Articles Tagged with wildfire

Because of the number of fires in California over the past several years, there are huge shortages of labor and materials for building homes. It can take well over a year for someone who lost their home in a wildfire to secure a contractor and get permits to be able to build.

The California Department of Insurance knows this. On May 18, 2019, the Insurance Commissioner issued a Notice requiring insurers to extend additional living expense (“ALE”) benefits to as long as 36 months if needed for claims made due to a state emergency such as a wildfire, regardless of any time limit in the policy. “Good cause” is specifically noted to be unavoidable delays in the construction process. This can be delays with obtaining permits, or finding a contractor, or getting materials. It can also be delays due to the pandemic.

Note that this extension does not increase the dollar limit of ALE, if any, in the policy, so if your rebuild is delayed, you want to minimize the monthly cost of your lodging and related expenses to stretch it out as long as possible. This extension only applies to fires that occurred on or after September 21, 2018. However, 29 insurance companies agreed to voluntarily provide this extension to victims of the 2017 wildfires as well.

With the massive increase in wildfires throughout California, the Department of Insurance has adopted what is now an annual tradition of ordering insurance companies to refrain from policy cancellations and non-renewals in wildfire areas.  This year is no exception. On August 19, 2021, the Department of Insurance issued a one-year moratorium on cancellations or non-renewals of fire policies in the areas affected by the Lava and Beckwourth Complex fires.  More than 26,000 homes are affected, in Siskiyou, Lassen and Plumas counties.  This area was already included in last year’s moratorium, but this new order buys those policyholders another year.

Commissioner Lara’s office has stated that he intends to issue a similar moratorium for the Dixie and Caldor fires, once the perimeters of those fires are better established. The Dixie fire is currently only 35% contained. The Caldor fire is currently not at all contained.

These moratoriums are temporary respites from the insurance industry’s practice of non-renewing homes that are in wildfire areas. For homeowners who do lose their insurance because of their location, the “option of last resort” is the California FAIR Plan. This plan offers bare-bones coverage for fire coverage only.  The Department of Insurance ordered FAIR Plan to offer personal property coverage and liability coverage as well in 2019. The insurance industry has been fighting that, and in July 2021 a California superior court ordered FAIR Plan to comply.  Where FAIR Plan will likely appeal that decision, the ability to access this expanded coverage may not actually happen for some time to come.

When a homeowner obtains insurance, she generally assumes the insurance company will accurately estimate the cost of rebuilding the home in the event of a disaster such a fire. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Insurance companies rely on computer programs to generate an estimated cost to rebuild in an area. Some insurance companies will calculate the amount based solely on the square footage and age of the home. If an appraiser is not sent out when insurance is requested to inspect the home, upgrades such as vaulted ceilings, wood beams, updated kitchens and baths, hardwood floors, outdoor kitchens, finished basements or attics, or other enhancements will not be included in the amount allotted to rebuild your home.

Courts often decline to reform the insurance policy to fix errors in the estimated replacement cost, noting that the homeowner should have reviewed and contested the amount when she received the policy. Insurance policies often have extended policy limits that will add an additional 25% on the insured amount for just these situations. However, an additional 25% may not be enough to rebuild.

The West Coast is an especially high cost of living area, and that includes construction costs. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, is currently the most expensive area of the country for new construction, with construction costing an average of $417/sq ft. Construction costs in California have been rising 5-6.3% per year. This is especially true in areas at high risk of wildfires. While many of those areas are more rural and populated with homes that are less expensive than those in major cities, the repeated years of fires and construction have affected the cost of construction in those areas.  It routinely costs $300-$350/sq ft to rebuild in rural wildfire areas.  Years of fires have created a huge demand for construction labor, and chronic shortages of materials.  County offices are also overwhelmed with permit requests. Delays have increased to the point that the California Department of Insurance has mandated that for wildfire disasters, the time provided by insurance companies to rebuild and to pay Additional Living Expenses be extended from 24 to 36 months.

Fire season is beginning again in California, and soon throughout the West. Thousands of people are still trying to recover and rebuild from the years of past fires and related devastation. It is often taking three or more years to rebuild a home because of difficulties obtaining permits, contractors, and materials.

Ideally, your insurance company will work with you in this difficult time in your life. You will need to obtain a copy of your insurance policy and review it carefully. This can be harder than it seems if you have just lost all your possessions in a fire, as you may not even have access to a computer for some time. It is important to understand that the amount the insurance company set to insure your house may be much less than it would cost to rebuild your house. The insurance company will also only pay to rebuild your house as it was before, it will not pay for upgrades.

You will be asked to provide lists of the contents of your home. Then the insurance company will likely only reimburse you for the “actual cash value” of the possessions you lost in the destruction of your home, which removes depreciation from the value of your items. If your policy covers it, once you actually replace the item, you may receive a second payment covering that depreciation. But if you do not replace the item, you never will.

Contact Information