Shirl Mendonca: If this is the new normal, no better time than now to reduce fire risk
Have you received a letter that your homeowner’s insurance will not be renewed? With the recent wildfires in Northern California, it seems that rules and requirements for homeowners insurance are shifting rapidly.
After 30 years with no claims, I was told that my own policy with Liberty Mutual would not be renewed due to the high fire danger in Lake Wildwood.
Before scrambling to get new coverage, I turned to social media to determine if my situation was unique or if this was a widespread occurrence. More than 100 folks chimed in on three different sites and their experience is all over the lot. But the bottom line is clear: many companies are not renewing or are increasing rates. This is clearly a high fire danger area and carriers are changing their rules after the last round of fires.
While Liberty Mutual has actually said that they are leaving the area and are, therefore, not renewing policies, other companies are being very selective in writing new business including Allstate, AAA, Farmers, State Farm, and USAA. Carriers are not only looking at wildfire risk but they are also looking to limit their overall exposure in a given area. I am finding that companies are vague in their responses, information is inconsistent, and the game is changing rapidly so it requires a bit of homework.
For example, one person at AAA said that my home was an automatic decline due to the wildfire risk and AAA’s overexposure in Lake Wildwood. They also said that they only consider homes with a 1 to 4 rating and mine was a 6. When I asked for clarification, I was told that each property was mapped and rated based on both a 250-foot and 1,000-foot clearance, any slope of 5-20 percent, proximity to a fire hydrant and fire station, and condition of the house.
Even though Lake Wildwood is a Fire Safe Community, they were just not interested in insuring me because of a slight slope in my back yard and the fact that they already had too much exposure in Lake Wildwood. When I called the AAA call center, I was told that my Penn Valley zip code was a 6 on the Fireline Report and a 5 or 6 rating was always on a case-by-case basis. If I had 100 feet of defensible space all around (they defined this as “enough clearance to hopefully stop a fire”) and was also a long-time member of AAA for auto or road service, they “might” consider me.
USAA reports that they are renewing existing policies but will not be writing new home policies in Lake Wildwood. State Farm does not appear to be canceling existing clients in this area, but says new policies are rare and treated on a case-by-case basis; I was turned down by State Farm, as were several other folks, and it appears that they are trying to reduce their market penetration.
It would not surprise me to see insurance carriers increasing rates to thin clients as a way to decrease the company’s risk exposure in a given area. Challenges with fire insurance may be with us for the foreseeable future. I did find coverage, but the carrier still has 60 days to do an on-site inspection and decide to rescind my policy.
In anticipation of their visit, I am following the Fire Safe guidelines within 30 feet of my home. That includes removing everything under the deck, stacked wood, highly combustible plants like juniper and bamboo, and any tree limbs extending over the house as well as removing trees that are within 10 feet of my home. I also need to remove bushes and wood bark mulch within 5 feet of my home and all trees will need to be limbed up 10-15 feet.
If I still have any money or energy left, I can work my way beyond the 30 feet to reduce fuels by clearing out any trees with crown overlap.
Is this the new normal? If it is, there is no time like the present to start preparing.
Got a tip about someone or something in Lake Wildwood or Penn Valley? Contact Shirl Mendonca at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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