When State Farm threatened to pull out of Florida’s home insurance market a year ago, David Scott Banghart decided it was time to start looking for another provider.
But it’s no easy task in Florida. Thanks to a series of recent hurricanes and tropical storms, many large property insurance companies have scaled back on writing policies in the Sunshine State and other Southern and Eastern coastal communities.
In recent years, a number of small companies have sprung up to help fill this void. The challenge for homeowners is trying to find information about these insurers.
Banghart, a social worker from Lutz, Fla., did his homework. He checked a Web site operated by the State of Florida that compares insurance companies’ rates, contacted local insurance agents, checked companies’ financial ratings online and did a Google search for company news.
“It’s hard to find a long-term track record in a market that just opened up” to new insurers, he says.
The experts say Banghart made the right moves. Consumers need “some assurance that a company is financially sound and will be there when you need them,” says Julie Pulliam, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Insurance Association.
The following tips can help you learn about new insurance companies, experts say:
Make sure the company is licensed
Consumers who vet home insurance companies should contact their state insurance department (or check its Web site) to make sure the companies are licensed in the state.
To be licensed, companies must prove they have a certain amount of assets on hand to cover claims, says Elissa Boos, a personal lines team leader with McGrath Insurance Group in Sturbridge, Mass.
Licensing also ensures that if a firm eventually goes belly up, the state guaranty fund will pay the company’s claims. The fund gets its money from policy holders in a state who are assessed a fee, regardless of the insurance company they use.
Peruse the complaint record
In most states, you can check online to uncover the number of complaints filed against a company, Boos says.
However, just checking raw numbers can be deceptive. It’s almost inevitable that a large carrier will have more complaints than a small firm that has only been in existence for a short time.
Typical complaints about companies include slow payment of claims or poor customer service, Boos says.
There’s also a Web site called Badfaithinsurance.org that invites consumers to submit their complaints or praise, says Marjorie Young, vice president of E.G. Bowman Insurance Co., a New York City insurance brokerage.
The site lists a “Hall of Fame” and “Hall of Shame.”
Check financial strength
A.M. Best and Demotech are just two of the companies that make an assessment of a home insurance company’s financial strength. Bigger, older firms are more likely to be covered by A.M. Best, while Demotech is more likely to include smaller, newer firms.
Young says she would be leery of unrated companies, because there is no way to gauge their practices when it comes to paying claims.
One stumbling block when dealing with small, new firms, is that they might not have been in existence long enough to be rated.
Use an independent insurance agent
An independent agent can help you wend through the maze of insurance information.
“Your insurance agent should be really able to guide you,” Boos says.
Banghart used this approach, figuring an independent agent “might have had some practical experience with these companies.”
He also wanted a locally based agent familiar with the peculiarities of his area, such as susceptibility to sinkholes.
A good independent agent has an idea of how long a company has been in business, its financial strength and whether it has locations in other states. An agent also should be there to aid customers who have claims, Boos says.
“They’re there to advocate for you,” she says.
Do more digging
The Internet is a great resource for news articles written about a home insurance company, as well as other background information, Pulliam says.
Also, don’t hesitate to ask the company itself for information. Companies that want your business will provide information on their financial ratings, she says.
The premium alone should not be the deciding factor, Young says.
“If your premium is too low, I would be extra leery of it,” she says. “There might not be enough set aside for claims.”
Once a company looks promising, there are still questions to ask. John Rushe, a partner in Werle & Rushe Insurance Agency, in Erie, Pa., says many insurers will offer three tiers of insurance — basic, broad and special form — with varying levels of coverage.
A basic policy might not cover damage due to the crushing weight of ice and snow, while a broad policy might. The cost difference may be only a few dollars per year.
Consumers also should ask whether the company uses in-house or independent adjusters if a catastrophe strikes, Rushe says. There’s nothing wrong with independent adjusters, but if Pennsylvania is walloped by a bad snowstorm, their services will be in demand from numerous companies.