Insurance hikes leave homeowners at a loss

A town hall meeting in Coral Gables drew a large crowd of property owners with a familiar complaint: skyrocketing homeowner insurance premiums.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published  August 20, 2006

Owners at the Grand Vista Condo in Hialeah were stunned when they learned how much they'd be paying in property insurance this year.

Last year, they had spent $100,899 to insure the condo through Heritage Insurance. But last spring, Heritage dropped the policy, prompting the nearly 300 owners to call Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run pool.

The new bill: $629,860 -- more than 600 percent of last year's premium.

''It's outrageous,'' said Eddie Hernandez, vice president of the condo association. ``A few dozen residents will probably have to sell their units. Our elderly residents definitely cannot afford this.''

Hernandez and his parents were among nearly 200 people at Saturday's town hall meeting at Coral Gables High School. The meeting, convened by Republican State Reps. Julio Robaina, Marco Rubio and Juan Zapata, was one of several around the state to generate ideas for property insurance reform.

Throughout the afternoon, a parade of people aired their grievances to a panel of state officials, local legislators and insurance agents.

Some were senior citizens living on fixed incomes, others young families starting their lives in South Florida. But one message resonated: The cost of homeowner's insurance is outrageous.

''This is basically driving people out of their homes,'' said Linda Nottestad, whose mother, Josephine Depoo, saw her Coral Gables property insurance jump from $5,000 to $11,400 this year.

''I want to know what state legislators are going to do to control future increases,'' said Nottestad. "Otherwise, what is my mother going to do?''

The panel had few answers.

South Florida is currently facing a ''property insurance crisis,'' several panelists agreed.

Noting some 200,000 policies statewide won't be renewed this year, State Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCardy blamed the rate increases and policy cancellations on the past eight hurricanes, which caused $38 billion of damage in Florida.

''People aren't angry, they're desperate,'' McCardy said. "It's beginning to jeopardize, not just compromise, the dream we share of living in Florida.''

In an attempt to help homeowners, the panelists spoke about the volatility of the global reinsurance market and money-saving measures such as home repairs.

Several panelists, including Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez and Miami Beach Commissioner Luis Garcia, suggested basing insurance rates on individual assessments of homes.

Audience members also proposed ideas. Ernest N. Sochin, a town council member from Cutler Bay, said insurance purveyors ought to give breaks to senior citizens.

''We get great deals when we go to the movies and when we go to restaurants,'' Sochin said. "Why should we still get clobbered with insurance rates?''

Many residents -- young and old -- remain apprehensive about their financial security.

''It's going to be tough,'' said Alice W. Kiel, a retiree whose Coral Gables property insurance spiked to $5,000. "The rate increase is one month of social security for me.''

Linda Conway, a Miami-Dade school teacher, expects her property insurance to increase by 40 percent this year. If that happens, the single mother will have to take a second job, she said.

''No matter what I do, I can't get ahead,'' she said.