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Mold in houses causes new headaches
Changes in homeowners insurance will ensure one thing -- confusion. 
By Shonda Novak, Austin American-Statesman Staff, January 26, 2002

          For consumers, the chore of shopping for homeowners insurance is going to get more complicated.
          Because of changes in the most common Texas homeowners policy, prompted by soaring claims for mold damage, consumers likely will have to shop around more for the best price and coverage. And they're likely to pay more for less coverage. Although insurance industry officials say the changes will foster competition and increase options for homeowners, consumer advocates disagree.
          "Anyone who wants to be a good consumer and shop around, it's going to be almost impossible to compare apples and apples," said Dan Lambe, executive director of Texas Watch, a consumer research and advocacy group. "Everybody's going to have a different policy, a little different rate."
          Allstate spokesman Justin Schmitt agreed that consumers are going to have to become savvier. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing because they'll have options. Agents can help them make choices."
          One of the first challenges is understanding the different types of policies offered and how they have changed.
          Some insurance companies are discontinuing the most popular policy, the HO-B. Until now, 96 percent of Texas homeowners have bought a comprehensive HO-B policy, which covers most kinds of calamities, from lightning and hail to theft and explosions. It also covered water and mold-related damage, including expensive testing and decontamination procedures.
          But as the number and cost of mold damage claims soared last year, some insurers began to restrict or end sales of new HO-B policies and raise premiums steeply on renewals.
          Some offered only the cheaper and less comprehensive HO-A policy, which covers water and mold damage only when caused by wind or hail.
          The companies said soaring costs gave them no alternative. Farmers Insurance Exchange, the state's second-largest home insurer, said it expected to lose $300 million last year on claims for water and mold damage claims.
           Insurers also complained that Texas required them to offer more extensive water-damage coverage than any other state. The state mandates the types of coverage, but amounts are up to homeowners.
          In November, Insurance Commissioner José Montemayor, seeking to avoid a crisis in insurance affordability and availability, approved changes in coverage mandates and opened the door to companies offering variations on standard policies.
          Now, HO-B policies cover only the immediate damage caused by a sudden or accidental water leak or discharge.
          Plus, homeowners must report such leaks to their insurance company within 30 days after they discover them, or should have discovered them. Homeowners who are not vigilant about maintenance may have their claims denied.
          Under the new rules, homeowners can buy additional mold damage coverage in varying amounts, up to the coverage limit of their policies.
          Separately, some insurance companies are introducing, with Insurance Department approval, beefed-up versions of their bare-bones HO-A policies at additional cost.
          Farmers' enhanced HO-A policy, for example, includes limited coverage for water damage not covered under its basic HO-A policy.
          Allstate Corp. will offer an expanded HO-A Plus policy that caps coverage for mold removal at $5,000 to new customers, effective Monday. Starting in March, Allstate will offer the Plus policy to homeowners who renew. It will no longer offer its HO-B policy.
          Prices vary by customer, but Allstate anticipates its expanded HO-A policy will cost an average of 20 percent less than its existing HO-B policy and about 16 percent more than its basic HO-A. State Farm Insurance Co., the largest insurer, plans to seek approval for three policy variations next month.
          The growing number of options complicates the task of shopping for insurance.
          For starters, Montemayor cautions people not to cancel their current policies until they have another one in hand. They also should be aware that insurance companies may cancel newly issued policies in the first 90 days for virtually any reason, except illegal discrimination. If a consumer cancels a policy to buy another one, the previous insurer must refund the unused portion of the premium.
           "A homeowner doesn't want any gap in coverage, and with insurers looking carefully at a homeowner's past claims, some companies are reluctant to add new policyholders who have had any water problems," Montemayor said.
          Even with the new limits in HO-B policies, "B is still what you should be looking for if you can afford it," said Rod Bordelon of the state Office of Public Insurance Counsel. The public counsel, an arm of the Insurance Department, represents consumers interests.
          Beyond that, consumers will have to read the fine print to discern the differences in policies.
          "With the old system, you knew what you were getting," said Lambe of Texas Watch. "Now, with the endorsements, the opt-outs, the opt-ins, you can't just go on price anymore," he said. "And unfortunately, the lowest-priced coverage, more often than not, is going to be the coverage that has the most holes in it, leaving homeowners more vulnerable."
          Sitting down with your agent periodically is a good idea anyway -- especially now, said Rick Gentry, executive director of the Insurance Council of Texas, a trade group.
          He said information is available to help homeowners sort out the changes through their agents, the Insurance Department and other sources.
          "Consumers are smart," Gentry said. "They know how to shop and evaluate. Why do you think they drive across town and go to Sam's Club? Because they know they can get a bargain."

Insurance hlep

* www.tdi.state.tx.us is the Texas Department of Insurance home page. Links related to homeowners insurance include:
* www.tdi.state.tx.us//consumer/consum31.html
* www.tdi.state.tx.us/apps/perlroot/u--cp--homerate/rghome.html
* For general insurance questions, consumers may call the department's consumer line at 463-6515 in Austin or (800) 252-3439.
* Help also is available from the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, 322-4138.
* To file an insurance-related complaint:
Online: www.tdi.state.tx.us/consumer/complfrm.html
By e-mail: ConsumerProtection@tdi.state.tx.us
By fax: 475-1771
By mail: Texas Department of Insurance Consumer Protection (111-1A) P.O. Box 149091 Austin, TX 78714-9091

Shopping for a homeowners policy

* Rates vary widely. Call several companies to get quotes. The Department of Insurance publishes a rate guide that can help. Call (800) 599-SHOP (7467).

* It's important to buy from a licensed company. Licensed companies belong to the Texas Property and Casualty Guaranty Association. The association pays claims up to $300,000 if your insurer is unable to pay. If your company isn't licensed, your claim could go unpaid.

Learn the 25 steps for safe and effective mold remediation.

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For mold inspection, mold remediation, and mold prevention for your real estate property anywhere in the world, please contact
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