Aug. 12--TALLAHASSEE -- Justin and Ashleigh Leto were ready to buy their Florida dream home. The property was perfect, the price was acceptable and the sellers were ready to hand over the keys to the first-time homebuyers.
One problem: insurance.
The home, a four-bedroom in Coconut Grove, had been deemed risky by all licensed private insurers, leaving state-run Citizens Property Insurance as the only company willing to cover it. Due to recent changes at Citizens, the quote for the annual insurance premium was far higher than anything the Letos had budgeted for. The deal nearly fell through.
"If I didn't have friends who had warned me about the high cost of insurance, I would have been shell-shocked," said Justin Leto, who closed on the house in June but still worries about the $11,000 annual insurance premium. "For a lot of people, this is going to make it impossible to buy a home."
It's a scenario playing out across the state, as rising insurance premiums play an increasing role in the home sales market, according to real estate agents and home builders.
State leaders and Citizens executives say increased rates are necessary to enhance the private insurance market and prevent massive "hurricane taxes" if a major storm wiped out Citizens' cash surplus. Those hurricane taxes -- levied on nearly all Floridians -- would unleash untold harm on the economy, Citizens has warned in recent months.
But absent of such a storm, housing professionals say Citizens' rate hikes are already hurting the real estate market, killing potential deals and spurring more foreclosures. The insurer's flurry of policy changes -- including ending coverage for new homes under construction and for some older homes -- comes at a time when Florida's housing market is showing modest signs of recovery from the steepest downturn in decades.
Danny Hertzberg, a Miami Beach real estate agent, said that in the last six months he has seen insurance costs emerge for the first time as a "big ticket item" with the potential to kill pending sales.
"It impacts the carrying costs. When you put that in addition to the property taxes, it can become unaffordable," he said. "For people who want to sell and move, it's one more barrier on selling. And you already have a group of people who are underwater and can't sell."
Carlos Lacasa, Citizens' board chairman, said the insurer is "not tone-deaf" to the state's housing problems, but has to take into account a number of competing interests, including political ones.
"We're not a private company that can do whatever it pleases," he said in an interview. "We are bound by what the law requires and what each member of the executive branch wants from us."
Gov. Rick Scott has tasked the board with shrinking Citizens drastically, and swiftly.
Florida's housing market was one of the hardest hit during the mortgage crisis and the state has some of the nation's highest property insurance costs. Florida also has a higher percentage of delinquent mortgages than any other state.
More than one in five Florida homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments and nearly half of all mortgages are underwater -- meaning more money is owed than the value of the property.
Many homeowners are feeling the pinch of rising insurance costs even as property values have slumped, wages are sinking and unemployment remains high.
Bill Andrews, who bought a modest two-bedroom home in Hollywood in 2010, said insurance rate hikes with Citizens are making it harder for him to afford to live there. The son of a loan officer, Andrews said he carefully weighed his financial position before taking out a conventional 30-year fixed mortgage for the $120,000 home. What he didn't consider, he said, was an impending campaign by Citizens to raise the cost of state-run insurance by more than the 10 percent rate cap enacted in 2009 .
"We could reach a point where it's not worth staying here anymore," said Andrews, a librarian who said he lives paycheck to paycheck. "We'll move up [the state] or out of the state entirely."
Anthony Rocco, of Oakland Park, tells a similar story. Three months after buying a home last summer, Citizens sent a second inspector to double-check the property, leading to a $1,300 premium increase.
"That [inspector] came, saw exactly the same house and exactly the same things, and his report magically came back with reasons for a rate increase in 2012," he said. "It's such a scam it's not even funny."
Hundreds of property owners have emailed Gov. Rick Scott, telling insurance horror stories of rates soaring with Citizens. A review of the emails by the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau found several instances where frustrated homeowners warned that the rate increases would cause them to default on their mortgages.
"It is really sad that after 37 years of living in Miami, I'll be forced to move out because I cannot afford my home insurance," Ada Perez wrote the governor in May. "Last year my policy was $3,705, this year it is 6,946.00. How much more it will be next year? Please, governor, help us in Miami."
State legislators are also hearing from their weary constituents. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, says his office has become "the insurance agent of last resort," with several homeowners asking for him to help them save their homes from an insurance-related foreclosure.
"I have homeowners that have contacted me statewide, and their property insurance premium is higher than their mortgage," said Fasano, an outspoken critic of Citizens. "Our economy just can't withstand any more foreclosures. We can't withstand any more people losing their homes, walking away from their homes, because their insurance premiums are too high."
Costs are also increasing for those who are thinking of buying a new home, an additional challenge for the state's battered construction industry.
Earlier this year, Citizens abruptly ended its builders' risk insurance program, which provided coverage for new homes that were currently under construction.
Home builders have been forced to find more expensive coverage in the limited private market. In places like the Florida Keys, Citizens is the only company willing to cover builders' risk at realistic rates, said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.
"There are few or no other options for this coverage in the Keys," Carruthers, also president of the group Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe, wrote in an April presentation to the Florida Cabinet. "Eliminating Builders' Risk has stopped construction and is damaging the Keys economy."
Doug Buck, governmental affairs director for the Florida Home Builders Association, said his members have been able to find alternative coverage for new homes, but "it is more expensive."
Those higher costs get transferred to potential homebuyers.
"I think we should all be very concerned that insurance costs are going to be a real impediment and hurtful to the housing market," Buck said. "We believe that the market should dictate [prices], but if the market is such that it's so expensive, then there will be no market for the product that we're selling."
Andrews, the recent homebuyer from Hollywood, said his insurance rates have increased by nearly $1,000, and the rising costs are pushing him ever closer to defaulting on his recent mortgage.
"This is going to force out everybody who could just afford a home during the worst financial crisis in this country," he said. "In South Florida, where we're already hurting, it's going to force everybody to walk away again."
This article includes comments from members of HeraldSource, part of the Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network or to join, visit MiamiHerald.com/insight.
Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @ToluseO
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