Insurers end policies for some homeowners after large claims
Insurers are sending more cancellation notices to Boston-area homeowners who filed claims last winter, as the region continues to feel the effects of that record-setting snow even as it prepares for the next winter.
The insurance industry’s equivalent of a “Dear John” letter is going to customers who filed large claims this year, multiple claims during the past few years, or both, leaving them scrambling to find another commercial insurer, or obtain expensive coverage through the state’s high-risk pool.
So far, insurance agents and state regulators report small increases in the number of homeowners receiving so-called nonrenewals — notifications that the insurer plans to drop them as a customer when the policy term expires — but expect them to increase next year.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Karen Roan, home and auto insurance manager at Rodman Insurance Agency Inc., in Needham. She said companies are weighing whether they can recover their losses through rate increases or need to cut higher risk and potentially more expensive customers.
Massachusetts doesn’t have laws governing when companies can decide against renewing a customer. Insurers are required only to provide consumers with a 45-day notice and reasons for the decision.
Complaints to Attorney General Maura Healey’s Office about nonrenewals have risen to 11 so far this year, compared with eight for all of 2014.
Tom Skelly, with Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates Inc. in Wellesley Hills, said his agency has placed five customers in the state’s high-risk pool because insurers wouldn’t renew them, compared with fewer than three in a usual year. Joseph D. Galvin, who owns an insurance agency in Canton, said at least six of his customers have received nonrenewal notices, compared with one or two in most years.
“People who were not so good [risks] squeaked by in the past,” Galvin said. “Now it’s hit the fan.”
Becky Shoemaker, 46, said she had insured her home in Sharon for a decade with Mapfre USA Corp., formerly known as Commerce, without filing a claim — until this year, when she sought $30,000 to replace a roof damaged by the pileup of snow and repair walls soaked by water that leaked into her home.
In August, she received a notice that her policy would not be renewed when it expired in September, citing her ”excessive” loss.
“I was paying into it for 10 years, so I felt it was not excessive,” Shoemaker said. “It’s really terrifying. You think: What are my options?”
Matthew Wilcox, senior vice president at Mapfre, the state’s largest commercial home insurer, said the company considers several factors in addition to claims history before deciding against renewing a policy, including whether the home is well maintained. Wilcox declined to disclose whether Mapfre was cancelling more polices, but said its renewal rate remains above 90 percent.
Industry-wide, insurance companies renew more than 99 percent of their policies, said Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, a industry data group in New York.
“Nonrenewals are on a case-by-case situation, and they are not that common,” Hartwig said. “It’s not typically a single claim or single storm season.”
Policyholders who don’t get renewed usually find it difficult to find other coverage because most insurers are unwilling to take on consumers rejected by competitors. Their only option then is the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements, or FAIR Plan, the insurer of last resort for Massachusetts consumers who can’t get coverage in the competitive market. The premiums can cost about double that of traditional carriers.
Insurance agents, consumer advocates, and even companies such as Mapfre say that a nonrenewal notice isn’t necessarily the end of a relationship. There may be opportunities to negotiate, if the policyholder is willing to increase the deductible or make repairs or changes to the home, such as adding insulation to decrease the likelihood of ice dams, said Galvin, the Canton insurance agent.
After receiving her nonrenewal notice, Shoemaker called the attorney general’s office, which interceded on her behalf. Mapfre agreed to renew her policy as long as she completed the repairs. After begging her contractor to make her repairs a priority, she is back with Mapfre.
Bob Mendelsohn, a retired radio advertising executive from Concord, said he received a nonrenewal notice this summer from Travelers Insurance because he filed two claims in March. He complained to the Better Business Bureau, which got the attention of the insurance company.
Travelers representatives called Mendelsohn, who explained the claims were both snow-related and should be considered part of the same problem. The company took him back as a customer last week, boosting his premium by 5 percent, he said.
Travelers declined to comment.
“I’m exhausted, but in the end they did the right thing,” Mendelsohn said. “It takes a certain amount of stubbornness.”