By Rachel Koning Beals
State Farm joins list of insurance companies shunning new business because of the growing risk of wildfires. An insurance agent has tips for making sure you're protected.
State Farm has stopped accepting homeowner insurance applications in California, citing the growing risk from catastrophes like wildfires and the inflation-fueled costs to rebuild homes and businesses.
The measure is the latest development in what has been a years-long challenge in California: insurance companies dropping homeowners or shunning new business because of the growing risk of wildfires, in particular. Fires that devour wildlife and property development alike have been worsened by the extreme heat and drought brought on by climate change and as the state grapples with how to manage its forests.
California has logged an average of over 7,000 wildfires each year, consuming an average of over 2 million acres, over the past five years, according to data from the governor's office.
"State Farm General Insurance Company made this decision due to historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure and a challenging reinsurance market," the insurance giant said in a statement on Friday. The ban on new business kicked in over the weekend for both personal and business properties. Existing policies that cover wildfire damage are still valid.
State Farm was the largest underwriter of property and casualty insurance policies in California in 2021 with over $7 billion in premiums written, and a market share of 8.3%, according to the state's Department of Insurance. Farmers Insurance had a 7.9% market share and Berkshire Hathaway(BRKA) had 6.3%.
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In recent years, the state has suffered with some of the most destructive wildfire seasons in its history. In 2018, for instance, the Camp Fire destroyed 11,000 homes and at one point, displaced nearly 50,000 people. In its aftermath, insurance companies saw huge losses, causing premiums to go up and toughening eligibility requirements to get covered.
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"Severe weather, including an increase in wildfires, is significantly impacting homeowners -- where they live, how much it costs to own a home, and how they're able to protect their home," said Nick Ramirez, an agent with independent brokerage Goosehead Insurance. Goosehead shops different policy offerings to cobble together right-sized plans for insurance customers.
"More and more insurance carriers are looking to manage risk by discontinuing coverage in higher risk markets like California, Louisiana and Florida, ultimately creating a difficult situation for consumers who are forced to consider costlier and more limited policies to protect themselves from catastrophe-related damages," he told MarketWatch.
For sure, California officials have attempted to minimize this turnover in insurance markets. Officials temporarily barred insurers from dropping customers in areas hit by wildfires, in fact directing insurance companies to provide discounts when the state was ravaged by major fires.
The worst of the state's drought conditions may be over for now, although expansive development still means that homes are built very near potential fire zones.
U.S. Drought Monitor data from March showed that moderate or severe drought covers about 49% of the state, while nearly 17% of the state is free of drought or a condition described as abnormally dry. The remainder is still abnormally dry.
But as wildfire risk persists for some in the state, so has the issue of insurance affordability and availability. Last year, insurer American International Group(AIG) notified the state's insurance regulator that it will exit the homeowners market.
It joined insurer Chubb(CB) in cutting back on coverage of multimillion-dollar homes, adding to a gap in coverage that had already cropped up in non-renewals by midrange insurers.
California regulators have been encouraged that parts of the broader market are showing signs of stabilizing thanks to recent rate increases. Allstate Corp.(ALL), Farmers Insurance and a few others have committed to adding policyholders, the Wall Street Journal reported.
For their part, insurers are frustrated that California regulators require them to set home-insurance rates based on historical losses not projections of future losses that are determined by catastrophe modeling. Catastrophe models can reflect detailed, location-specific data that the insurers feel they need amid escalating wildfire activity tied partly to climate change.
Wildfires aren't the only changing risk scenario that is turning insurance markets upside down.
Florida insurers have been canceling policies, leaving the state or liquidating at a rapid pace in recent years.
Florida has always presented a risky market to home-insurance companies due to the high threat of widespread weather-related damage, including high winds, hurricanes and flooding. Insurers say the real driver toward exit has been a rash of insurance fraud, on roofing repair claims in particular, in what's well known as a litigious state.
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A proclamation from the office of Governor Ron DeSantis notes that, although Florida only accounts for 9% of the country's home insurance claims, it is home to 79% of the country's home-insurance lawsuits. Many of these lawsuits are fraudulent, state officials suggest.
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MarketWatch asked Ramirez to address what homeowners should know when it comes to having the correct policy for wildfire.
Fire damage is covered under most homeowners insurance policies. Whether caused by an electrical or natural source, fire damage is usually covered by the dwelling coverage portion of your policy, which covers the physical structure of your home and provides the funds needed to rebuild your home in the event of a total loss.
However, if a home is located in a high-risk area, such as California, many traditional carriers may opt out of providing coverage. In this case, consumers may have to search for insurance through an excess or surplus line carrier, which specializes in insuring factors that traditional insurance carriers won't cover.
Consumers could also consider state-sponsored policies, like The California Fair Plan, which provides fire insurance to California homeowners in high wildfire-risk areas. However, the California Fair Plan can be costly and limited on coverage, so pair this policy with a supplemental plan to provide sufficient coverage for all of the major perils most traditional carriers offer, Ramirez suggests.
How best to prepare your information in the event you have to file a wildfire claim?
Take inventory and a video recording of your personal property ahead of time. During stressful situations, it can be difficult to remember what you have in your possession. This preparation can help in the event you need to file a claim and ensure you receive full coverage for any loss incurred from a wildfire.
It's also important to understand what your insurance policy covers if you are forced to leave your home due to a wildfire. Many policies will cover you for additional living costs if you need to seek temporary lodging, even during the repair or rebuild period. Be sure to keep any receipts from purchases related to your evacuation or relocation.
Finally, if you need to fire a wildfire claim, call your agent right away, Ramirez said. Your insurance agent can support you in starting the claims process with your insurance carrier quickly and efficiently. Keep your homeowners policy information, as well as the contact information for their insurance agent, handy and in fireproof or water-tight storage at all times for easy access.
-Rachel Koning Beals
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May 31, 2023 10:31 ET (14:31 GMT)
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