When Allen Kaufman opened his homeowner's insurance bill recently, he couldn't believe his eyes.
The series so far
Sunday's report: Your long-term vulnerability to hurricanes is relatively low. Records show that hurricanes affect South Carolina on average every five years, but not all are catastrophic, and even the devastating ones leave much of the state unscathed. When you look at the likelihood of your house in greater Charleston being exposed to catastrophic winds, new studies say you would see them once every 370 years, raising questions about the state's sky-high insurance rates.Today: Homeowners struggle to find deals amid rate increases.
“It went up 43 percent!” he said. “I called the state Department of Insurance, and they said Allstate had been granted an increase. They told me they had gotten lots of calls.”
Future Storm of Money stories:Does naming hurricanes generate unnecessary fear?The reinsurance industry explainedHurricanes that changed our historyConsumer watchdogs have been defangedOnlineFor interactive maps about hurricane strikes and which insurance companies are the cheapest, go to postand courier.com/storm-of-money.
Kaufman's experience is a familiar one to tens of thousands of residents of coastal counties.
Largely because of perceived hurricane risks, South Carolina has some of the highest average premiums in the nation, and by some measures, higher than states that are more vulnerable to hurricanes.
Rates have risen 71 percent over the past decade statewide, a number that masks much higher increases on the coast, according to data from state and national insurance organizations.
Insurance industry representatives say high rates are driven by growth along the coast, increased property values and construction costs, and new forecasts that storms may be more frequent in the future.
“Rates are based on numerous factors and are rarely influenced by any single factor or occurrence,” said Russ Dubinksy, executive director of the S.C. Insurance News Service. South Carolinians, he said, “are exposed to virtually every natural disaster with the exception of volcanoes.”
Critics of the industry say that when it comes to setting rates, insurers hold much better cards than property owners.
In a report this year, the Consumer Federation of America accused insurers of systematically shifting risk to consumers and taxpayers by increasing deductibles, reducing coverage and pulling out of higher-risk areas altogether, a move that forces property owners to find insurance in expensive specialty markets or quasi-government “wind pools.”
“In other words, property-casualty insurers have paradoxically emerged as masters of risk avoidance, rather than continuing their historic role of risk taking,” the authors of the report said.
Making matters even more difficult for consumers is the sheer complexity of shopping for home insurance.
Insurance rates vary greatly depending on a home's age, type of wiring, roof and other factors. Consumer credit scores also play into rates, a practice the consumer advocates say adversely affects low-income property owners.
Consumers have few tools to sort through this Byzantine industry.
One little-known database, however, is on the S.C. Department of Insurance's website.
The database highlights premiums from 25 companies for a hypothetical house insured for $150,000. The Post and Courier has built a searchable database with this information to make searching this information easier.
The information shows how rates for a hypothetical home insured for $150,000 can vary dramatically. In Charleston County they range from $1,177 with Allstate to $3,276 with Travelers.
But those numbers also come with numerous caveats. The premium prices are for a home built in or after 2005, which leaves out the bulk of the state's housing stock. Some companies publish low rates but may not be writing new policies, including downtown Charleston and the Sea Islands.
Consumers have few warnings that rates will go up, even though insurance companies provide this information to the state.
Ann Roberson, executive assistant for the S.C. Department of Insurance, said rate increases can be found on the agency's website, but she acknowledged that the information is extremely difficult to find. The agency is trying to find better ways to present this information to consumers, she said.
18% average boost
People like Kaufman would welcome that.
Kaufman moved to Mount Pleasant about 12 years ago and said he had never made a claim.
After he received his new insurance bill, he decided to do some digging. “The first thing I did was call the Department of Insurance to find out if it was a mistake.”
It turned out that Allstate sought a 40 percent increase, but after the Department of Insurance rejected that hike, it settled for 18 percent. That didn't mean everyone would see their rates go up that much. Allstate, like other insurers, could charge higher rates on the coast, such as the case with Kaufman, as long as it held the line elsewhere and kept the statewide average at 18 percent.
No matter what happened behind the scenes, Kaufman wasn't about to take that increase without a fight.
He shopped online with other insurance companies to get quotes and ended up finding one for about $1,700, higher than what he was paying before but less than the roughly $2,600 Allstate wanted to charge. “Plus, I was getting earthquake coverage.”
Then he gave Allstate another shot. To his surprise, it ended up giving him a good deal. He said that while he's getting less coverage, his premiums will be a tad less than last year's.
The lesson: “If you don't say anything and just pay, you'll get a bad deal.”