvent company with a good reputation. You can use the California Department of Insurance’s “Premium Compare” tool to get a rough idea of pricing. Ideally, buy insurance through an insurer that’s licensed and “admitted” in California so you are fully protected by the state’s laws and regulations. If your only option is buying from a “surplus line” or “non-admitted” company, that’s not the end of the world. Do your best to get coverage that’s as good or better than what you had before you were dropped.
If you just can’t find an admitted or non-admitted company that will insure your home, your back up is the California Fair Plan. The FAIR Plan sells an Actual Cash Value home insurance policy to property owners who’ve diligently searched but have been unable to buy home insurance. FAIR plan policies provide basic and optional coverages but no liability/theft protection. If your only option is a Fair Plan policy, shop again for other options at least once a year and consider buying a supplemental “Difference in Conditions” policy or endorsement(s) to fill gaps in your Fair Plan policy.
“My insurer will renew my policy but for a much higher price”
All insurers licensed to operate in California must file their underwriting guidelines and request approval from the Department of Insurance before raising their rates. If you think your rates have been unfairly raised or that you’ve been placed in an unfairly high risk category, seek help from the Department of Insurance by calling their toll-free number 1-800-927-4357, asking a question on their website or by filing a “Request for Assistance.” Even if the Department says the insurer acted within its rights so they can’t help you, it’s important to alert and inform them by going on record with a complaint.
"I’ve been with the same company for years and am afraid to switch”
There are plenty of financially strong and reputable insurance companies in California. If you take the time to comparison shop available options, switching companies may get you the same coverage at the same or even a lower cost. But yes, depending on the characteristics of your home and region, you may end up paying more.
If you’ve been using an agent that only sells for one insurer, (State Farm, Farmers, Allstate, for example), you’re likely to find many more options via an independent agent (also called a broker). The Department of Insurance maintains a current list of licensed insurers in California including their contact information. Use the “How Does Your Insurer Rate” search box at www.ambest.org to check an insurance company’s financial rating.
 California law allows an insurer to require you have 100 feet of “defensible space” around your home. See Pub. Res. Code. Sec. 4291. They can require you to clear more than 100 feet if a fire expert provides findings that such a clearing is necessary to significantly reduce the risk of transmission of flame or heat sufficient to ignite the structure, and there is no other feasible mitigation measure possible to reduce the risk of ignition or spread of wildfire to the structure. The greater distance may not be beyond the property line unless allowed by state law, local ordinance, rule, or regulation.” Id. at (a)(3).