Mass. Insurers Hiking Rates

Experts divided on whether heavy damages from winter storms merit increase

Put it down as one more insult from the awful, horrible, terrible winter of 2015: Massachusetts homeowners socked by snow and ice dams are now getting socked with insurance premium increases.

As first reported by The Boston Globe Monday, MAPFRE – formerly Commerce – Insurance is raising rates 8.9 percent for the 214,000 Massachusetts homeowners it covers. Plymouth Rock’s Bunker Hill Insurance unit is raising rates for 35,000 homeowners by about 7.8 percent starting this week. And Safety Insurance plans a 9.1 percent jump in December for 150,000 homeowners.

“It does raise a red flag,’’ Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said in an interview Monday afternoon. “Just saying we had a bad winter -- it is not sufficient for this rate increase … Homeowners insurance is set, prospectively, over a long period of time, and so it would be actuarially unsound to take one outlier incident, which would be last winter, and use that the determine the rate for the following year.’’

“Let’s fully investigate this,’’ Cummings added. “The Division of Insurance ought to have full-fledged hearings. We ought to have consumer representation at the table, arguing for the consumer side of this rate increase. We can't just let them file and allow these to go into effect.’’

Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office includes a major consumer protection unit, said in a prepared statement: "We are concerned about the reports that insurers have dramatically raised rates on homeowners based on losses during one winter season. Before insurers raise rates on homeowners, many of whom operate on a tight budget, they should demonstrate that increases are truly needed and that the current rates do not include price padding."

Insurers say it wasn’t just the winter of 2015 but also severe winter weather in 2011, tornadoes, Tropical Storm Irene, and other weather disasters and rising costs of construction and construction materials that are driving their requests for incrases.

Tom Skelly of Deland, Gibson Insurance in Wellesley Lower Falls said at his agency, clients filed 10 times as many ice dam damage claims this winter as an average year.

“It doesn't surprise me at all that the companies are coming back with an increase,’’ Skelly said. “They've lost a lot of money. They've paid a lot of claims. It was an unbelievable year for losses.’’

What can consumers do? Skelly said it’s obviously a good time to shop around for coverage if you haven’t recently; look at bundling home and auto insurance with one carrier, which can often get you a 20 to 30 percent total discount; and consider raising your deductible from $500 or $1000 to $2,500 or $5,000 if you can cover it. (This is how much damage you’d have to cover out of pocket before insurance would cover it; going to a higher deductible still protects you against major damage from fire or flooding but can cut the cost of your insurance significantly.)

Another option Skelly recommends: Get a home energy audit from your utility company. They’re free, and they may often lead to the utility, through a small energy efficiency tax on electric and gas bills, pay for the kinds of insulation upgrades that would also prevent future ice dams and costly damage.

“In the long run,’’ Skelly said, “you’re going to save money by doing a little work now.’’  

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