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New law seems to be reducing the number of unrepaired sinkhole homes

From left, Chris Ramsey, 27, Kyle Chesser, 32, Garret Harvey, 23, and Juan Zamora, 45, employees with L. R. E. Ground Services based in Brooksville, repair a home with a sinkhole last month in the Heather subdivision north of Weeki Wachee. Most homeowners with sinkholes in Hernando County have not made such repairs, reducing property values in Hernando County by millions of dollars.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

From left, Chris Ramsey, 27, Kyle Chesser, 32, Garret Harvey, 23, and Juan Zamora, 45, employees with L. R. E. Ground Services based in Brooksville, repair a home with a sinkhole last month in the Heather subdivision north of Weeki Wachee. Most homeowners with sinkholes in Hernando County have not made such repairs, reducing property values in Hernando County by millions of dollars.

Here's a fairly scary number: 54.

That's the percentage of sinkhole-damaged homes reported in Hernando County last year that still haven't been fixed.

Not scary enough? Fifty-seven percent of homes with sinkhole damage reported in the first quarter of 2013 remain unrepaired.

In Pasco County, too, you can find reason to worry. Slightly more than half of the total number of sinkhole-damaged homes reported there are unrepaired.

Judging strictly by these numbers, it seems the so-called Great Sinkhole Lottery is still going strong.

It looks as if lots of people are still collecting Lotto-sized insurance payments to fix sinkhole damage and then not making repairs.

It appears as though they are still bleeding property value and tax revenue from these counties and adding to our unwanted, unmarketable reputation as the sinkhole capital of Florida.

It also might seem that a 2011 Florida law designed to prevent them has been a flop.

Yes, there's no doubt the law has some flaws. But look a little closer at some sinkhole statistics and you can also find signs that it's working — and maybe even that the sinkhole lottery is running its course.

In 2011, the percentage of unrepaired sinkhole homes was a whopping 71 percent, meaning the figures since actually represent an impressive improvement.

Consider also that the boon in litigation predicted for the 2011 law has, in fact, come to pass. When these prolonged cases are cleared, so will some of the claims money that can be used to fix sinkhole-damaged homes reported in the past two years.

And finally, the number of new damaged houses in Hernando has dropped from a peak of 247 in February 2012 to 27 just 13 months later; Pasco has seen a similar drop.

Maybe, as a lawyer who represents homeowners in sinkhole fights has told me, that's partly because the new law is unfairly skewed against her clients. Maybe the army of lawyers at the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has cowed homeowners from making claims, and that if the company didn't contest so many of them, more money would be available to make fixes.

And, by the way, is the term "lottery" even fair? Not completely. Plenty of the claims are legitimate, and plenty of homeowners didn't set out to get money for work that wasn't done — it's just that the total amounts of their policies weren't big enough to pay for the fixes.

But several months ago, I interviewed about two dozen people who had collected sinkhole claims. Several of them proudly told me they had pocketed insurance payments knowing their homes were just fine.

The only problem with the term "lottery," I thought then, was that it makes this whole thing sound like a gamble when, really, it's a sure thing.

If there are fewer of those people out there now — if the law is discouraging them — it's a relief to every honest property owner and insurance customer in this part of the state.

New law seems to be reducing the number of unrepaired sinkhole homes 06/24/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 24, 2013 8:52pm]
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