In honor of Halloween, I like to tell you a VERY spooky story. Before leaving town last summer to visit my college-age son who'd taken a seasonal job in North Dakota (no, that's not the spooky part) I called our long-time insurance company to make a claim for a broken passenger window, only to discover that they had canceled our car insurance (surprise!) back in January.
Say what?!? "Do you mean to say that I've let a teenage boy drive around for months with NO insurance?" I incredulously asked. (It appears so.)
This carrier had not only covered our cars for years, they had also insured our personal residence, thus the cancellation had resulted from a glitch with cross payments between the two accounts - a recurring problem that I erroneously thought I had straightened out several months earlier.
"We'll reinstate you - again," the agent finally conceded,"but we'll have to charge you for the back payments you missed, and add a 'reinstatement fee'" (aka: a penalty).
"I didn't miss them," I curtly replied, "the invoice is on 'auto-pay'. Billing didn't apply them to the correct accounts; that's on you. Why would I now pay for insurance your company hasn't been providing for months?"
And so the conversation devolved . . .
Frustrated, I finally called a competitor and promptly switched carriers on the cars, AND just to teach my old insurer a REAL lesson, I transferred my home owners' insurance policy a few days later . . . Here's where it gets scary. Three weeks after switching to a new insurance company, they canceled ME!
"Your home has large trees on the site, pine needles on the roof, cracks in the driveway, and sits on a down-sloping lot," the letter stated. "For these reasons, your property does NOT meet the underwriter's current insurance guidelines . . ." Huh?
Concerned, I called our new providers to clarify their position. "Listen, you invited me to move over ALL of my insurance needs," I insisted, "and I did. Certainly, you could have asked me about these specific characteristics when we went through the long questionnaire over the phone, BEFORE I cancelled my previous insurance.
"Some things are impossible to know until we see them," the unsympathetic representative nonchalantly replied. "You don't meet our company's criteria. Sorry." (Nightmare on Elm Street!)
"Redwood trees on a property or a down-sloping lot aren't 'impossible' to know," I spit out irritably. "It doesn't take a site visit to ascertain these restrictions and I would have happily supplied full disclosure had you simply asked the questions. In fact, if I'd known these factors would automatically reject our property out of hand, I WOULDN'T HAVE CANCELLED MY INSURANCE POLICY WITH MY PREVIOUS CARRIER!" (Tough luck.)
Now scrambling, I phoned my previous insurer and much more politely suggested they reinstate our insurance, only to be told they wouldn't, unless we installed a security system on the house and paid substantially more. Wow; "Trick" or "Treat?"
What's the moral of this haunting tale? Look before your leap? A bird in the hand? Restraint of pen and tongue? (You tell me.) All I know is . . . this could have been so very frightening.
Unfortunately, home insurance in the state of California IS getting tougher and tougher to come by. It's why I encourage ALL of my Buyers to shop for home insurance immediately once they find themselves in escrow.
Given California's penchant for unpredictable wild fires, earthquakes, landslides and other such natural disasters, securing home insurance has become increasingly difficult, and in some rare cases, nearly impossible to obtain. (Note: If your home carries a mortgage - as most of them do - you CANNOT close escrow without homeowner's insurance lined up, AND even if you have been lucky enough to buy your house in an "ALL-CASH" play, it would simply be foolish NOT to insure this very valuable asset.)
Long story short? I did manage to finally get insurance with a third party via the help of an insurance broker, but I am paying MORE than I used to and I am less than thrilled with the insurance industry as a whole. In fact, I'm rather peeved (both at myself for not understanding the consequences and at insurers for being less than helpful).
In the meantime, Cliff is diligently keeping the pine needles off of our roof, we are exploring bids to repair the cracks in the concrete, and I am holding my breath that another letter isn't heading our way that blames the down-sloping topography as a reason for immediate insurance cancellation. (There's absolutely nothing we can do about the lay of the land.)
Good thing I've got a fresh supply of candy and chocolate to ease the stress.
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.