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Homeowners Should Review Insurance as Hurricane Season Starts

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RISMEDIA, June 6, 2007-(MCT)-From the outside, this 39-foot-long vehicle could pass as a big RV. But the inside is appointed like an office with five desktop computers, upholstered booths, a desk and several cabinets.

Standing inside the mobile office, Darel Myers described how the vehicle enabled Allstate Insurance to process claims from a parking lot outside New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina roared through the city. One of 41 that the insurer dispatched to the Gulf Coast after Katrina’s rampage two years ago, the mobile office also now serves as a bully pulpit for Allstate.

The vehicle stopped in Norfolk on Thursday on its way to Charleston, S.C., with a message for Allstate policyholders: “Now is the time to prepare for hurricane season.”

Amid forecasts that the 2007 season will be more severe than 2006, insurers have been advising homeowners in coastal areas to take inventories of their household goods and create evacuation plans. They also are telling homeowners to closely read their insurance policies and make sure they understand the details.

“A policy that was written several years ago may not reflect the value of your home today,” especially if you’ve made additions or renovations, said Myers, equipment manager for Allstate’s national catastrophe team.

Sean McMurrough, counsel for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, acknowledged Friday that reading an insurance policy doesn’t rank high on anyone’s summer reading list. “You buy it and want to forget about it,” but the coverage is for the largest asset that most people have, he said.

In coastal areas like Hampton Roads, homeowners who haven’t read their policies recently probably won’t be thrilled with what they find. In addition to boosting their rates, an increasing number of insurers have imposed hurricane or windstorm deductibles that shift greater risk to the policyholder.

In place of a routine, fixed deductible of $500 for damage from a hurricane, many insurers apply a mandatory percentage of the home’s insured value. Some use a mandatory deductible of 2 or 3% in coastal areas of Virginia. Others, including Allstate, have raised this to 5%. Most of the deductibles are triggered by named tropical storms but vary by company.

If a home insured for $100,000 has a policy with a mandatory windstorm or hurricane deductible of 5%, the homeowner must pay for the first $5,000 of repairs out of pocket before their policy kicks in.

Partly because of the low volume of catastrophic claims last year, the nation’s property-and-casualty insurers rang up especially robust earnings for 2006. Another favorable development is that the cost of their reinsurance has stabilized, said David Kodama, director of policy analysis at Property Casualty Insurers Association. Buying reinsurance enables an insurer to reduce the risk of having to pay for catastrophic losses.

Exceptionally strong earnings haven’t prompted insurers to ease their rates or make coverage more available to homeowners in coastal areas. Some companies, including Allstate, have continued to retrench from coastal regions. In December, Allstate announced that it would stop writing new homeowners’ policies in coastal parts of Virginia.

Allstate also said that it would no longer write new homeowners’ policies in coastal areas of North and South Carolina and wasn’t renewing existing policies in those areas.

The beginning of hurricane season isn’t the best time of year to be shopping for homeowners’ coverage. Unless you’re faced with an extraordinary increase in your premium, it’s better to wait until the season winds down in November to line up another insurer, said Bob Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America and a former insurance regulator.

Hunter agreed that this is the time for homeowners to read their policies closely and be sure they fully understand their coverage.

“If you’re concerned about a tree falling” and causing damage, he said, “you should ask about it now. This is the time to ask questions.”

Another topic to check is the need for flood insurance. Some homeowners in areas vulnerable to flooding mistakenly assume that their homeowners’ policy will cover flood damage. This coverage is available from property-and-casualty agents and purchased through the government’s National Flood Insurance Program.

Homeowners, however, cannot wait until a hurricane is barreling up the coast to buy the coverage. In most cases, the policies don’t take effect until 30 days after they are purchased.

Copyright © 2007, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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