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Ultimately, the decision on how much home insurance to carry is up to the policyholder. There’s no arguing that point. But there’s also no disputing that homeowners are no experts on the cost of replacing their houses in the event of a disaster like the October fires, and they depend heavily on the advice of insurance companies to give them guidance. Unfortunately many in Sonoma County are now finding that they are woefully lacking in coverage — and the debate has begun on who is most responsible.

As Staff Writer Bill Swindell pointed out in his Tuesday front-page story (“Many policies found lacking”), hundreds of Sonoma County residents who lost homes in October say they are underinsured and may have to pay thousands of dollars — possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars — in out-of-pocket expenses to rebuild.

John Friedemann, managing partner of the Santa Rosa law firm Friedemann Goldberg, said he has looked at more than 200 policies and almost all of them were lacking in sufficient coverage.

Some of these disputes will be worked out with insurers while others, no doubt, will end up in court. But the question remains: What is the magic number on rebuilding costs? It’s not clear. But given the catastrophic nature of these fires, it’s a price that is rising as the costs for labor and materials soar. Robert Bivin who lost his Fountaingrove home, told Swindell that he held a USAA policy that put the replacement costs at $177 per square foot. But estimates now have the actual cost closer to $400 per square foot. In fact, some USAA policyholders had been encouraged recently to lower their payments — and coverage — thanks to new software programs that, according to the carrier, had determined they were overinsured.

Insurance companies have argued that they have nothing to gain when policyowners lack sufficient coverage, and USAA notes its policies often provide up to 25 percent additional coverage in the event of a total loss.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that although some homeowners would like to rebuild, they may not be able to do so because they won’t be able to afford to make up the gap in coverage. Some may end up having to cash out and sell their lots to developers who are offering to snap them up.

Unfortunately, the North Bay is not the first to experience this problem. As Swindell noted, United Policyholders, a nonprofit group, polled California residents who lost their homes in the drought-fueled wildfires that swept through the state, especially Southern California and San Diego, 10 years ago. It found that only about one in four policyholders had sufficient funds to rebuild.

So why do these policies so often come up short? It’s still not clear. But North Bay homeowners would be wise to check their policies to make sure they have sufficient coverage.

Meanwhile, local government agencies need to keep close tabs on how many property owners end up having insufficient coverage and how these gaps influence their decisions to rebuild or to walk away.

Of all the lessons to be learned from these fires, this is one of the most significant — and painful.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here