Buyers beware: home insurance, extreme weather and climate change

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1 Media Brief Buyers beware: home insurance, extreme weather and climate change 5 June 2014 Australia has always been a land of extremes. Now, the climate is changing, with extreme events such as fire, flood, drought, and storm surges set to become more frequent and more severe. In many parts of the country, climate change is mixing with natural variability to pile on the risk of damage to Australian homes. Although it makes up only two per cent of the global reinsurance market, Australia accounted for six per cent of global losses in the five years to 2013, according to the Insurance Council. Where Australians live, the design of settlements, the cost of housing, and whether homes are insurable or not are not issues of the future, but very much issues of today. New research on climate risks and home insurance reveals high risks for some homeowners, forecasts for significant increases and also offers important new tools to assist homebuyers to assess current and future risk to what is often the biggest asset purchase of their lives. Buyers, beware! The Climate Institute, in partnership with consumer group CHOICE, commissioned independent risk analysts Climate Risk to take a snapshot of how the home insurance industry is pricing extreme weather risk. The study, Buyer Beware: Home Insurance, Extreme Weather and Climate Change, offers a preliminary analysis of premiums, policies, and insurability. Insurance firms are some of the best risk analysts and, in stark contrast to others including superannuation funds and most governments many insurers are pricing in climate risk. Buyer Beware finds that homeowners and homebuyers are often, unwittingly, caught in a failure of the market and of governments to reveal information about the risks of extreme weather and climate change. Underinsured homeowners in some areas may receive payouts amounting to as little as half the sum required to replace their home because new homes will have to be much higher standards to withstand local weather extremes and climate change. Weather-related disasters often hit many dwellings at once and cause a spike in demand and prices for building trades, which raises the cost of repairing and rebuilding a home more so than if the damage were to a single house. Likewise, adaptation to climate change is seeing calls for new building codes for more resilient design against predicted impacts such as more intense bushfires and storms. Again, these are likely to raise the cost of repair and reconstruction. At the high end of climate projections, premium increases of up to 92 per cent are forecast over the life of a standard, 30-year mortgage; while the impacts of climate change on insurance costs could erode the value of a house by at least 20 per cent over a 30-year period. Without strong action to reverse heat-trapping carbon pollution and to adapt to climate change, insurance costs and risks will have to rise. For homes exposed to weather risk, this could lead to annual insurance premium increases from $500 to $5,000, depending on the location and insurer. At the low end of climate risk projections, the impact on house insurance premiums may be negligible. However, the latest science strongly suggests that inaction from governments and business means we are on track for stronger climate impacts. 01

2 The risk of climate change impacting on premiums and property values varies with, among other things, governments efforts to rein in emissions and invest in adaptation. Standard cover does not always cover weather extremes to which many properties are already exposed right now. But gaps in coverage where a house is exposed to a hazard that is not covered by insurance are likely to worsen in significance as the risks of house damage climb with more and more frequent extreme events. The incidence of such gaps in house insurance is likely to grow as hazards associated with extreme weather events become more intense and more frequent with climate change, e.g. storm surge, erosion, soil contraction during drought, and landslip. In some cases, the lessons of past extreme weather events have not been learnt, with governments doing little or nothing to discourage changes in settlement patterns and/or design in hazardous areas, exposing homeowners and homebuyers to unnecessary risk. The cost of premiums in some high-weather risk parts of the country is 10 times that of a typical policy at locations at low-risk locations. These high-weather risk locations can be in regions like the northern Australia, but also in the heart of Australia s largest cities (see further infographics for more detail). Figure1: Differences of Opinion. Homebuyers must beware when there are big differences in the price of premiums offered by different insurers at the same location. Wide gaps in opinion can indicate that some companies know more about the risks than others. The rest may catch up soon and all prices could end up be high. 02

3 In half of the tested locations at high risk, some insurers including some of the country s biggest firms declined to make online quotes available at all. Home insurance can be expected to becoming less affordable and less available in response to climate and weather risk. Premiums for the same policy (offered by different providers), on the same house, in the same location may vary by as much as ten-fold, suggesting a substantial change information and analysis is unfolding. Refusal to offer an online policy was never observed in low-risk areas. As the climate changes and insurers take even greater account of the risks, home insurance could simply become unaffordable or unavailable for some people in high-risk locations. See associated infographics for more detail Risk indicators: a new tool to help Australian homebuyers To test the home insurance market for signs of climate change, Climate Risk used publicly available information and online quoting system, taking over 250 sample online quotations for an average house, in more than 40 locations, with known weather-related hazards, and tested these against five Insurability Risk Indicators: Underinsurance: is the cost of replacing the house more than the sum insured? Heightened premiums: are premiums much higher than usual? Absentee insurers: are one or more insurers not offering online policies? Price Sheer: is there an unusually divergence in the premiums offered? Non-covered exposure: are the local hazards covered by a standard policy? These indicate how and to what extent the insurance industry may be responding weather-related risks, as well as emerging and future climate risks. To help homebuyers navigate the property market in a changing climate, Buyer Beware recommends taking the following steps: 1. Ask the local council whether the dwelling is in a location in which historical climatic data puts it at risk from extreme weather impacts. 2. Check whether the dwelling will be exposed to rising extreme-weather risk because of climate change. 3. Test the house against the five Insurability Risk Indicators, above. 4. Factor into the purchase price of the home the costs of adaptation and/or current and future insurance price increases. 5. Avoid properties where insurability is uncertain, may become unaffordable or unavailable, or will lead to deterioration in property value. Role of government Research has shown that investment in adaptation in Australia is uneven 1, at best. Current efforts are weak, poorly co-ordinated, and piecemeal, where they exist at all. In some cases, governments seem to be retreating from adaptation, e.g. New South Wales and Queensland have withdrawn planning policy tools to help local councils manage risks to coastal developments and dwellings. New South Wales has removed projected climate-risk warnings from mandatory disclosures when buying a property. This increases the exposure of communities to storm surges and sea-level rise. This leaves homeowners increasingly and unwittingly trapped in a market failure which governments, at all levels, have so far failed to address. Indeed, some governments are seemingly ignoring the lessons of disasters past by permitting settlement and inappropriate dwelling designs in high-risk locations. In some cases, they have failed to make information on existing weather-related risks freely available to homeowners and homebuyers. Thus, consumers are prevented from making a fully informed decision. 03

4 In the face of large-scale disasters, such as floods, homeowners can be shocked to discover they are underinsured or even uninsured. It is not uncommon for people to turn to government as the insurer-of-lastresort, as in the case of the levy introduced following the 2011 floods in Queensland. Ultimately, however, it is taxpayers who foot the bill. In , taxpayers were levied an estimated $1.8 billion to help make up the estimated $5.8 billion needed for relief and reconstruction. This represents a failure of the market and of government policy to protect the long-term interests of Australian homeowners and other taxpayers. Governments should act to shepherd and in some cases regulate development and settlement patterns to ensure they are appropriate and resilient. They should act to make hazard information readily available, mandate its disclosure, and require forward-looking resilience. In some cases, government will need to manage the movement of settlements from high-risk locations. For instance, the town of Grantham in the Lockyer Valley, Queensland, had to be moved to safer ground following the devastating floods of To address market failure, Buyer Beware recommends that governments should: 1. Mandate disclosure of all available hazard mapping, including in full digital GIS formats as well as printready documents. 2. Require all dwellings and associated infrastructure to be built or renovated as fit-for-purpose for the maximum projected impacts over their design life. 3. Disclose extreme weather and climate change risks associated with a property at the point of sale and legislate a key factsheet. 4. Disclose current and projected insurance premiums for a property at the point of sale, based on independent metrics (such as the risk indicators in Buyer Beware). 5. Disclose any settlements where, this century, climate change risks making future habitation untenable. Australia s climate is already changing Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer, on average, than the last. In the decade to 2011, the number of record-high temperatures exceeded record lows by as much five to one. For Australia, January 2013 was the hottest month on record in the hottest summer on record in the hottest year on record. In the latest State of the Climate Report, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO outline how Australia s climate is changing: Hot, dry, and fire weather. The extent and frequency of exceptionally hot years and drought is rising, the risk of extreme fire weather has risen across large parts of the country since the 1970s. The duration and frequency of heatwaves have increased, with the hottest days becoming hotter. Drought leaches soil of moisture, potentially damaging house foundations, while fires can devastate whole towns and suburbs. By 2050, very extreme bushfire days are projected to occur four to five times as often in south-eastern Australia. Rain and flood. In southern Australia, rainfall is decreasing, but in both north and south rainfall events are becoming more intense, raising the risk of flooding. Floods, in turn, raise the risk of land slippage and erosion, as well as inundation of dwellings, particularly along waterways. Storms and coastal surges. While the trend in cyclonic activity is unclear, it is thought that while the frequency of tropical cyclones may decrease their intensity, and hence risk to dwellings, could rise in a warming world. The average global sea level rose by more than 0.2 metres between 1880 and 2000, and is rising still. As the sea level rises the risk of damage to coastal settlements through inundation and storm surges also rises, but not linearly. According to Geoscience Australia, a rise of 0.5 metres would see the risk of what is today a major, 1-in-100-year storm surge increase as much as 10,000 times in some places. 04

5 Changing insurance to drive adaptation to climate change The scientific warnings about climate change have only grown more ominous with time. The latest reports of the IPCC make it clear that it costs far less to act now than to wait until the costs become unmanageable. However, even with concerted action to reverse the rise in emissions, some changes are now unavoidable and must be managed. Early investment in adaptation can help to keep overall costs to taxpayers and industry down. The IPCC notes that, where it is properly informed by climate science, insurance can actually help to drive adaptation, reducing risks to homebuyers, governments, and insurers alike. A healthy property market, however, relies on the free flow of information between firms and buyers. Buyer Beware recommends that insurers: 1. Establish mechanisms for premiums to reflect property resilience. 2. Explain the reason for a high or unavailable quotation if extreme weather or climate change are factors. 3. Add policy options to include climate exacerbated risks including soil movement and actions of the sea. For more information Kristina Stefanova Communications Director, The Climate Institute

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