Hurricane Ian’s widespread damage is another disaster for Florida’s already shaky insurance industry. Even though home insurance rates in Florida are nearly triple the national average, insurers have been losing money. Six have failed since January 2022. Now, insured losses from Ian are estimated to exceed US$40 billion
Hurricane risk might seem like the obvious problem, but there is a more insidious driver in this financial train wreck.
Finance professor Shahid Hamid, who directs the Laboratory for Insurance at Florida International University, explained how Florida’s insurance market got this bad – and how the state’s insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance, now carrying more than 1 million policies, can weather the storm.
What’s making it so hard for Florida insurers to survive?
Florida’s insurance rates have almost doubled in the past five years, yet insurance companies are still losing money for three main reasons.
One is the rising hurricane risk. Hurricanes Matthew (2016), Irma (2017) and Michael (2018) were all destructive. But a lot of Florida’s hurricane damage is from water, which is covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, rather than by private property insurance.
Another reason is that reinsurance pricing is going up – that’s insurance for insurance companies to help when claims spike.
But the biggest single reason is the “assignment of benefits” problem, involving contractors after a storm. It’s partly fraud and partly taking advantage of loose regulation and court decisions that have affected insurance companies.
It generally looks like this: Contractors will knock on doors and say they can get the homeowner a new roof. The cost of a new roof is maybe $20,000-$30,000. So, the contractor inspects the roof. Often, there isn’t really that much damage. The contractor promises to take care of everything if the homeowner assigns over their insurance benefit. The contractors can then claim whatever they want from the insurance company without needing the homeowner’s consent.
If the insurance company determines the damage wasn’t actually covered, the contractor sues.
So insurance companies are stuck either fighting the lawsuit or settling. Either way, it’s costly.
Other lawsuits may involve homeowners who don’t have flood insurance. Only about 14% of Florida homeowners pay for flood insurance, which is mostly available through the federal National Flood Insurance Program. Some without flood insurance will file damage claims with their property insurance company, arguing that wind caused the problem.
How widespread of a problem are these lawsuits?
Overall, the numbers are pretty striking.
About 9% of homeowner property claims nationwide are filed in Florida, yet 79% of lawsuits related to property claims are filed there.
The legal cost in 2019 was over $3 billion for insurance companies just fighting these lawsuits, and that’s all going to be passed on to homeowners in higher costs.
Insurance companies had a more than $1 billion underwriting loss in 2020 and again in 2021. Even with premiums going up so much, they’re still losing money in Florida because of this. And that’s part of the reason so many companies are deciding to leave.
Assignment of benefits is likely more prevalent in Florida than most other states because there is more opportunity from all the roof damage from hurricanes. The state’s regulation is also relatively weak. This may eventually be fixed by the legislature, but that takes time and groups are lobbying against change. It took a long time to pass a law saying the attorney fee has to be capped.
How bad is the situation for insurers?
Thirty more are on the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s watch list. About 17 of those are likely to be or have been downgraded from A rating, meaning they’re no longer considered to be in good financial health.