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As house cracks, insurer splits

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Without the safety net of their insurance company, which contested their claim and didn't renew their policy, a couple fears their home will collapse and sink into the earth.

The cracks appeared early last year along the front of the house. Then they spread to the other three walls, and got wider.

Now the garage door refuses to close all the way, the front door is somewhat cockeyed and two stainless steel bolts help keep the garage and house from separating.

Robert and Susan Holmes can see that the home they bought 22 years ago is coming apart. But it's what they hear that unnerves them most _ a sudden, dull crack that Robert Holmes, 66, likens to the sound of ice breaking in the frozen lakes of Long Island, where he grew up.

Here, it is the wooden beams, concrete blocks and plaster cracking as the ground beneath them gives way.

The sound causes Bosley, a frisky short-haired terrier, to bolt from his post on Robert Holmes' lap. It also has the couple consumed with fear that their home could one day collapse into the earth, taking them with it.

Holmes says he can no longer sleep as the cracks in his walls spread in the shape of stair steps, some of them a quarter-inch wide.

"It's unfair for two human beings to live like my wife and I do," he says. "All I want is a house I can feel safe in."

Then he cries, his nerves on edge from what he says has been a year of worry and unhappy dealings with his insurance company.

Sunshine State Insurance Co., based in Ponte Vedra Beach, has contested the Holmeses' claim, saying the cracks are due to normal settling and not a sinkhole. Then last week, the company sent the couple a notice stating their home insurance policy will not be renewed.

The reason: They have failed to give documentation that their 53-year-old home has been updated with new electrical wiring, a new roof and new heating.

For Alan Marshall, a Palm Harbor attorney who specializes in sinkhole cases, the Holmeses' situation is all too common. He says he has handled similar cases in which insurance companies, confronted with serious settling damage in a home, look for other reasons to drop the policy.

Under Florida law, Marshall said, insurance companies are required to insure homes against sinkhole damage.

Sinkholes occur when water erodes the limestone layer beneath the soil surface, creating a void for the soil to fall into, or when shallow underground caverns collapse.

Holmes said a consultant hired by Sunshine State drilled a 40-foot-deep hole about 8 feet from his house, plus some shallower holes closer to the foundation. After the consultant issued a report finding no evidence of a sinkhole, the company denied his claim, he said.

But Marshall, who does not represent Holmes, said test holes often do not spot the problem. It's better to use more advanced technology that sends electrical impulses through the soil, covering a wider area, he said.

Holmes says he has spoken with a Clearwater lawyer about the claim, but the lawyer will not proceed until Holmes hires his own consultant to challenge the insurance company's findings.

Holmes says he can't afford that. A former airport limousine driver, he says he has been disabled for 10 years because of a brain tumor that took the feeling from his legs. The tumor was removed, but he still uses a wheelchair.

He said his annual household income is about $19,000, and there is no money to hire a consultant, which he estimates would cost up to $2,500. He added that he feels strongly that he shouldn't have to pay anything.

"I think it's their responsibility, not mine," Holmes said. "You pay good money for insurance and you depend on them to be there when you need them, and then they turn their back on you. It's just not right."

Bruce K. Howson, president and CEO of Sunshine State, said he could not comment on the sinkhole claim because Holmes has hired a lawyer. But he said the reason the Holmeses have received a non-renewal notice is that they have not been able to document that their home has been updated with a newer roof, heating system and electrical wiring _ a requirement, he said, for all properties over 50 years old.

The policy probably would be renewed if the Holmeses provide the documentation, Howson said.

Asked to comment on Marshall's scenario of insurance companies finding reasons to cancel homeowners with sinkhole problems, Howson said Marshall has a "100 percent right to his own opinion," but that's not how it happened.

He said the Holmeses were sent the non-renewal notice only after they failed to respond to two inquiries about the home updates and did not fill out a renewal application. The process has to do with underwriting and is separate from any handling of claims, Howson said.

Holmes has a new roof and a newer window unit for heat, and he updated the wiring 15 years ago. He wrote this on a piece of paper and sent it to Sunshine State last year, he said, but the company wanted him to document the changes by hiring an inspector.

Holmes said he felt he should not have to go to that expense.

Sunshine State became the Holmeses' insurer after they refinanced their mortgage about two years ago to pay medical bills. At first they found insurance through the state's insurance pool, but they were transferred to Sunshine State, one of the private companies given a share of the policies when the state's pool got too big.

The company was licensed by Florida in 1997. According to a state hotline for insurance consumers, there is no adverse information on Sunshine State.

Holmes said he paid the company a premium of $462.

Meanwhile, a new crack appears every week in his home.

"We look for it," he said. "If we don't see a crack, we think something's wrong."