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Insurance Loopholes & Challenges to Avoid this Bushfire Season

The 2020 Black Summer bushfires were catastrophic and engulfed parts of the Australian southeast coast on an unprecedented scale. They caused extensive damage to properties, which led many survivors to seek help from their insurance companies with rebuilding.  Insurance expert, Professor Michael Sherris from the School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School, shares the top insurance loopholes and challenges to avoid this bushfire season.

“Bushfires are becoming more prevalent. With increased temperatures, this is something that is going to be more significant over coming years. We know that it is going to be hotter, drier, and bushfires will unfortunately become more common.”  

Prof. Michael Sherris, School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School

Although fire damage is usually included in most home insurance policies, it is important to understand what exactly is covered, if your home home insurance is up to date and actually reflects the cost of rebuilding your home.

“While most insurance companies should pay out, there are some issues and challenges that result in policyholders being underinsured or not insured at all.”

Prof. Michael Sherris, School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

Accounting for Newly Revised Building Codes this Bushfire Season

Building codes are often revised following a catastrophic bushfire season to account for any gaps in coverage. This can however result in policy holders being underinsured. Building codes are sets of regulations and standards established by local, state, or national authorities that specify the minimum requirements for the design, construction, and safety of buildings and structures. 

Bushfire insurance Australia
Climate Council shows high-risk areas within Sydney. Image: Climate Council  

These codes can change over time to incorporate new safety standards related to fire resistance.

“Building codes were revised after the black summer bushfire event and, depending on the risk level of the property, this impacts the cost of replacement.” 

Prof. Michael Sherris, School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

When homes do not comply with the current building codes, then an insurance company would only pay out to what your building structure was valued at. Insurance companies would not cover the cost of rebuilding your home to a standard that is compliant with the new building codes. 

“If your home’s cladding material, for instance, does not meet the building code requirements in your area, and in the unfortunate event of a bushfire causing damage to your home, necessitating a rebuild with cladding material compliant with the building code, you will incur higher costs. Your insurance company, in this situation, will typically not cover the higher cost.”

“It is the same if you renovate parts of your property to the new building codes. Your property is valued higher because it is more resilient to bushfires. Unless your insurance company is aware of this and reassesses your insurance premium based on your new building codes, you will be underinsured,” says Prof. Sherris. 

Policyholders should check what building codes their property needs to comply with based on their specific geographic area. It may be a wise decision to seek out an expert who can perform an inspection on your property and highlight any areas that may need attention in order to be in compliance with current building codes.

“Insurance companies may not notify policyholders of the changed building codes, but it’s good to discuss these points with insurance companies. Insurance companies should ensure that their policyholders are aware of the impact of building codes on insured values, and you may need to reassess your insurance premium to cover higher costs”

Prof. Michael Sherris, School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

Policyholders should be aware that there are some insurance policies that adjust for underinsurance by including a 30 per cent increase in price if a claim occurs. These policies are more expensive since policyholders will have higher cover that better reflects the cost of replacement. 

Is Home Insurance Becoming too Expensive? 

Considering the current cost of living crisis in Australia, the cost of home insurance is becoming an issue in many Aussie households. Insurance giants, QBE and Suncorp have both forecast home insurances to increase by 10 per cent to cover insurance claims as a result of the rising number of natural disasters. 

All home insurance policies cover bushfire, and premiums reflect the bushfire risk for the property usually based on BAL (bushfire attack level). Unfortunately, as bushfires become more common in Australia, the BAL for properties is becoming higher. This in turn affects the cost of home insurance policies.

“It’s critical for homeowners to ensure they have home insurance that protects them from bushfire damage especially if they live in a high-risk area. Homeowners may think that their property will be undamaged but may not be aware of the expected outlook this upcoming season.”

Prof. Michael Sherris, School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

According to the Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub, 2488 homes were burnt down in the 2020 Australia black summer bushfires and in the 2009 Victorian bushfires, there were more than 2000 homes lost. According to the 2023 AFAC seasonal outlook report, the upcoming bushfire season in NSW is expected to see an increased risk in fire compared to previous years. 

“What we have seen in the US, for example, is that insurance companies have pulled out of providing insurance of areas where bushfire or other natural disaster risk is too high as it would be too large of a financial uncertainty to cover certain areas.”

Prof. Michael Sherris, School of Risk and Actuarial Studies at UNSW Business School.

This is most definitely a concerning factor that may become an issue here in Australia. Should insurance companies decided to stop providing cover for bushfire prone areas, this will of course have very serious consequences for homeowners in high risk areas.

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