Owners of old homes take hit on insurance

A vintage home is cool, until you have to pay the insurance bill. That chic 1930s Mediterranean-style cottage is an architectural gem with inlaid wood floors, crown molding and a stone-carved fireplace. But most insurers see old water pipes, faulty wiring and maybe a leaky roof.

To protect against such potential risks, many insurers are adding hefty surcharges - on top of already soaring premium rates - on policies covering homes usually more than 20 years old.

To South Florida homeowners whose older homes have survived dozens of hurricanes in the past 80 years, the surcharges are an outrage.

''I like to tilt at windmills,'' Palmetto Bay homeowner Ed Feller says of his indignation over the 20 percent surcharge imposed by Citizens Property Insurance on the homeowners policy for his 1968 home.

''Regulators shouldn't have allowed Citizens to impose this surcharge. There's no rationale,'' adds Feller, also a councilman for the small South Miami-Dade County community.

Many of Feller's neighbors share his pain. Numerous homes there were built more than 30 years ago. And the surcharges come atop already hefty windstorm premiums - Palmetto Bay is east of U.S. 1, thus falling into the state's designated windpool area.

The state-run Citizens is a major provider of windstorm insurance in the windpool area as well as throughout South Florida.

Connie Crowther's charming 1924 home in Coral Gables was totally updated, brought up to the current building code, when she and her husband built an addition in 1998. However, it still has its original roof, with handmade Cuban barrel tiles.

This is probably a better-built home than many new homes. It's been through a bunch of hurricanes, including the 1926 storm, which was a bear,'' says Crowther, whose insurance bill now tops $7,000. Crowther's premium rose 30 percent in the past year.

Insurers say three factors can push up premium rates: a home's age; its location, including proximity to the coast; and whether it has any hurricane mitigation, such as storm shutters, shatterproof glass, or roof straps.

Citizens, which by state law must charge rates above those of the 20 largest private carriers, began to impose a surcharge on old homes early this year. For homes more than 20 years old, the surcharge runs from 1 percent to 20 percent.

Many private insurers already include the age of a home in their underwriting criteria.

On the flip side, Citizens and a number of private insurers offer a credit on new homes. At Citizens, the credit starts at 10 percent for a new home less than a year old and runs down to 1 percent for a house built 10 years ago. On homes between 11 and 20 years old, there is no credit or surcharge.

Bob Lotane, spokesman for the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, says the majority of insurers impose a surcharge on older homes, which regulators must approve. Some insurance companies don't add an extra fee, but simply factor age into rates.

Those insurers include Allstate Floridian and Allstate Floridian Indemnity. They do factor in retrofitting on older homes, but give no discount. The insurers do offer a discount, up to 20 percent, on homes one to 10 years old.

State Farm imposes a 6 percent surcharge on old homes and gives credits for homes that have been brought up to the current building code.

Nationwide offers discounts for homes built within the past six years that can range from 3 percent to 20 percent. The discount is based on the home's original building date and doesn't apply to retrofitted homes.

Research by engineers at the University of Florida, Florida International University and Florida A&M University last year found that the building code in place when a home was built was more important than the age of a home.

After the 2004 storms, the researchers found, homes built under the 2002 Florida Building Code fared better than homes built between 1994 and 2001. Homes built before 1994, when less strict building codes were in effect, fared even worse.

Homes built between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s in particular took a huge beating from the 2004 storms, says Tim Reinhold, director of engineering and vice president for the Institute for Business & Home Safety, a building safety advocacy group based in Tampa. During that period, lighter building materials - plywood rather than thicker planks on roofs, for example - made homes less hardy in massive windstorms.

But wind damage isn't the greatest risk, insurers say. It's the chance of old pipes leaking and causing water damage or an electrical fire from old wiring.

''People don't have a real good handle what degradation there is over time,'' Reinhold says.

Insurers are concerned about maintenance.

''People don't always maintain their homes well,'' says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of the Tallahassee-based Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.

Still, Feller, whose Palmetto Bay home has windstorm shutters and a new roof, remains incensed at the surcharge on his homeowners policy.

''This house isn't going to be knocked over by a storm,'' he says.