November 2013

Citizens Property Insurance Corporation recently announced that it will begin offering homeowners insurance to properties that were previously damaged by sinkhole activity.  This announcement was praised by insurance agents and real estate professionals as crucial to protect the marketability of homes in central Florida. 

In the past, property owners would often have trouble obtaining property insurance for their homes after the conclusion of their sinkhole claim.  Even though the homes were fully repaired, some insurance companies would claim that their underwriting guidlines prohibited the issuance of policies to homes that had undergone sinkhole repair.  Although such underwriting guidelines are specious at best (and more likely for the purpose of avoiding the issuance of new policies in general), it created an insurance crisis for the homeowner and hurt the resale value of these homes. 

In reality, providing insurance coverage to previously repaired homes does not create any additional exposure for the insurance company.  Almost all homeowner’s policies contain pre-existing damage exclusions which would restrict or disallow covereage for any damage which arose prior to the inception of the insurance policy.

Apparently Citizens has seen the light on this issue and has come to the aid of Florida homeowners.  Michael Peltier, spokesman for Citizens Property Insurance, stated in a recent article that, ” We’re trying to do as much as we can to be as flexible as we can to give people as much property insurance coverage as is possible.”  Reportedly, Citizens will offer full insurance coverage (including sinkhole loss coverage) to properties that previously underwent sinkhole repairs and were repaired per the insurance company’s recommendations.  Citizens will also offer insurance policies (excluding sinkhole coverage) to properties which were fully repaired, but via methods other than the repairs recommended by the original insurance company.

Citizens’ announcement should go a long way to stabilizing the values of homes in the Florida marketplace.  Since nearly all mortgage companies mandate homeowners insurance as a condition to providing financing, the inability to obtain insurance caused many potential real estate deals to fall apart at the last minute.  Now, Citizens’ new guidelines will allow these buyers to obtain the necessary property insurance in order to qualify for these loans.

By now, you’ve most likely seen the stories about the large sinkhole that opened in Dunedin, Florida this week.  The Dupre family was awakened early Wednesday morning to what sounded like someone noisily attempting to break into their house.  Upon inspection, the homeowners were shocked to see that their entire back porch was sliding into a rapidly expanding sinkhole.  The family, along with several neighboring households, were all immediately evacuated by the police and soon, both this home and the adjacent house were officially condemned by the city.  As of this posting, the sinkhole has expanded to over 90 feet wide and almost 60 feet deep.

Those are the facts you’ve heard thus far from the media.  What you probably haven’t heard is the long series of events which led up to this disaster.  Approximately two years ago, Michel Dupre noticed cracking to his home and contacted his insurance company – Citizens Property Insurance Corporation (Yes – that’s right – good ole’ Citizens again!).  After testing the property and realizing that sinkhole activity was causing damage to the Dupre residence, Citizens tried to force the family to accept minimalistic repairs to their home.  The repair method mandated by Citizens only consisted of injecting grout into the soil beneath the home and made no allowance for any actual stabilization of the home.  Insiders in the field will tell you that “repairing” a sinkhole home by grouting alone will fail to fix the problem over fifty percent of the time and will almost always cause additional damage to the home.

Take a look at the attached Standard Penetration Testing (SPT) boring logs from Citizens’ investigation of the Dupre home.  When testing a property for sinkhole activity, engineers check the density of the soil by striking the drill bit with a 140 pound hammer and then noting how many blows it takes to drive the drill bit down 12 inches.  (For instance, on SPT boring #1 you can see that at 15 feet below the surface it took 3 blows of the hammer to drive the drill bit down 12 inches).  If you look closely at SPT boring log #3, you will note that there is a “WR” condition from approximately 25 feet below surface to 70 feet below surface.  WR stands for Weight of Rod.  In order for the engineer to record a WR condition, the drill bit must actually FALL UNDER ITS OWN WEIGHT without even being hit by the hammer.  As you can see, beneath the Dupre residence, the drill bit fell OVER 45 FEET – which indicates that Citizens knew there was at least 45 feet of “nothingness” below the Dupre house!  In spite of this finding, Citizens’ engineer only categorized the damage to the Dupre home as “slight” and noted that there was very little possibility of any further damage.  (Bet he wishes he could take that back!)

The homeowners (understandably) had severe reservations about the minimalistic grouting program being pushed upon them by Citizens and therefore the homeowners hired engineers and other professionals to help encourage Citizens to properly repair the home.  In spite of the clear evidence that Citizens’ mandated repair would be insufficient to repair the home and to protect the Dupres, Citizens refused to listen to the Dupre’s experts for over two years.  Now you may have heard in the media that Citizens, “offered to pay the family $90,000 to repair the home”, but that is absolutely false.  In fact, Citizens has only offered to pay the Dupres $1,500 (not a misprint – One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars) despite the all of the evidence (even from its own engineers) of the true cost to repair the home.

As I’ve referenced in previous posts, Citizens has spent over 100 million dollars fighting insurance claims and absolutely refuses to make any payment whatsoever on sinkhole claims.  After two years of fighting for coverage, the Dupre family had no option but to let Citizens have its way with their home.  After two days of letting Citizens stubbornly pump “grout” beneath their home….you guessed it!  (And yes, that is a swimming pool you see below being squeezed down into the hole.)

Clearly, the Dupres are now going to “have their way” with Citizens – hopefully a jury of homeowners will help decide Citizens’ fate.  But the question then arises – what about the neighbors?  At least two homes have now been condemned and several others have incurred grevious damage as the direct result of Citizens’ actions -what recourse do these neighbors have?  If they have sinkhole coverage, then these homeowners could look to their own policies for loss coverage, but why should these other carriers have to bear the burden of Citizens’ arrogance?  What if the neighbors do not have sinkhole coverage?  Unless the damage to their home mandates condemnation (and thereby activating coverage under the Catastrophic Ground Cover Collapse portion of their policy), these homeowners would have no recourse and would have to make any repairs themselves.  Thanks Citizens!

Hopefully Mr. Scott and the rest of our elected officials in Tallahassee will take this situation to heart and will enact some real reforms at Citizens.  If not, the voters of Florida should hold them accountable on election day.  Because, who knows – you could be Citizens’ next victim.