GRASS VALLEY, Calif. — State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara on Thursday launched a series of town hall meetings aimed at addressing the home insurance crisis.
Tens of thousands of homeowners in Northern California have been dropped by their insurance companies following back-to-back years of record wildfires. Finding a company to insure them often means homeowners are paying at least twice as much as they used to pay-- if not much more.
Commissioner Lara talked to a packed-to-overflow room at the Foothills Event Center in Grass Valley Thursday evening about what he plans to do to fix this problem.
“We’re saying, ‘We hear you,’” Lara told ABC10 at the meeting.
The California Department of Insurance doesn’t currently have the power to force insurance companies to cover homeowners in fire-prone areas. Lara would like to shift that needle.
"We want lawmakers to give us the authority to say that you have to, as an insurance company, write in these communities, because people have done what we've asked them to do: harden their homes, get that defensible space,” he said.
His department is now negotiating with Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature.
"We feel that we can... come to an agreement where we make sure that we have a strong insurance market but that we also do something for our consumers,” Lara said.
He hopes to strike an “appropriate balance” between rewarding people who have taken the steps to keep their homes safe from fire and incentivizing the insurance companies to stay.
“This is why we're saying, 'If you've done everything to harden your home-- as a community, you continue to mitigate for these wildfires,' that you should be entitled to keep your insurance," Lara said. “We're not saying that every single household we're forcing the insurance companies to write, but if you've done everything to protect your home, you should be able to write in these communities. We think that's an appropriate balance."
The Legislative session wraps up in September. The last day to pass a bill is Sept. 13. ABC10 asked Lara whether he thinks he can make progress on this insurance crisis by that deadline.
“Absolutely, I feel hopeful. I think we can get some stuff done. We also have ideas of ensuring that we continue this process next year, as the Legislature reconvenes, to tackle the issue of affordability.”
He says tackling the issue of non-renewals when an insurance company cancel’s a homeowner’s insurance policy is the top priority.
Keith Marcussen attended Thursday’s meeting. He used to pay $1,175 a year for full coverage through Travelers, he told ABC10.
"We're located just outside Nevada City and they dumped us last month,” he said. “Now, we have to pay $3,500 for the California FAIR (Plan), plus $780 for Travelers."
The FAIR plan is not taxpayer dollars, but it is a fund established through the state decades ago. It’s meant as a plan of last resort, but for many people now—it’s the plan of only resort.
Commissioner Lara is holding more of these town hall meetings in the coming months. The next one is at 6 p.m. on Wed., Aug. 28 in Auburn, at the Gold Country Fairgrounds’ Placer Hall. The next day, at 6 p.m. on Thurs., Aug. 29, there's a meeting in Sonora at Opera Hall.
What is the California FAIR Plan?
The State Legislature helped establish the California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan more than 50 years ago.
“It is an insurance pool established to assure the availability of basic property insurance to people who own insurable property in the State of California and who, beyond their control, have been unable to obtain insurance in the voluntary insurance market,” the plan’s website says.
It’s not a state agency, and it doesn't involve any public or taxpayer dollars. But people who can’t get fire insurance through any other avenue can get it through the California FAIR Plan.
The FAIR Plan is meant as a last resort, and experts recommend that people shop around before resorting to it. (Compare FAIR Plan insurance renewal trends to voluntary market trends HERE.)
So what if my insurance company drops me for fire coverage?
Most major insurance companies you’ve heard of are called admitted carriers, but there are other insurance companies where people can get fire insurance. Those are called not-admitted carriers or “surplus” carriers, and they include Lloyd’s of London. (Compare surplus, FAIR Plan and voluntary insurance renewal trends HERE.)
How does my insurance company decide whether to drop me or raise rates?
"Hardening" your house, or making your home and yard as fire-proof as possible by clearing brush and creating "defensible space" – doesn’t make a difference in insurance premiums, El Dorado Hills insurance agency owner Christopher Kerksieck told ABC10 News in May.
Insurance companies use something called a FireLine® score to determine your home’s fire risk and whether to sell you fire insurance – and at what price, Kerksieck said.
“They’re using mapping technology to find out where the house sits," Kerksieck said.
The product's website says FireLine judges wildfire risk on a home-by-home basis using advanced remote sensing and digital mapping technology to determine the effect of the three primary factors that contribute to wildfire risk:
- fuel — grass, trees, and dense brush feed a wildfire
- slope — steeper slopes can increase the speed and intensity of wildfire
- access — limited road access and dead ends can impede firefighting equipment
“That gives a score between zero and 30. The higher the score, the worse it is,” Kerksieck said.
He added that most companies won’t offer a homeowner fire insurance if that person’s FireLine score is above a three. In past years, he said, some companies were insuring people with scores of up to nine.
“We’re seeing very few that are writing above eight now. In those situations, folks usually have to go to the California FAIR Plan, which is supposed to be a last resort. But in a lot of people’s situation, that’s their only resort,” he said.
He said he's seeing average premiums this year that span, depending on the size and location of property and value of the home, from about $1,800 to $5,000.
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