Citizens Property Insurance recently sent an inspector to verify that Sandy Teich was entitled to the discounts she had obtained for protecting her Coconut Creek home against hurricanes.
To her surprise, an inspector from the same company she hired a few years ago to vouch for the upgrades showed up and contradicted what it verified before.
"They went against their own report," said Teich, whose premium increased 23 percent to $4,565 after the newest inspection in October.
This time, the inspection firm was paid by Citizens. Inspection experts say Teich's situation illustrates several problems with how upgrades are verified: The state has changed what qualifies for discounts in the past few years, less experienced people were allowed to do inspections a few years ago and some got information wrong, and there are gray areas in what's eligible that lead some inspectors — whether they realize it or not — to side with whoever hired them.
"It's a big guessing game," Alfred Pelletier, of Pelletier's Home Inspection in Palm City, said, adding that many inspectors are desperate for business and want to guarantee insurers will continue hiring them. "The form is not made for you to get a discount. It's made for them to find a way for you not to get discounts."
Three-fourths of policyholders' reports of verified discounts were later effectively overturned by Citizens' reinspections because they resulted in higher premiums, according to data the Sun Sentinel obtained from 60,178 Citizens reinspections. Premiums increased for nearly 36,300 policyholders in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties — or 80 percent of the policyholders who experienced higher premiums after the reinspections.
The firm Teich had hired, Pompano Beach-based Don Meyler Inspections, did more than 9 percent of the original inspections, according to Citizens' data. Of those, more than two-thirds of the premiums increased after Citizens' reinspections. Premiums increased by at least 30 percent for more than a fourth.
DMI did more than 50,000 inspections for insurers in recent years to verify discounts. Citizens officials did not say how many of its reinspections were done by the firm.
Citizens officials said that their inspectors agree to not to revisit a home if they've inspected it before, but the same rule doesn't apply for firms.
Scott Koedel, president of Don Meyler Inspections, said his firm's contract for the Citizens inspections bars him from providing details about the program or specific policyholders' homes. But he defended his company, saying it "does not change any of its protocol or procedures based on who is paying for the inspection."
"If we were perceived by policyholders, agents or carriers as having a bias, our business would not be possible," he said.
Koedel isn't surprised that many policyholders' inspection reports have changed: "We are now transitioning to the third version" in three years of a state form used to verify discounts.
"All the characteristics have changed about the inspection form and the burden of proof required. As those things have become stricter, there's increased scrutiny and level of proof required to substantiate" upgrades, he said.
For instance, Teich's new inspection report includes a permit number for her roof indicating it was issued shortly before a new building code took effect and photos that are aimed to show several other upgrades no longer qualify. The photos show a sticker on her garage door says it is hurricane-proof but a similar sticker that should be on her front door is missing.
"I took the sticker off…so somehow I'm committing huge amounts of fraud," Teich said, adding that she offered to show the new inspector "Notice of Acceptance" documents showing her garage door, front door and front window shutters meet Miami-Dade County's building code standards – which should qualify them for discounts.
He said that wouldn't help, according to Teich: "It's like he had his mind made up."
Koedel said policyholders — whether or not they paid for the inspection — can call his firm at 800-469-0434 if they see any discrepancies or possible mistakes.
Teich said she tried that but was told to talk to Citizens. She said she sent Citizens the NOA documents but it hasn't helped.
What's frustrating to Teich is that she spent about $4,000 between 2006 and 2007 to replace the garage and front doors and get shutters for the one other opening in the home — a 13-foot window — that wasn't protected. She said the work was based on a recommendation from a former state program created to encourage people to make their homes safer and save money on insurance.
Instead of saving money, she said her premium more than doubled to $3,700 when she switched from a private insurer to Citizens in August and increased another 23 percent after the discounts were revoked in October.
Database editor John Maines contributed to this report.
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