Updated: 9/14/2010 9:00 AM ET|
Home insurers' secret records
A huge database not only tracks claims, it also looks for risks -- which could cause dropped coverage and other nightmares for homeowners.
You probably know that it's not a good idea to make too many claims on your homeowners insurance policy, because your insurer could drop you.
What you might not know is that a claim could make selling your home more difficult down the road. What's more, you could find your home's value damaged or a sale jeopardized even if a previous owner, and not you, made a claim.
Insurers increasingly are using a huge industry database, called the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, or CLUE, to drop or deny coverage based on a home's history of claims or damage reports.
Insurance companies are terrified of rising losses from water and mold damage. So a single report of water-related problems may be enough for insurers to shun your home.
Jan and Kevin Garder of Bremerton, Wash., discovered this the hard way. The Garders thought they were doing the right thing when they told their insurance company, State Farm, about some minor water damage caused by a rainstorm.
Consumers held hostage
After discussing the damage with the company, the couple, who say they had been with their insurer for 30 years without filing a claim, ultimately decided not to file one time either.
That didn't stop State Farm from dropping them as customers, they say. Not only that, but they say State Farm also shared the damage information with the CLUE database. When the Garders applied for coverage elsewhere, the other insurers cited State Farm's damage report as the reason they wouldn't write a policy, Jan Garder said.
"Until then, we didn't know anything about the CLUE database," she said. "We really didn't have a clue."
State Farm declined to comment on the Garders' case, citing privacy concerns.
According to the company that operates CLUE, LexisNexis Risk Solutions, the database collects damage reports as well as claims. The information stays in the database for up to five years.
Insurance companies get aggressive
In previous years, insurers used the CLUE database in large part to watch for fraud and for consumers who had a history of filing numerous claims.
After losing billions of dollars on homeowners insurance in recent years, however, insurance companies have become more aggressive about screening for other risks -- including damaged homes that could spawn future claims.
The nation's largest property insurers have dropped thousands of policyholders from coast to coast and stopped writing homeowners insurance in more than a dozen states. So far, insurers' increased use of the CLUE database has not caused serious problems for the real estate industry, said George Tribble, a member of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers' board of directors.
But Tribble said he has heard a number of anecdotal reports of residential sales falling through at the last minute because of CLUE-related problems in securing insurance.
"If you're not able to get insurance, you're not able to close the deal," he said.
Tribble thinks it's particularly unfair that a home could be blackballed because of one claim, let alone a single report of damage that didn't lead to a claim.
"Insurance companies want to keep their costs down, which is understandable," Tribble said, "but this is what you have insurance for -- to cover you for accidents."
The insurance industry is notorious for its manic-depressive cycles. In profitable years, companies will slash premiums, boost coverage and take on big risks in hopes of gaining market share.
When those risks start costing real money, the companies sound the full retreat -- hiking premiums, dropping customers and shunning risk.
How to protect yourself
While you can't do much about insurers' overreactions, you can do plenty to protect yourself in this particularly difficult time. Among them:
- Keep your home in good repair. A solid, watertight roof, good plumbing and a decent paint job can protect your home from various water disasters. It's a good idea to regularly check the hoses on your washing machine and dishwasher, because cracked or burst hoses often lead to serious water damage.
- Keep your deductible high. Pay for smaller expenses out of your own pocket. Homeowners insurance should be reserved for the big disasters, not the little problems you can easily pay for yourself.
- Think twice about water-related claims. This is especially true if you plan to sell within a few years. You could be better off paying to repair the problem yourself rather having your home branded as high risk.
- Don't tell your insurer about problems unless you're sure you'll file a claim. This last piece of advice is unfortunate, because insurers and insurance agents can be a decent source of counsel on whether it's worth filing a claim. Because any damage you report could be passed on to the CLUE database, however, it's smart now to err on the side of caution.
- Consider getting a copy of your CLUE report. You're entitled to a free copy of your home's CLUE report every year or if you've been denied insurance. You have the right under federal law to dispute any erroneous information on the report.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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