Why all Kiwis should be concerned about insurers

Two years after the first September 2010 Christchurch earthquake just 30% of residential claims have been paid out. About 50% of commercial claims have been settled.

Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend says the scale of the Canterbury rebuild is almost beyond comprehension.

That is why the rest of New Zealand cannot ignore its effect on economic growth.

Tireless cheerleader Mr Townsend was reacting to positive economic indicators that show a lift in activity. 

But for thousands, the biggest hurdles are still ahead: insurance payouts and repairs, and, for commercial landlords, negotiating compensation for compulsory land acquisition by the Crown over the next few weeks.

New Zealanders grudgingly accept rising insurance premiums. But the experience of Christchurch should make them wary of the contracts they sign and the intention of insurers to honour them.

This is why Cantabrians can't just get on and stop whining. Affected homeowners couldn’t shift if they wanted to, without taking a financial bath.

Just 30% of residential claims have been paid out, two years after the first September 2010 earthquake. About 50% of commercial claims have been settled.

Of the 28,000 worst affected homes, just a couple of hundred have seen any repairs. All the work so far has gone on relatively cosmetic damage on houses in less affected suburbs.

The Earthquake Commission says it is ramping up operations to settle claims (not repairs) within nine months.

Conversations in homes, schools, pubs, restaurants and in many gatherings generally end up on earthquake themes.

Here are a few that have come to me over the past fortnight: 

# A family’s house was red stickered in February 2011 after a wall fell down when two children were in the house. No offer has been received from the insurer. “Our house is now being used as a squat or sex hotel. We had our third assessment with IAG on Tuesday where we all had to step around the double-ended dildo and other nice things. It was very depressing and I don't know when it is going to end. We are on our knees financially after paying rent to top up the $330 allowance to $550, and paying a mortgage for 18 months. I have depression, my daughter has seizures and we are meant to be in a priority queue.”

# A real estate agent acting for a red-zoned relative is negotiating with an insurer over “repair” compensation. An independent quantity surveyor finds aspects of the insurance assessment incorrect (eg, the foundations are out by 170mm, not the 140mm claimed by the insurer). The agent questions why the “repair” payment is being calculated on the basis of TC1 foundations (being the cheapest, while TC3 requires expensive work). After all, the land is red zoned, which makes it more damaged than TC3. The insurance agent says those are his instructions and refuses to back down.

# A resident wants to build a new home. Westpac, with who he has done business with for 30 years, refuses to give him a loan because of conditions in the new insurance contract. ASB steps in to provide the loan under the new insurance conditions.

# An insurer refuses to make progress on repairs because work is first required on a small retaining wall. The insurer says it is EQC’s responsibility and cannot settle the claim until the matter is sorted.

# A mate is revisited by his insurance assessor, who revises his “rebuild” down to a “repair” after the property was red zoned recently, meaning he will lose about $200,000. To negotiate on an equal footing he needs to have the red zone geotechnical report from the Canterbury Earthquake Authority. The officials at CERA refuse to give it.

As background, the government payout to red zoners based on 2007 rateable valuations gives affected homeowners the ability to choose a payment based on the land value and/or the value of the house.

The homeowner may take the government payout for the land value only and negotiate with the insurer if the insurance payout for the house is likely to be more than the rateable value (as it would most likely be if written off).

It works like this.

My mate bought a property in March 2008 at auction for $910,000, above the rateable value of $830,000 ($565,000 for the house and $265,000 for the land).

He spent roughly $200,000 refurbishing it, so it owes him about $1.1 million.

After the June 2011 earthquake it is deemed a “rebuild” (ie, a new house) because of extensive foundation and structural damage.

Then the land is red zoned.

The insurance assessor returns and deems the house a “repair” and offers $250,000, even though the owner must leave the land and demolish the house, meaning the “repair” is just a fiction – Catch-22.

This means my mate will have to take the government 2007 valuation offer of $830,000.

He accepts he is relatively fortunate because once he has his payment he can move on, unlike those awaiting repairs.

Thousands of other residents have much lower valued properties at around $350,000 and house prices are rising fast as the March 2013 deadline to quit red zones looms.

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