Fire Insurance Survey Results Reveal Financial Hardships

The view where a home once stood in the Trancas Highlands neighborhood of Malibu.

As the dust begins to settle after the tumultuous months following the Woolsey Fire, many Malibu families are looking ahead toward rebuilding—and beginning to see how their insurance helped or hurt them in the process.

The Malibu Times has conducted an informal poll on how insurance companies stacked up post Woolsey Fire. After a few weeks of advertising in this newspaper, 63 people submitted their responses through the website SurveyMonkey, and below are the results.

On average, respondents said their contents coverage and living expense coverage was enough to fund about two-thirds of their needs, or 66 out of 100 percent covered.

Of 60 who answered the question, 27 people said they had adequate funds to rebuild; another 25 had either “somewhat adequate” or “inadequate” funds. (Another five respondents were renters.) In other words, only about half of homeowners polled had adequate funds to rebuild following the Woolsey Fire.

About two-thirds of respondents, 41, said their insurance agent/company was not proactive in preparing them for the possibility of a fire.

“When our agent suddenly retired, our policies were re-assigned to a new broker,” one respondent, insured by California FAIR Plan, wrote in the comments. “That broker never reviewed our policies, so no discussion or amendments were ever made to long-term policies with inadequate coverages.”

Another pragmatic response, this time from a Lexington customer: “They did not communicate with us regarding the possibility of a fire, but we were well aware it was possible.”

The Malibu Times requested respondents provide information on individual carriers; among homeowners polled, nine were covered by California FAIR Plan, 13 by Farmers Insurance, three by Travelers Insurance, eight by State Farm and five each by USAA, Allstate and Nationwide. Another 10 were covered by various carriers.

Among the six companies with five responses or more (Farmers, California FAIR Plan, State Farm, USAA, Allstate and Nationwide), the overall highest-rated was Farmers Insurance, followed by USAA and then State Farm.

“My agent called me the night of the fire and said he was submitting my paperwork for the loss of our home. He informed me how I could receive a check of several thousand dollars to take care of immediate expenses. Forty-eight hours after the fire, we had the check in hand.” This respondent’s agent was Bart Baker with Farmers Insurance.

One customer remarked, “USAA has been fantastic. The City of Malibu has been horrific,” although another customer said that “insurance coverage policy information was difficult to get” from USAA.

The survey was also an opportunity for frustrated customers to air their grievances.

When Allstate customers got to the question, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your treatment by your insurance agent/company in terms of: attentiveness, respect, empathy and help offered (on a scale of 1-100)?” the highest rating was 66 out of 100. One gave the company a zero. Another simply wrote “extremely stressful,” in the comments section.

According to the poll, Farmers Insurance was the most attentive and respectful, averaging 87 out of 100.

When asked for comments, some were heartbreaking, including this response, hand-written and mailed to the newspaper office: “Our experience has been hellish. The insurance company (Calif. Fire) has managed to block us from rebuilding. Planning delayed for five months. I was referred to let us have a permit for temporary electricity. We had additional damage from rains, insurance company says our insurance expired… “too bad!” yet they never (contacted) us for possible renewal. Edison took pity on us and made sure electric wire was clear and safe which is all underground from road to where my house was. All we need is permit for meters. Too little done to help people living in harsh environment. Even though we personally removed debris over three-month period, debris people came in and had us sign over $5,700 to them. Rural people are not being helped. The county wants to see us sell and disappear or commit suicide. I am 84. I want to live on my ranch again with all 11 buildings replaced, my son-in-law is dying from two cancers, daughter is overworked. We lost over 1 1/2 million personal things, not including the buildings. The park service has blocked trail access, therefore doing more harm to our business as a boarding estate. No one wants to help and I’d like to know why.”

Another commented: “The Hartford has been horrible. They keep asking for information and just made a small payment last week. They are going to hang on to every nickel they can.”

One added a note of caution: “We ended up getting over two times the stated coverage because of the incompetence of our agent. Fortunately, we had in writing where we had asked him multiple times to assure us we were well covered. And in the end, these emails got us nearly $2 million without having to retain an attorney. Get everything in writing.”

Judy Abel contributed to this report.