Florida insurance crisis has some homeowners eyeing an exit: ‘I almost had a heart attack’

It could have been the unbeatable waterfront view or a perfect perch that overlooks the jungle-like backyard. Perhaps it was a place the size of a postage stamp, but nonetheless a roof over their heads that holds their prized possessions. Or maybe the price was just right to finally escape the rental market.

There are immeasurable reasons that homeowners choose the place they call home. A safe haven, a sanctuary, a retreat. But the dream of homeownership and the stability it provides for many now feels uncertain because of the insurance crisis in Florida.

Homeowners are finding their premiums are going up two- or three-fold. Some are being suddenly dropped by their provider and forced to find new coverage, and others are learning that some providers are extremely picky about who they will cover or require a laundry list of fixes.

All the while, there’s finger-pointing with lawmakers and insurance companies on one side, and lawyers, contractors and public adjusters on the other — with homeowners caught in the middle. And now, policyholders will pay a new 1% assessment starting in October that will go toward the state nonprofit agency to pay claims from insolvent insurers.

The crisis has put homeowners in a difficult position. Those on fixed income or who haven't had a raise in years are cutting necessities like groceries. Others may put off retirement or even move to another state.

The USA TODAY Network spoke to Florida homeowners about how property insurance increases are impacting their lives. Here is what they had to share.

Vinnette Williams with a $9,759 Citizens Property Insurance Corporation bill that she received for her home in Boynton Beach, Fla., on April 4, 2023.
Vinnette Williams with a $9,759 Citizens Property Insurance Corporation bill that she received for her home in Boynton Beach, Fla., on April 4, 2023.

The only home she has known in the U.S., 'it will be hard to let it go'

Beyond the hedges that line Vinnette Williams’ corner lot is an oasis of flora.

Young pineapples greet visitors near the front door, the not-quite-ripe fruit on display above a crown of leaves. Nearby, an avocado tree grows adjacent to a plum tree, along with jackfruit, coconut and papaya. The pumpkin she tossed in the yard has started to grow, with eggshells sprinkled strategically to fertilize the plants.

And towering in the backyard is a mango tree packed with dozens, if not hundreds, of fruit.

But when her latest Citizens Property Insurance Corp. bill neared five figures, it threatened her piece of paradise, her home base.

“It will be hard for me to let it go,” she said.

Williams, 58, has known no other home in the United States since she came from Portland, Jamaica, with her brother and young son in 1987 to join her mother in Boynton Beach. What was once her mother’s 1,200-square-foot home is now hers. Today, she shares it with her husband, Richard, and her aunt.

She loves how she isn’t confined to just the walls of her home, like she might be in an apartment or high-rise condo. She can step outside and soak in the bounty of her yard. Being centrally located and close to Interstate 95 and not having to fight traffic day in and day out doesn’t hurt, either. Family members from Jamaica always have a place to stay when they’re in town.

“It’s a house where somebody needs, maybe, help for somewhere to stay awhile, they’ll come,” she said.

This is the second year that Williams and her husband have been with Citizens, after their previous insurer Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company declined to issue any policies east of U.S. 1, she said.

With Universal, their insurance premium was around $3,200. When she went with Citizens, her new premium was nearly three times that amount, but she hadn't realized it because she pays for the mortgage, property taxes and insurance through an escrow account. In February, she was notified that this year's premium would go up to $9,700, she said, and that the escrow account would be short $4,000.

“It just came out of nowhere,” she said.

Williams and her husband both work, but she only recently started making $15 an hour as a residential aide. The couple worried how they could afford to pay such a steep increase and considered dipping into her retirement fund.

Her son rushed to help her, fronting the money without question. This was before an agent she knows reviewed the renewal and found that Citizens didn’t take into account their windows or wind mitigation inspection.

That brought down the premium to $4,238.

As she waits for the reimbursement so she can pay back her son, Williams worries about future insurance increases.

“You still have to be mindful,” she said. “You have to keep saving, putting that money aside for the next time when it comes around.”

She doesn’t want to give up the place she’s called home for decades. It’s filled with memories, and she wants to hang onto it so that her son and grandchildren can enjoy it, too.

Naples couple cutting back on going out

When Joseph Bianco Jr. and his wife, Lynda, bought a condo in Naples 35 years ago, housing and insurance costs in the Sunshine State were “much more reasonable.”

He would know. He has sat on the condo board as president or treasurer for more than a decade and dealt first-hand with decisions on the building’s insurance.

Four years ago, property insurance for their 66-unit building was $80,000, he said. Now, it’s more than $300,000.

Joseph Bianco Jr.
Joseph Bianco Jr.

The quarterly dues — which include property insurance, maintenance fees and other costs — went up from $2,800 last year to $3,600 this year. And this doesn’t include the personal property insurance each condo owner needs to protect the inside of their units, for which the Biancos pay more than $4,000 a year.

“These are more than ordinary increases in expenses. These are substantial increases in expenses, to the point where someone of lower or more moderate income is either not going to buy insurance or is going to be unable to afford the insurance even though it’s mandated by state law,” he said.

The warm weather and beach access led them to their 2,065-square-foot condo near Vanderbilt Beach, only spending the summer months back in Michigan. Both retired and on a fixed income, Bianco said he’s keeping tabs on the stock market and his wallet.

“The thing that’s funny with the insurance going up the way it is, it certainly caused us to try to slow down a bit,” he said, adding they reconsider going out to dinner and the like.

“We’re very conscious of that increase being the biggest increase we’ve had in our budget,” he added. “But there’s no question that that increase has really caught our attention.”

While the higher insurance costs won’t force them out of their condo, Bianco said the state needs to do more, such as subsidies for low- or middle-income households, to help property owners who can’t afford the hikes.

“It is a state of Florida problem, and unless the state of Florida governor and legislature keeps it as a high priority item, the long term is not going to be solved,” he said.

Debt-free dreams dashed: Forced to get cash advances, 401K

Donna Lillard dreams of opening a cat cafe.

But for now, Pepper, Ross, Luna, Stink, Dwight, Socks, Bear, Bug, Peanut, Dante, Tiny and Lily stake a claim on her Sebastian house, where she runs her nonprofit adult feline sanctuary. Her two dogs, Scooter and Sage, call it home, too.

It’s all she can do with the cost of everything going up, pet food and other necessities not excluded. She no longer fosters cats like she used to to avoid the extra expense.

Donna Lillard
Donna Lillard

Lillard lived in Broward County for 45 years and raised her two children by herself. As time went on, the roads and neighborhoods became noisier, more crowded and the people less friendly, she said. So six years ago, she packed up and moved four counties north.

“It was like going from 100 miles an hour to 10 miles an hour,” the 60-year-old said.

She settled on this three bedroom, two bathroom, 2,143-square-foot home because of the big yard for her dogs. She turned the carport into a "catio."

Her home costs had been relatively consistent, an important thing because she relies on disability benefits.

But when she received her most recent property insurance renewal, “I almost had a heart attack,” she said.

Her policy with Frontline Insurance, which includes a zero-deductible hurricane policy, went from roughly $2,200 to more than $3,800. The insurance provider increased her replacement costs of her home and contents, she said.

She waited an agonizing six weeks before her insurance agent was able to get the bill reduced by $500. During that time, Lillard shopped around for coverage, but she said other providers were hesitant to insure her 17-year-old roof, but she spent $100 on an inspection that found it has least six to eight more years of life.

“I’m petrified that they’re going to make me replace my roof in two years,” she said. “They’ve got us coming and going. We have no choice.”

Her 83-year-old mother is in a much more dire situation. Unable to afford the more than $4,200 bill from Citizens, she’s packing up the home she bought with her late husband and lived in for 36 years. Lillard said her mother would look for a townhouse to rent between Sebastian and Sanford, where her other daughter lives.

Lillard dreads the thought of leaving herself, although it’s something she is considering. She’d like something she can own without a mortgage and has looked up the coast as far north as South Carolina.

“Even though I don’t want to leave, I need to make it more affordable to live without turning to my kids, because I refuse to turn to my kids,” she said. “I’m not going to ask them to support me and be able to take care of myself, but how am I going to do that with those kinds of expenses?”

She had to take out a cash advance of $2,000 to cover the extra costs and has already withdrawn money from her 401K. Despite the advance having zero interest, it still bothers her that she’s back in debt after working so hard to get out. Lillard has cut back on spending at the grocery store and waits until items go on sale.

“It’s very stressful for me, very upsetting for me, but I can’t even afford some of the basic needs just to get by,” she said.

Life after work on hold

Bill Lincoln wants to retire.

But despite his best efforts, he can’t get a new private property insurer to cover his Cape Coral home. Citizens Property Insurance Corp. won’t insure him because his home value is too high. And the lapse in coverage is going to cost him.

How did he get here? Six months ago, the deadly Hurricane Ian slammed into southwest Florida. A few days after the storm passed, Lincoln filed a claim with United Property & Casualty for the damage to his home, including a roof needing replacement and a torn-down pool cage. But it would take weeks for a response and an adjuster to take a look. He was told the damage was less than his $18,000 deductible and UPC would not pay a penny.

Bill Lincoln
Bill Lincoln

Lincoln then turned to a public adjuster, and he submitted a loss of nearly $300,000. UPC didn’t respond. And then the insurer went insolvent.

His claim now sits with the Florida Insurance Guaranty Association, a nonprofit corporation created by the legislature in 1970 that takes over claims from insolvent insurers.

“None of the companies will write me a new policy because I have a claim that is open,” Lincoln said. “And then the Catch-22 is, well, I can’t get anybody to talk to us to close the claim.”

Lincoln, 67, is at the whim of the coverage provided by his mortgage lender, which he is anticipating will cover very little for very much. Whatever provider takes him on next will likely penalize him because he will have had a break in coverage.

“We buy insurance. It’s a contract. So if they would just pay the claims, why would we ever use that adjuster?” Lincoln said.

He earns a good living as a food safety consultant. But he worries about rising costs of living if he relied on a fixed income with his wife Tori, who is retired.

“Our property taxes have increased; everyone’s have. Our insurance costs have increased. Our utility costs have increased. Within just a few years, all of those things have gone up significantly,” Lincoln said.

Three years ago, Lincoln said he paid $3,595 for his property insurance premium. Until the expiration of his policy with United Property & Casualty Insurance on March 29, his premium was $6,281.

The Ian claim wasn’t Lincoln’s first. He filed one for his roof after Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, but UPC said the damages did not exceed the deductible. The next year when the rainy season began, the leak in the roof led him to pay more than $55,000 for repairs.  All the while, his neighbors got new roofs. Frustrated, he hired a law firm and they settled for $32,000 without a trial, and after paying the attorney he received less than half of what he paid to fix it.

“Honestly, looking back, I should have changed insurance companies right then. I don’t know why I didn’t,” he said.

Lincoln and his wife are from Nebraska, but work had taken them all over the country from Colorado to Missouri to New York and back. Ten years ago, they decided to go where they wanted to be, and that was Florida, specifically Cape Coral.

The warm weather, lake-like canals and home affordability drew them to purchase their 3,433-square-foot home that sits on a double lot. Over the years, they upgraded their home bit by bit and expanded by buying the lot next to them. Today, it’s a source of pride.

“We’re not trust fund babies or anything like that. We didn’t sell a business and cash out with millions. We just work and use our money and just went from project to project to project to identify what we wanted to do,” he said.

But without knowing what the future holds in terms of costs, Lincoln doesn’t know what will happen and feels for those who are trying to buy a home or are on a fixed income.

“I always tell people I’ll die here, but now I’m not sure if that’s true,” he said.

A big decision before hurricane season

More than half of Steve DeCerchio’s life has been spent living in the Sunshine State. He arrived in South Florida at age 22 after graduating from college in Pennsylvania and later bought a home in Deerfield Beach, less than a mile from the ocean.

But when Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, his property insurance renewal the following year had nearly quadrupled, he said. Rather than pay, he decided to sell his home and relocate more than 200 miles away to Lake County.

Steve DeCerchio
Steve DeCerchio

Now, he’s facing a difficult choice whether to take out a personal loan to get a new roof in order to remain insured or to move once again.

“The insurance pushed me out of South Florida, and now the insurance crisis may push me out of Florida altogether,” the 65-year-old said.

DeCerchio bought his two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,222 square-foot home in Grand Island outright and had money left over to make repairs and buy a car.

Here, he was closer to family in DeLand and Tallahassee than he was in South Florida. But equally as important were the costs. DeCerchio was a truck driver for Martin Brower, but injured his back and went on disability.

“It was a win-win: eliminate the mortgage, cut my costs and have a newer home with a little more space and a less crowded area,” he said.

Until recently, he had a policy with United Property & Casualty Insurance. He said he was paying about $1,400 a year. He filed a claim last year after a few hail storms hit the area. UPC denied the claim, and months later was deemed insolvent.

DeCerchio says that no private insurer will take him on because of his denied claim. In order to get a policy with Citizens, he said they’re asking for a four-point inspection to take a look at his structure, roof, plumbing and air conditioning, and as a result he was told to replace his 19-year-old roof. The insurance premium, at least, would cost roughly the same as he had been paying, he said, but a new rule would require him to get flood insurance.

His options are to pay more than $10,000 for a new roof to be insured with Citizens, sell his home or to go without insurance altogether. That last option is the least enticing because he doesn’t want to risk a storm damaging his only assets.

“I’m seriously considering putting the sale sign up, taking the money and going elsewhere: going up to northern Georgia, Carolina, go out west, go anywhere. You know, hop in the van and go and see where I want to settle,” he said.

He has to make a decision by 60 days after his UPC policy expired. That’s June 1, the start of hurricane season.

Hannah Morse covers consumer issues for The Palm Beach Post. Drop a line at hmorse@pbpost.com, call 561-820-4833 or follow her on Twitter @mannahhorse.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Florida property insurance crisis has homeowners on edge