Florida's sinkhole shakedown: Insurers' new pitfall

We can't catch a break. If the wind isn't howling from hurricanes, the ground must be collapsing from sinkholes.

Hence, the latest insurance crisis in Florida, where homeowners, public adjusters and attorneys are clamoring for settlement checks for what often are little more than settlement cracks.

This has sent our already reeling insurance market into a new tailspin.

And you will pay for it.

State Farm wants to raise rates 28 percent, in large part because of sinkhole losses.

The state-owned Citizens Property Insurance takes in more than 200 sinkhole claims a month, paying out about four times as much as in claims as it takes in from premiums. We all know what happens when Citizens runs out of money and can't pay. We pay.

Florida is renowned for its insurance scams, and this one is a doozy.

It is centered in an area known as Sinkhole Alley in western Central Florida. Almost 70 percent of claims come from Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

You would think from the escalating claims — they have tripled from 2006 to 2010 — that homes are being swallowed like rats in a python cage.

In fact, that rarely happens. Catastrophic collapse is only involved in about 1 percent of sinkhole claims.

Most claims involve cracks.

We all have cracks in our house.

The question becomes when is a crack just a crack, and when is it "structural damage'' caused by sinkhole activity?

Finding that answer can kick off engineering and geological assessments that cost around $10,000. And even then, experts disagree, usually depending on who is paying them.

The end result often is a spat with the insurance company. Denial of claim. Threat of lawsuit. Settlement negotiations to avoid a trial.

There is a lot at stake. Fixing sinkhole damage is expensive because it often involves stabilizing the ground under the house, which can involve pumping grout into any cavities down there.

Going back five years, the average sinkhole payout, including expenses, is $130,000.

Now, here is the rub. When claims are paid, much of the money is never spent on the house or pumping grout in the ground.

About 20 percent, or more, goes to the insurance adjuster or attorney. The homeowner gets what is left. And investigations by insurance companies have found most simply pocket the money.

Featured Stories