April 15--If the N.C. General Assembly can make sense of our state's property insurance rates and ensure that they are based on actual risk, it will be a commendable accomplishment. We all grouse about insurance rates, especially since those of us who live near the coast have seen ours shoot up in recent years.
Not all dwellers in so-called "coastal" counties live in fancy homes precariously positioned on barrier islands or the Intracoastal Waterway, but they too pay higher insurance rates than "inland" homeowners, sometimes even for fire and theft coverage.
There is no good reason to expect that similar homes in coastal counties are more susceptible to burglars or fires than their counterparts in other regions. A 2009 compromise made improvements to what is known informally as the Beach Plan, which covers wind and hail damage in the state's coastal counties. But it was only a first step.
Now a legislative study commission has recommended changes that could give homeowners greater ability to challenge rate increases and grant broader powers to the insurance commissioner over rates. In 2009, homeown- ers premiums in the Wilmington area increased by up to 30 percent; the largest proportional increases were to mainland property owners.
One of the most promising recommendations coming out of the study commission would require public hearings on all proposed rate increases. Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin has allowed hearings on recent rate requests, but it is not mandatory.
Homeowners have a right to speak up, even though it's a given that people generally will be opposed to paying higher insurance rates. But many people feel as though insurance companies are jacking up rates with the state's blessing, without regard to fairness or the potential impact on ordinary citizens.
It is important that those who make the rules hear from the people who will be most affected, as well as the N.C. Rate Bureau, which represents the insurers' position.
The study group also proposes expanding the insurance commissioner's control over rates, which could raise questions about concentrating too much power in the executive branch. But it could also cushion the blow for homeowners.
One proposed change would allow homeowners to opt out of wind and hail coverage. That would reduce rates but would leave homeowners vulnerable to strong storms. Because they have escaped damage from some of the hurricanes and strong thunderstorms that roll through our area on occasion, some owners say they shouldn't have to buy wind and hail insurance.
That's a risky position, and one insurance companies are likely to fight. It's doubtful that mortgage companies would agree to lend money without that coverage. But it could leave taxpayers on the hook for loans or other aid in the event that Mother Nature wins that dangerous bet.
Not all the recommendations will be accepted, and changes are inevitable. What is important is that lawmakers -- with input from homeowners, real estate interests, insurers and the Department of Insurance -- ensure that rates are fair throughout the state. Fire, burglaries and devastating storms are not limited to eastern counties, and rates should reflect that.
(c)2012 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)
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