No void in sinkhole claims [Hernando Today, Brooksville, Fla.]

By Michael D. Bates, Hernando Today, Brooksville, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 03--BROOKSVILLE -- There have been almost 34 times as many reported sinkholes in Hernando County between 2005 and 2012.

New statistics from the county property appraiser's office show 1,957 reports of sinkhole activity were lodged with the county in 2012, up from 58 in 2005.

Last year's number also was 18 percent higher than the previous year, 2011.

And, according to the data, the number of people who are bothering to repair apparent sinkhole activity on their properties is rising.

Of the 1,957 reported sinkhole properties last year, 908 were repaired, leaving 54 percent unrepaired.

That compares to 71 percent unrepaired in 2011.

State Rep. Robert Schenck has been leading the charge against sinkhole fraud and last year co-sponsored a bill that includes an amendment that insurance companies will no longer pay out benefits to people who do not repair their homes.

It seems to be working.

Early reports from the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation show that the bill is cutting down on bogus claims, Schenck said.

"There are certainly people taking advantage of the situation," Schenck said. "We're all suffering for that in the way of higher insurance premiums and depressed property values."

Still, it is evident from the new data that sinkholes will continue to be a drag on the local economy, said Kevin Johnston, valuation services supervisor with the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office.

"It's still a big drain on the budget and it's going to continue to be," Johnston said. "There's no way around it. It's not ever going to get any better."

Sinkhole-labeled homes continue to affect property values and, even when repaired, it brings the value up to only about 90 percent of its original value, he said.

Johnston said the final figures for 2012 may change once more information is compiled but, as of today, his office is working with the current raw numbers.

The low number of repairs makes County Commissioner Nick Nicholson question the veracity of the claims.

"The reports are somewhat ambiguous and may or may not be a sinkhole," he said.

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Nicholson said the majority of problems result from normal foundation settlement and don't rise to the level of a sinkhole.

Many people see cracks in their driveway or around their homes and call sinkhole companies, getting confirmations that voids are present on their property.

The homeowners turn the claim into their insurance companies, get a check but don't get the repairs done.

Instead, they pay off mortgages and other debt and leave the sinkhole problem unaddressed.

Meanwhile, the property is de-valued and it affects the appraiser's calculations on homes in the vicinity.

The loss of market value due to sinkhole activity in 2012 was $184,312,276, according to data from the certified tax roll.

The cumulative loss of market value from 2005 to the present is $467,795,059.


(c)2013 the Hernando Today (Brooksville, Fla.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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