Bracing for hurricane season

Dan Grech May 29, 2009

Bracing for hurricane season

Dan Grech May 29, 2009


Tess Vigeland:You’ve no doubt heard about people who go without car insurance. And of course millions go without health insurance.
Now some homeowners are facing a similar choice. Ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the cost of insuring against a disaster has spiraled as fast as the winds themselves. The next hurricane season starts Monday.

From Miami, Marketplace’s Dan Grech reports on how some people are coping.

Dan Grech: Rather than going broke, some homeowners in hurricane-prone areas are going bare.

Robert Hartwig: “Going bare” means going without insurance.

That’s Robert Hartwig with the Insurance Information Institute. He says about four percent of homeowners go bare. Nationwide, that’s about three million people.

Charles Fetten is one of them. Since 1965, he has lived in a modest two-story house in Pompano Beach, on the Atlantic coast of Florida. He has an American flag on the lawn and wind chimes by the front door.

Fetten is a retired auto mechanic on social security. In 2005, his insurance premium quadrupled to $500 dollars a month – half his monthly nut. So he dropped his windstorm coverage.

Charles Fetten: Basically I just couldn’t afford it. I’d have to borrow money to live.

Fetten was able to drop his hurricane insurance, because he’s paid off his mortgage.

Banks require people with home loans to take out insurance, so going bare isn’t an option for most homeowners. Some retirees have resorted to selling their homes and moving in with family. Others have moved out of state.

Fetten crunched the numbers. His home suffered $35,000 in damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. But his insurance company paid only $12,500. Much of the damage has gone unrepaired. So Fetten decided to drop his insurance – in essence, to bet his house against Mother Nature.

Fetten: That’s why people gamble. You win, you lose. But after past performances by insurance companies, I don’t think it’s that much of a gamble. I already spent my money. And got nothing.

Experts say that going bare is a dangerous idea for all but the wealthiest people.

Robert Hartwig.

Hartwig: Looking to save a few hundred dollars where you could lose a few hundred thousand is simply not a way that you should view the investment in your home, which, for most people, is their most valuable asset.

Going bare is a national phenomenon. But it’s most acute in hurricane zones like Florida, where premiums have gone up the most.

Ed Domansky is with the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

Ed Domansky: Florida by its geography alone is simply an inherently risky state. I mean, we are a panhandle. We are surrounded by ocean and gulf. And we are not a very wide state.

Alex Soto is an insurance agent in Miami. He says more of his clients are asking him about going bare. Soto tells his clients that insurance isn’t just about economics. It’s about peace of mind.

Alex Soto: I had somebody who has all the means to do it. And they said, “I won’t be able to sleep. The hurricane season is June 1 to November 30. I cannot go without sleeping that long.”

Going bare can shift the burden of rebuilding to the federal government. People who don’t have insurance are often eligible for grants from FEMA and low-interest loans from the SBA.

William Stander is with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

William Stander: If you’re relying on the federal government to come rescue you because you’re not carrying insurance, all you have to do is take a look at Katrina. And how long it’s taken for some people to get help.

So what other options do you have to lower your monthly insurance premiums? You can increase your deductible – the amount you pay out of pocket before insurance steps in. You can shop around for another insurance company that offers lower rates.

Or Stander says you can also lower premiums by hardening your house.

Stander: Whether it’s by adding hurricane shutters, improving your roof to wall connections, putting in impact resistant windows and doors. There’s a lot of information available from FLASH, which is the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.

One Coral Gables man took this idea a step further. He built a house made of solid concrete – the foundation, the roof, even the interior walls. Officials dubbed it “the Bunker” and judged it could withstand a Category Five storm. Then the man dropped his insurance.

In Miami, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace Money.

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