Published: 03 July 2015 in the Dallas Morning News
By TERRENCE STUTZ
Home insurers have raised their premiums an average 7 percent to 8 percent this year, despite healthy profits and below-average property losses, new filings with the state show.
Leading the way is State Farm Insurance, which had the highest or second-highest premiums of 33 companies selling coverage in several Dallas-area ZIP codes where rates were examined by The Dallas Morning News. State Farm, the largest property insurer in Texas, is charging those rates even as it refunds $352 million to its customers for past overcharges, under a settlement with the state.
The rate hikes in 2015 are slightly less than last year. But the average increases are large when stacked up against the rate of inflation in the U.S., about 1.5 percent the past two years.
By contrast, the cost of auto insurance policies has remained stable this year, with average increases of 1 percent or less in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A year ago, auto premiums were up an average 11 percent in the area.
Consumer groups said the home premium hikes are excessive and unjustified, and reflect the inability of state regulators to keep the price of homeowners policies at a reasonable level
Insurance industry representatives cited higher costs for replacing roofs and an increasing number of lawsuits filed by homeowners, which contributed greatly to the need for higher premiums. They also pointed out that consumers can cut their insurance costs by taking advantage of various discounts, such as having a security system in their home.
“Year after year, Texas families and businesses get the squeeze from Big Insurance,” said Alex Winslow of Texas Watch, a consumer group that closely follows insurance issues.
Winslow said that while scoring profits, insurers are seeking to strip policyholders of their rights. Legislation pushed by the industry this year would have sharply limited the ability of policyholders to sue insurance companies. The measure passed the Senate but died in the House.
“Texans are crying ‘uncle’ over their insurance costs,” he said. “Homeowners and businesses need relief. Is it too much to expect that insurance companies in Texas provide meaningful coverage, fair claims payments and reasonable prices?”
Mark Hanna of the Insurance Council of Texas, an industry group, said there are legitimate reasons for companies to increase their rates in the state.
“Texas continues to get pounded by hail and by hail litigation tied directly to excessive demands by storm-chasing lawyers,” Hanna said. “Thousands of lawsuits filed against Texas insurance companies for claims that were never in dispute are a significant factor in today’s rates.”
Widespread damage from hailstorms and high winds has become a fact of life in North Texas, which has been particularly hard hit in recent years. Three years ago, the D-FW area experienced two of the costliest hailstorms on record, totaling $1.6 billion. Thousands of homeowners had to replace their roofs.
“Luckily, Texans have a competitive market and have many choices for coverage,” Hanna said. “As always, if a homeowner doesn’t like their rates, they are free to choose from more than 100 companies that offer homeowners insurance in Texas. Every homeowner should shop around to take advantage of company incentives that can lower their rates through discounts and loss mitigation efforts.”
Rates varied significantly in the eight ZIP codes examined by The News, often by several hundred dollars for a one-year policy.
The eight ZIP codes were in North Dallas, South Dallas, Arlington, Duncanville, Garland, Irving, Plano and Richardson. Arlington had the highest average rate at $1,754 for a typical home insured for $150,000. Plano was lowest at $1,401. Coverage was for a 10-year-old brick veneer home with no claims for five years and an average credit rating for the policyholder.
Rate comparisons of the 33 largest insurers in Texas in all of those areas also revealed one striking similarity: State Farm had the highest or second highest premium across the board.
In North Dallas, for example, State Farm is charging a premium of $2,814 a year on a home insured for $150,000. That is about $1,100 higher than the average for all 33 companies selling homeowners coverage in the area — about $1,713.
Chris Pilcic, a spokesman for State Farm, indicated that the rate comparisons don’t tell the whole story about the coverage a homeowner receives from each company.
“When looking at rates, it’s important that customers make comparisons when reviewing insurance coverage,” he said. “For example, some insurers may exclude certain items that others cover, or they may charge an extra premium for coverage that is automatically included in another company’s standard policy.”
Pilcic said rate comparisons compiled by the Texas Department of Insurance can be helpful, but State Farm customers are encouraged to discuss policy discounts with their agents that could decrease their premiums.
Earlier this year, State Farm agreed to refund more than $352 million in excessive premiums to its Texas customers to settle a nearly 12-year-old legal battle over the company’s rates. The massive settlement came after lengthy negotiations involving the company, Texas Department of Insurance and the Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel.
While State Farm repeatedly denied it overcharged its policyholders dating to 2003, company officials finally gave in after failing to get a court ruling that overturned the original order for refunds by the state insurance commissioner. That order accused the company of setting its premiums for homeowners insurance far above what was necessary to earn a reasonable profit
Average refunds for long-time customers were estimated to range between $200 and $300. About 1.2 million Texas homeowners were expected to receive refunds in the case
The latest rate jumps come after a year in which insurers saw handsome profits in Texas.
Overall, home insurers paid out an average 46.4 percent of their premiums to cover property losses in 2014. It was the second straight year that the industry “loss ratio” was under 50 percent. A loss ratio of 60 percent or lower is considered a good target for profitability, and almost all large companies hit that benchmark in 2014.
State Farm showed a loss ratio of 36.7 percent last year. It was one of the company’s more profitable years in recent times. Allstate recorded a 45.4 percent loss ratio and Farmers was at 51.8 percent. Both Allstate and Farmers had premiums that were slightly under average in North Texas.