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Florida sees small break in deluge of rising property insurance rates

Florida has gone eight years without a hurricane, but property owners are just starting to see small relief on insurance rates.
Published May 16, 2014

Over the past eight hurricane-free seasons, Florida homeowners have had more to fear from their insurance company than from Mother Nature.

Storm or no storm, rates have been steadily trending up in what's already the most expensive state to insure property.

No more.

Property insurance rates are finally receding this year — albeit very slowly in many cases — in large part because the cost is going down for reinsurance, an added layer of coverage that insurance companies buy to help them pay claims after catastrophes.

In a January report, Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty said a half dozen of the state's 30 major property insurers have a recently approved or pending request for a rate cut between 2.4 percent and 9.2 percent.

McCarty's office hasn't issued a formal update since then. However, based on rate filing requests and approvals through mid March, all of the filings are still in that range with one exception. American Bankers Insurance Co. was approved for a 15.4 percent rate cut.

Some companies had to backpedal from rate hikes after the extent of their reinsurance savings surfaced, McCarty's office noted.

Case in point: Castle Key Insurance Co. initially submitted a 12.2 percent statewide average increase but was approved for a decrease of 5 percent after updated reinsurance information was provided.

It's a good start, but not enough of a break yet, says Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who sought the January analysis from McCarty.

"I am pleased that rates are beginning to improve for homeowners, because Floridians deserve relief and they need to be able to afford the coverage it takes to protect their homes," Atwater said in a statement responding to questions from the Times. "Our goal should be to ensure rates are fair and companies are sound."

We're not there yet, though, he indicated.

"When Commissioner McCarty provided me his analysis of the property insurance market, he said that he expected lower reinsurance costs to be reflected in lower rates for consumers in future rate filings," Atwater said. "I share the commissioner's expectations."

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners underscored Florida's woes in December with a report showing the average property insurance premium in Florida had reached $1,933, highest in the country and double the national average.

The report, which for the first time included premiums paid by customers of state-run Citizens Property Insurance, was based on 2011 data.

A more recent study indicates the problem has only gotten worse. Insurance consulting firm Perr&Knight found that homeowners insurance rates jumped another 11 percent in Florida in 2013, one of the sharpest increases in the country. In fact, it's second only to a 12.1 percent rise in Oklahoma, which has much cheaper rates than Florida.

So why has any reprieve in Florida premiums been so little and late?

Insurance companies blame other "cost drivers" propping up their expenses, including paying out millions in sinkhole claims despite a major reform of what's covered now as sinkhole damage.

Insurance industry execs highlighted another one of their chief new concerns during a recent insurance summit in Orlando: a spike in water-damage claims from broken water pipes, floods and leaks.

John Rollins, chief risk officer with Citizens Property, estimates 28 cents out of each dollar collected in Citizens' premiums goes toward paying water-related claims. Attorneys urging contractors to seek bigger insurance payouts through litigation are causing a spike in claims, insurance companies maintain.

Consumer advocates say they've heard this before.

First it was the multistorm seasons of 2004-2005 driving up rates. Then it was fraud and higher material costs and widespread sinkhole claims. Now the new bogeyman is water damage.

Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said he believes cheaper reinsurance isn't trickling down enough to lower insurance rates for homeowners in part because big insurers like State Farm and others buy reinsurance from affiliated companies.

That not only lets insurers keep the money in-house, it lowers their incentive to seek cheaper reinsurance.

Newton said he hopes Gov. Rick Scott and state legislators this session at least examine the affiliated insurance deals to see if consumers are being harmed. But he doubts that will happen.

""The Legislature will not do anything on insurance. They expect anything they do will backfire on the governor" who is running for re-election, he said. "They're just going to stand pat and hope that doesn't backfire."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@tampabay.com.

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