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Home insurance rates can be confusing

By Megan Workman
Courtesy photo
Jeff Johns was surprised when he received his yearly homeowners insurance bill and the premium had gone up by nearly $300 on his Barbour County house.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jeff Johns believes it's important to have good homeowners insurance.He considers his coverage to be "very good."He even lives less than a quarter of a mile from a fire hydrant and less than a mile and a half from a fire department -- both of which typically cause a home to cost less to insure, according to the Insurance Information Institute.So when the Barbour County resident got his yearly homeowners insurance bill in the mail in November, he was shocked when the total had increased by nearly $300. His regular $720 payment to Nationwide Insurance had jumped to more than $1,000.Johns lives in a 900-square-foot, one-and-a-half story Appalachian log cabin he helped build in 2002 for his family and moved into it December 2010 after his divorce.Although he hasn't made any claims with Nationwide, the insurance company gave him three reasons his homeowners insurance increased so much."They told me it's because of Hurricane Sandy, I'm a divorced male and because I live in West Virginia," Johns said. "I can't say every time my bills go up that I need another raise. Something's gotta give here."I have no choice but to pay it. Last month, I paid all of my mortgage except $75 because that's all I had and I got a late fee. My payment is due again and I'll have to pay the full payment plus the late fee. I'm struggling and I work full-time. It's tough."Nationwide communications consultant Nancy Smeltzer said the insurance company does offer a 5 percent discount to married residents in West Virginia. All 50 states have different regulations so this discount doesn't exist in every state, she said.Bob Hunter, director of Insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, said all three of Nationwide's "excuses" are exactly that, excuses."Thirty percent is a big increase, it would need to be something more than inflation, which may be 2 to 3 percent. They should come up with real reasons because those three reasons make no sense," Hunter said. "There is nothing about West Virginia that is more risky this year than last year." Insurance companies have "significantly and methodically" decreased their financial responsibility for weather catastrophes like hurricanes, tornados and floods in recent years, according to a report released by the CFA. Much of the risk and costs for these events has been shifted to consumers and taxpayers.There are 111 insurance companies in West Virginia that write homeowners insurance, according to the state Offices of the Insurance Commissioner."Obviously it's a drain on the economy if part of the budget has to go to pay what insurance companies should be handling," Hunter said. "Then the federal government is having to bear losses and taxpayers have to pay more in taxes."Hunter said many people aren't aware what their policy covers and what it doesn't. Many insurers -- like those in West Virginia -- do not have hurricane deductibles, said Kathy Beck, director of consumer services for the state Offices of the Insurance Commissioner.
Hunter said it is "opportunistic" for Nationwide to blame the increase partially on Hurricane Sandy.He said insurance companies have already factored extreme weather events like hurricanes into their rates and "they use hurricanes as a chance to raise rates as an excuse."
In the wake of Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, insurance companies made a mistake in how they priced insurance initially based on weather events, Hunter said. It made sense at that time to increase rates, he said.Smeltzer said Nationwide's rates are never based solely on one event, nor are they based on a series of past events."They are based on trends over a period of time and we are not allowed to recoup past losses," she said. "Rate increases are a direct reflection of our costs going up."But Hunter said they should already be prepared for these events.
"There are times that are learning experiences for insurance companies, like Hurricane Andrew. But everyone has been using models and a more scientific approach since then," Hunter said. "There are times when they get a surprise and a big change is necessary but there is nothing going on like that for homeowners insurance in West Virginia."But state Insurance Commissioner Michael Riley said extreme weather events are the exact reason homeowners' insurance prices have gone up for the past few years."We've had significant weather incidents in West Virginia and that has resulted in increased claims for homeowners," Riley said. "Both the severity and frequency of claims have increased over the past few years, which have resulted in rate increases by some insurers."Riley commended the insurance industry in the state for bringing in extra adjusters and setting up special offices to respond to the "very significant" number of claims issued after the summer derecho and Hurricane Sandy.Riley and Beck said two of Nationwide's reasons for the Johns' $300 yearly increase make sense -- extreme weather events have caused rates to increase in the state. But the divorced male explanation puzzled them (they weren't aware of Nationwide's marriage discount). Beck suggested that Johns -- and anyone with homeowners insurance questions -- can file a complaint with the Offices of the Insurance Commissioner."I'd be happy to go to the company, find out exactly what the increase was and why there was an increase to see if they are applying rates they have on file here appropriately," Beck said. "The new year is a good time to look at your policy and know what your deductible is."But that's not enough for Johns. He wants to see change."I think our politicians need to get involved more with the ordinary person. When these companies submit a price increase, they shouldn't let it happen. They're putting it right back on the little guy," he said.Riley said insurance companies' rate increases are approved through his office and "is based upon the experience the individual carrier has, which is all driven by the losses themselves."Reach Megan Workman at or 304-348-5113.   
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