Many North Bay homeowners increase insurance coverage in fire aftermath

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

In the aftermath of the October wildfires, many local homeowners unscathed by the disaster have increased their insurance coverage after hearing horror stories from significantly underinsured fire victims.

The policyholders are responding to reports of homeowners who found themselves underinsured by upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars after filing their claims.

In Sonoma County, policyholders so far have filed 14,686 residential property claims, resulting in almost $7 billion in damages, according to the state Insurance Department.

At his State Farm insurance office in Petaluma, Miguel Alfaro has heard from hundreds of policyholders inquiring whether they have sufficient coverage to rebuild in case their homes were to burn down in the future.

“It has been pretty busy for us,” said Alfaro, who said he has about 30 claims related to the wildfires.

Alfaro works with his clients to determine if they should increase their coverage, noting State Farm offers options such as an additional 20 percent beyond its typical policy’s dwelling limit and an additional 10 percent for code upgrade.

He said many of his clients increase their code upgrade coverage as they have older homes that would need sprinkler systems and new earthquake standards in case of a rebuild.

“We tell them it’s a good idea to have someone who is in building (trades)” provide an estimate for a rebuild, he said.

Local homeowners have been more empowered in their visits to insurance agents because they’ve read and heard estimates from fire victims on the local cost to rebuild. Those estimates have ranged from one builder offering to rebuild Coffey Park homes from $280 per square foot to those in Fountaingrove with estimates $500 per square foot and higher. Insurance industry representatives caution that many initial estimates lower once time passes following a widespread disaster.

Emily Hogan, chief operating officer at United Policyholders, a San Francisco-based consumer group, said policyholders should check their dwelling coverage, usually the first line item on their policy, and divide that amount by their home’s overall square footage to obtain their current coverage in case of a rebuild.

“From what we are hearing, anything less than $350 per square foot, you would want to have a conversation with your agent,” Hogan said.

There are also options to hire a professional home replacement cost estimator or use software programs to get a better estimate on rebuilding costs.

She added that in California the homeowner has the responsibility to set limit coverage.

“We often say trust, but verify,” Hogan said.

Some local fire victims with USAA coverage have sued the carrier, alleging it “systemically underestimated” the replacement cost of the homes despite contending it offered dependable valuations.

Cost is typically not a factor in bumping up coverage. Alfaro noted the limit increases can typically range from $100 to $200 more a year, depending on the type of new coverage.

For slightly more than $100 annually, Wayne Gibb was able to increase his CSAA Insurance Group replacement coverage on his Forestville home from $377 per square foot to about $445 per square foot, which also brought him peace of mind in case of a disaster.

“I think people should be at least $400 or plus,” Gibb said of local homeowners, adding that when he met with his agent, he asked for a policy quote on the maximum payout he could have received if his home were completely destroyed.

Gibb is also video recording his home contents to make it easier to itemize in case they are destroyed in a fire, a practice the industry highly recommends.

Alfaro noted State Farm has a free software program where customers can list their personal property to make claim filing easier. The time it takes to itemize all their property has become a major gripe for fire victims.

At a minimum, policyholders should consider bulking up both their code upgrades and extended replacement coverage when rechecking their policy, Rogan said. “We find that they make a big difference with claims.”

She noted most claims filed are not part of a natural disaster.

“In reality, that’s the reason you have it … in case something unimaginable does happen,” she said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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