Wednesday, March 12, 2014
The cost of homeowners' insurance has risen faster in Maine than in the rest of the nation over the past decade, and insurance experts say devastating storms on the Atlantic coast are largely to blame.
Linda Varrell and her husband, Paul Cormier, say it was difficult and expensive to find insurance for their home being built on Littlejohn Island in Yarmouth. Coastal storms have led to soaring premiums and deductibles for houses on the water’s edge.
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
PREMIUMS ON THE RISE
The average annual homeowners’ insurance premium in Maine increased every year from 2003 to 2010. Experts say the high cost of damage from coastal storms was a contributing factor.
Source: National Association of Insurance Commissioners
The estimated 68 percent increase in the cost of annual premiums has not prevented Maine's housing market from making a moderate comeback in the past few months, but real estate agents say some prospective buyers in coastal areas are finding it hard to get insurance at all.
That's somewhat unfair, they say, because the Maine coast hasn't taken a direct hit from a severe storm since 2007. Last year, while coastal areas like New York and New Jersey suffered extensive property damage from Superstorm Sandy, Maine had relatively little damage.
The rising cost is especially problematic because so much of Maine's real estate value is concentrated in coastal areas. Fifty-eight percent of the value of all residential real estate in Maine is on the coast, according to Irvine, Calif.-based CoreLogic Inc. Only Florida and Connecticut have higher percentages of coastal property value.
When Linda Varrell of Yarmouth and her husband, Paul Cormier, decided to build a home on Littlejohn Island, they didn't expect it to be so difficult and expensive to get the project insured.
The couple had built a larger home about a half-mile from the coast in 2005 and obtained insurance for $1,200 a year, with no special deductible for wind damage, said Varrell, a public-relations executive.
The quotes they got for their current home construction project, in a protected cove on the water's edge, were two to four times as much, she said, with deductibles for wind damage as high as $50,000.
"These were the only companies that would even quote for a home within five miles of a body of water," Varrell said.
Varrell and Cormier were lucky to find five providers that were willing to insure their project, said Harriet Whittington, a real estate broker in Northeast Harbor, on Mount Desert Island.
Whittington's agency, The Knowles Co., has had several purchase deals fall through lately because the prospective buyers couldn't get homeowners' insurance from any provider, Whittington said.
"If you're on an offshore island, sometimes they will not insure you," she said.
Insurance analysts say the billions of dollars in damage caused by recent storms such as Sandy have made providers more squeamish about insuring properties and construction projects along Maine's coast.
Homeowners' insurance rates have shot up all along the Atlantic coast in the past 12 months, with the biggest increases in Florida, New York and New Jersey, according to reports from major insurance carriers aggregated by HomeInsurance.com LLC, an online insurance brokerage. Analysts attribute much of those increases to Sandy, which struck the East Coast in late October.
Although Sandy caused relatively little property damage in Maine, insurance experts said the massive financial losses incurred by insurers down the coast likely have had a spillover effect, in terms of higher premiums and increased difficulty insuring waterfront properties.
"That individual insurer is going to pay more, and then they're going to pass it on to the consumer," said Doug Allen, president of Portland-based Turner and Barker Insurance.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the average 12-month homeowners' insurance premium in Maine increased by about 46 percent from 2003 to 2010, the most recent year for which data is available from all carriers. That's considerably more than the 36 percent increase nationwide during the same period.
The increase in Maine, from $462 in 2003 to $676 in 2010, is partly the result of coastal storms that caused billions of dollars in property damage elsewhere, insurance experts said.
According to HomeInsurance.com, the average cost of a 12-month insurance premium sold by its affiliate providers in February 2013, the most recent month available for Maine, was $775. That's 68 percent more than the average premium for Maine in 2003. The average includes only policies sold via HomeInsurance.com's website.
Three primary factors contribute to the cost of homeowners' insurance, said Cale Pickford of Camden-based Allen Insurance and Financial.
First is the amount of claims paid out by a given insurance provider, he said. "To put it simply, the higher the claims experienced, the higher the rates are," Pickford said.
The second factor is returns on invested insurance premiums, he said. Each insurer invests a portion of its revenue to offset losses paid out in claims. If those investments don't pay off as expected, Pickford said, insurance rates can go up.
The third major factor is the price of insurance for insurers, known as reinsurance, he said. Insurance companies buy reinsurance to protect themselves from financial losses from catastrophic events such as hurricanes, wildfires or tornadoes.
The price of reinsurance can skyrocket after a catastrophe like Sandy, which caused an estimated $68 billion in damage in coastal areas from Maine to Florida.
Despite the rising rate, Maine is still one of the least expensive states to insure a home, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
In 2010, Maine's average annual insurance premium was the ninth-least expensive in the country, at $676, the association said.
The most expensive average premium, $1,534, was in Florida, and the least expensive, $422, was in Iowa.
Only a handful of insurance providers in the country will cover homes in Florida for wind damage, said Allen, with Turner and Barker Insurance.
According to the New York-based Insurance Information Institute, "wind and hail damage" accounted for the greatest amount of property damage nationwide in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, comprising about 46 percent of the value of all claims.
That category was followed by "water damage and freezing," which accounted for about 22 percent of the value of all claims that year. "Fire, lightning and debris-removal" was a close third, at about 20 percent.
Maine's premiums remain low because the state has suffered relatively few natural disasters, Allen said.
Maine hasn't suffered a catastrophic wind event since a nor'easter in April 2007 brought hurricane-force winds to parts of the state, destroying homes, power poles, roads and bridges.
"We do get hit," Allen said, "but certainly not to the extent that other communities do."
This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. on July 12, 2013 to remove a quote.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: