I live about 30 minutes from Seffner, Fla., the small town where a sinkhole recently opened up in the middle of the night and swallowed 37-year-old Jeff Bush along with most of the contents of his bedroom.
While the tragedy unfolded on TV to the abject horror of anyone with a heart, it held additional significance for Florida homeowners who have anxiously watched their homeowners insurance rates climb in recent years, in large part to cover just such a nightmare.
A recent state survey of 211 home insurers operating in Florida found that sinkhole claims nearly tripled between 2006 and 2010, from 2,360 to 6,694. The combined five-year total of 24,671 claims cost insurers about $1.4 billion.
What’s with all the sudden sinkhole claims? Unchecked development onto questionable land, weak building regulation, the annual drawdown of localized water tables for agricultural purposes, and the inherent unpredictability of ground collapse are generally cited as contributing factors.
That said, those of us who reside in one of Florida’s 10 most sinkhole-prone counties, the bulk of which are located in the greater Tampa Bay area, worry less about losing our homes than losing our home insurance, and with good reason. While it’s highly unlikely that a sinkhole will swallow my house, the odds that the cost of sinkhole coverage will swallow my income are growing daily.
What the TV coverage of the Jeff Bush tragedy didn’t show is the muddle we’ve made of sinkhole coverage here in Florida.
Under state law, every insurer authorized to sell homeowners insurance in Florida must provide coverage for “catastrophic ground cover collapse,” which basically means that any sighted person strolling by your house would pause and observe, “That place don’t look right.”
Unfortunately, state lawmakers then went on to define a sinkhole with such specificity that it miraculously turned into a loophole large enough for any home insurer with a sentient legal team to fit through with ease.
In 2011, under pressure from the insurance lobby that fraudulent sinkhole claims were the real culprit, the state legislature passed a law that states that if an insurer denies your sinkhole claim, it will now cost you, the homeowner, up to $2,500 to obtain scientific proof that your sunken living room was not designed that way.
To shift even more risk back onto homeowners, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state’s largest carrier and home insurer of last resort, notified its 1.4 million customers last year that it was adding a 10 percent sinkhole deductible on top of a 10.8 percent rate increase.
Insurers have made it crystal clear they want out of the sinkhole coverage requirement. The question on Florida’s collective kitchen table is: If property and casualty insurance companies can’t or don’t care to share the sinkhole risk, what’s a homeowner to do?
Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. And by all means, please copy Tallahassee.
Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus
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