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Soaring insurance can make it difficult for people to keep their homes. What was once a nuisance,then a headache, now can be a . . . DEAL KILLER

Cindy DeFelice made sure she didn't get in over her head. When she moved to the area from Cincinnati two years ago, she bought a house she could afford: a cute little 1,200-square-foot home with pink shutters and a grapefruit tree in the front yard.

It's in the Southern Comfort subdivision, one block from Easy Street.

She bought the home for $121,900, put 20 percent down, got a fixed mortgage at a good rate and still remembers how much her Citizens Property homeowners insurance was: $740 a year. One year later, that policy cost her just less than $1,500.

"I nearly had a heart attack when I saw that," said DeFelice, 54, who works at a health food store in Clearwater. "Everybody knows property values and property taxes are going to go up. But I moved here just before Hurricane Charley, and I didn't know what was going on with the whole Citizens issue.

"I bought my home because it was darling and in my price range. It's not in my price range any more."

DeFelice is one of a growing number of Floridians caught in something even veterans of the real estate market have never seen.

Skyrocketing homeowners insurance is not only pricing people out of their homes. It's preventing many from even entering the market.

And in DeFelice's case, it's doing both.

For the first time in memory, real estate agents say, insurance that has doubled or even tripled in a year has started to affect home sales, particularly at the middle and lower end of the market, where an increase of even $200 a month can torpedo a tight budget.

"People typically buy on what it costs per month, and when you double the cost of the insurance, it's got to come out of somewhere," said Brad Monroe, president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors. "Either you buy a less expensive home or you don't buy at all.

"I've seen contracts come through where it (homeowners insurance) is a contingency. It's a standard form now used by many Realtors. If the buyer can't find insurance under X amount, the contract is canceled. A couple years ago, you never saw that."

Mortgage brokers, homeowners and real estate agents have known for years that property values and property taxes have been going where they've never been before, although the Save Our Homes cap can lessen the sting for homeowners who stay in the same house.

But like a storm far in the distance, property tax increases can be planned for.

Property insurance, at least in Florida, is a different threat.

It blew in out of nowhere.

In 2005, fourth-quarter sales of existing single-family homes in the Tampa Bay area were up 4 percent from the year before. But increasingly, real estate agents tell of clients who qualified for a mortgage and thought they had the numbers locked in, only to learn that their property insurance was far more than they expected.

"Of our office's 40 deals in the last six months, I've had maybe a handful that were able to get their own insurance," said Dave Kimpton, a broker/associate with Bruce Taylor Inc. The vast majority had to fall back on Citizens, the state-run property insurer of last resort, which by law has to charge more than the top 20 carriers in the state.

Sometimes, especially with first-time home buyers looking for affordable housing, that increase in insurance premiums is enough to kill a deal.

"I had a well-qualified couple purchasing a $130,000 home that required flood and wind insurance," New Port Richey broker Corinne Slone said. "It came to $3,600, and the additional $300 monthly payment disqualified them from their loan.

"There's stories like that all over the place, and it's starting to hurt everybody."

Even if buyers can find a home in the $120,000 to $150,000 range, Slone and others said, the high cost of insurance (at least $1,500 a year), when added to reassessed property taxes, can easily make an affordable home unaffordable.

"Right now, insurance is tipping it over the edge," Kimpton said. "Nurses, teachers, firefighters . . . they don't get paid enough to live here.

"If some sort of control isn't brought about, the market will grind to a halt."

So far, the kind of control that will be put in place is a mystery.

On top of the huge insurance rate increases and policy cancellations brought about by sinkholes and eight hurricanes in 15 months, every Florida homeowner now faces an assessment, on top of a regular premium, to help bail out Citizens.

When Citizens comes up short, as it did last year, all other companies' customers make up the difference. Starting this year, all Florida homeowners insurance policyholders are on the hook for more than $1.8-billion in assessments needed to make up the 2004 and 2005 deficits in Citizens.

The Florida Legislature begins its 60-day session March 7, and among the ideas lawmakers are proposing is using some of the state's $3.2-billion budget surplus to reduce Citizens' next assessment.

And talk has surfaced of a requirement that homeowners only help cover Citizens' claims for year-round residences, not vacation homes or businesses.

Last week, the state Office of Insurance Regulation joined the chorus calling for the creation of a national catastrophe fund to help cover major disasters such as hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Katrina and Wilma.

But no matter where or how much the insurance burden is shifted, most experts agree there's an important first step: remove the uncertainty regarding the amount of the rate increases so home buyers and homeowners won't be caught off guard.

"It is an issue of concern for all Florida residents," said Marla Martin, communications manager for the Florida Association of Realtors. "I pay a mortgage. I budget. It (insurance) is another cost, but it's very hard to figure out what it's going to be.

"Unfortunately, there's no fast and easy fix."

That's not welcome news to people trying to buy, or keep, a home.

Two months ago, DeFelice put her house on the market and started looking for something more affordable. In the meantime, she had to ask her mother to help pay last year's insurance premium.

Her search for a new home ended last week, right back where it started. "I couldn't find anything decent for $120,000," she said. "I couldn't even find anything at $140,000."

So her house is off the market, and she and her three dogs and two cats are going to see how long they can hold out.

"Even if I moved, I still wouldn't know for sure what's going to happen with the insurance," she said.

She has canceled her newspaper, goes to the beach instead of the movies, and although she doesn't know how she'll manage it, she's considering looking for a second job.

"I won't be able to afford another increase," she said. "I just won't.

"Like a lot of other people, all I can do now is pray for a miracle."

Tom Zucco can be reached at (727) 893-8247 or tzucco@sppimes.com.

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