Homeowners in DeSantis’s Florida face a costly and unique problem

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As he campaigns for president, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to “make America Florida.” But homeowners might say, eh, no thanks, since nobody wants the sort of insurance bill Florida property owners have been finding in their inboxes.

The average premium for homeowners insurance in Florida hit $6,000 per year for 2023, compared with just $1,700 for the nation as a whole, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Florida premiums have soared by 42% in the last year alone, and by 206% since DeSantis first won the governor’s office in 2018.

They’re the highest in the nation, by far.

Florida home values are only the 18th highest in the country, according to Zillow, so pricey real estate doesn’t explain the nation’s highest homeowners insurance rates. The state, for sure, gets battered by hurricanes and other types of extreme weather and that has an impact. But that, surprisingly, isn’t the biggest problem, either.

Instead, Category 5 fraud and abuse have made Florida’s homeowners insurance market so unprofitable that 15 carriers have become insolvent in the state since 2020 — and others refuse to do business there. “This is a man-made catastrophe,” says Logan McFaddin, vice president of state government relations at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “It’s not just the weather. It’s frivolous litigation and fraud.”

After years of dawdling, the Florida legislature passed a slate of insurance reforms in 2022 and this year, which DeSantis backed and signed. The insurance industry praised the legislation as essential to luring carriers back to the state and lowering costs for consumers. But there are likely to be years of legal challenges ahead, and premiums could go even higher before they start to drift down.

Critics say DeSantis should be doing more to help Florida homeowners now instead of campaigning out of state. That’s shaping up as a liability for DeSantis if his presidential campaign gathers steam and he becomes a serious contender for the Republican nomination. 

DeSantis ought to have a solid record to run on, given that Florida is America’s fastest-growing state and it broadly outperforms the US economy. But the governor’s record leaves some explaining to do, including problems DeSantis has brought on himself. His battle with the Disney Corp. began as a culture war dispute. But it has grown into a giant legal battle pitting the governor against the state’s biggest taxpayer, with Disney CEO Bob Iger calling DeSantis “anti-business.”

Meanwhile, a law DeSantis signed in May, addressing illegal immigration, has caused an exodus of workers that’s hurting farm owners, construction firms, and other types of businesses.

A man rides his trike past a destroyed house following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Fraud country? A man rides his trike past a destroyed house following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Florida’s insurance woes predate DeSantis.

Extreme weather linked with climate change is pushing insurance costs up in many areas exposed to it, including Florida and other states vulnerable to storms, floods, fires, and droughts. But Florida’s insurance costs are considerably higher than in other disaster-prone states, and nobody addressed the causes of Florida’s insurance crisis during DeSantis’s first term as governor.

Florida has long been a haven for scammers, with laws that made insurance companies especially vulnerable to lawsuits. Until recently, Florida had “one-way attorney’s fees,” which meant that insurers had to pay the legal fees of any policyholder who sued and won, while insurers had to pay their own legal costs if they won. Another quirk of Florida law was the ability of policyholders to “assign” benefits to a third party, such as a contractor, who would sue the insurer on their behalf, sometimes without the policyholder’s awareness.

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This “toxic legal environment,” as a recent industry report put it, created a thriving climate for unscrupulous lawyer-contractor partnerships. Contractors told homeowners they could get cheap or free repairs, even if unnecessary, by claiming some weather event caused the damage and suing the insurer if it found otherwise and refused to pay. Many insurers would settle, knowing they’d have to pay the other side’s legal bills if they lost. Others would go to court and risk paying the legal fees. Trial lawyers became adept at pumping up their fees and sharing strategies with contractors about the best way to prevail in court.

The practice caught on after Hurricane Irma in 2017, when insurance claims came in much higher than expected for a storm of that magnitude.

It appeared that contractors, egged on by trial attorneys, were encouraging homeowners to get work done, especially roof replacements, and blame it on Irma, even if those homes sustained little or no damage from the storm. There were even allegations that some contractors would stomp around on roofs with cleats on to tear up the shingles and simulate storm damage, then charge the insurance company for a full replacement.

Billboard ads for storm-damage lawyers and public adjustors who assess the extent of storm damage began to proliferate.

Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks at the North Carolina Republican Party convention in Greensboro, North Carolina, U.S. June 9, 2023.  REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Insurance problems: Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. (REUTERS/Jonathan Drake)

Insurance litigation exploded, with the recent industry report finding that Florida accounted for 7% of all homeowners insurance claims — roughly comparable to its share of the US population — but 76% of all lawsuits involving homeowners policies. Insurance companies normally pass on higher costs to customers, and premiums began to spike in 2020. A 2021 report by Guy Fraker of the James Madison Institute estimated that litigation costs alone cost the typical Florida family an extra $487 per year in 2019, with an annual growth rate of 26%. That “hidden tax” would be more than $1,200 per family in 2023.

The Fraker report declared that “Florida’s P&C [property and casualty] market is in free-fall collapse, as in not viable.”

In addition to soaring premiums and failing insurers, that became apparent in two other ways. First, a state-backed insurer, Citizens Insurance, which is supposed to be a last-resort option for people who can’t get homeowners coverage any other way, became the state’s biggest issuer. And second, the reinsurance companies, which insure the insurers, began to bail out of Florida or strictly limit coverage. All told, a private-sector insurance market can’t function if litigation losses seem open-ended and reinsurers find it too risky to operate.

After Hurricane Ian struck Florida last fall, causing massive damage, the Florida legislature called a special session in December to address problems in the insurance market. It passed several reforms DeSantis promptly signed, including a repeal of one-way attorney’s fees and a new prohibition on assigning benefits to a third party, which the insurance industry cheered.

There are cautious signs the reforms are working, with reinsurers renewing at higher rates in 2023 than they did in 2022, for instance. “Global reinsurers are showing more confidence in the Florida property insurance market due to the recently passed reform bills,” Mark Friedlander of the Insurance Information Institute told Yahoo Finance.

But even backers of the reform legislation say rates for Florida homeowners won’t come down for a year or two, at best. Before the reforms went into effect at the start of 2023, there was a flood of fresh lawsuits against insurers that will go forward under the old rules. It could take several years for those suits to clear the system, and the added costs they represent will be passed onto policyholders, as usual. Another change meant to stabilize the system requires purchasers of a last-resort Citizen policy to also buy flood insurance, pushing out-of-pockets higher.

With premiums continuing to soar, critics say DeSantis needs to do more. “You might see the governor and legislature running around as though their hair were on fire, trying to come up with fixes for our crippled insurance market,” the Miami Herald editorial board vented on June 10. “In 2023, Florida’s leaders are so busy trying to get Gov. DeSantis into the White House that they can’t be bothered.”

The Herald also dinged DeSantis for prioritizing theoretical anti-woke issues over real pocketbook pain and for campaigning in Texas and Iowa instead of attending to matters at home.

Maybe there should be insurance coverage for that.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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