September 25, 2023

Bucks Blog: Dog Bites Can Raise Your Insurance Premiums

A trainer in Los Angeles reveals a dog's teeth while demonstrating how to avoid dog bites.Associated Press A trainer in Los Angeles reveals a dog’s teeth while demonstrating how to avoid dog bites.

Dog bites continue to represent one-third of the payout dollars for homeowner liability claims, according to the latest data from the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm Insurance.

Insurers paid more than $489 million for such claims last year, according to the institute, an industry group.

While the actual number of dog-bite claims fell 1.4 percent in 2012, to just under 16,500, the cost of settling claims rose 1.2 percent, so the total cost was essentially flat. The average cost paid per claim was $29,752 last year, compared with $29,396 in 2011.

Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the institute, said some companies include in their statistics dog-related injuries that aren’t necessarily actual bites, such as if a dog jumps on someone or startles them, and they fall and are injured.

The claims are paid under homeowners’ liability insurance, which covers you if your dog bites someone visiting your home or if it bites someone when you take it out for a walk.

Homeowners’ insurance generally covers dog liability as part of the policy’s standard coverage, with limits of up to $100,000 or $300,000.

Ms. Worters said most insurers don’t ask about dogs when initially writing a homeowner’s policy. But once a dog bite occurs, insurers may increase your premium or even exclude the dog from coverage under your policy, depending on the severity of the injuries. Some insurers exclude certain breeds of dog from coverage.

State Farm said it paid more than $136 million to cover nearly 4,500 dog bite claims last year. The company said it did not refuse insurance based on the dog’s breed, but it urged owners to be responsible with their pets.

Various organizations have been publicizing dog bite information because of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, the third full week in May.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 4.7 million dog bites occur each year, and more than half of the victims are children. The Postal Service says roughly 5,900 postal carriers were attacked by dogs last year. Los Angeles topped the list of cities based on dog attacks on letter carriers, with 69 attacks reported in fiscal 2012.

A nonprofit organization called Prevent the Bite offers tips for helping people, especially children, to avoid dog bites, based on the “W.A.I.T.” principal for approaching unfamiliar dogs:

–Wait to see if the dog is with its owner and if it looks friendly.
–Ask the owner for permission to pet a dog.
–Invite the dog to sniff you, while you stand with your hands curled at your side.
–Touch the dog gently to pet, never at its face or tail.

If the dog looks unfriendly; if its owner declines to let you touch the pet; or if it doesn’t approach to sniff you, stop and walk slowly away.

Has your dog bitten someone? Did it affect the cost of your insurance?

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Your Money: After Hurricane Sandy, Rebuilding Under Higher Flood Insurance

By now, most know how much insurance money they have to work with, though plenty of people are still struggling to get more. But a new federal law that happened to coincide with the arrival of the storm will cause flood insurance premiums to skyrocket and require stricter, and thus more expensive, rebuilding standards.

So in the most devastated communities, families are being forced to make difficult financial calculations: can they afford the new flood insurance premiums, which, at worst, can reach as high as $30,000 a year? Do they have the money to rebuild their homes to the government’s new specifications? Does it even pay to stay?

Some families have already thrown up their hands and put their houses up for sale, while others talk of making the best of really bad options. “This issue is more devastating to more people than Sandy itself, believe it or not,” said Ron Jampel, a resident of the Shore Acres section of Brick, N.J., who started an advocacy group for affected homeowners in New Jersey called Save Our Communities 2013.

Maria Zanetich, who lives across the street from the water in Point Pleasant, N.J., with her husband and two grown daughters, considers her family lucky in many respects: their first floor is still gutted, but they can continue to live on the top floor of their three-bedroom raised ranch. Their insurance premiums will increase sharply, however, unless they elevate their home five feet, which she said could cost more than $100,000 because their home sits on a concrete slab instead of a foundation with a crawl space.

“I paid my flood insurance on time every year, but I didn’t even know that I had a subsidy, much less one that is now being phased out,” said Ms. Zanetich, who provides early intervention services for children with developmental delays. “The insurance moneys that we received will not cover both elevating my house and repairs.”

She and her husband are applying for grant money — they have already received their flood insurance claim payment — and once they hear about that, they can determine their best course of action. “The more that I try to figure it out,” Ms. Zanetich said, “the more I realize that I don’t know what I don’t know.”

Many people with homes built before the first flood maps were drawn — in New York, for instance, that’s Dec. 31, 1974 — have long received flood insurance at subsidized rates that did not reflect the property’s true risk (though only about 20 percent of flood policy holders nationwide receive these subsidies, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Other homeowners were paying lower rates because the agency failed to update the flood maps, which did not do homeowner’s — or taxpayers, for that matter — any favors.

“A lot of the maps are so old, they have become unreliable,” said J. Robert Hunter, who once ran the flood program and is now the director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s not doing you a favor to give a cheap rate, and a year later, your house is gone,” he said, adding that it also encouraged unwise construction in certain areas. “Consumer aren’t helped by misleading maps.”

But some of that is about to change with the new law, enacted last July, which is aimed at strengthening the finances of the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA runs the program but it is administered by private insurers.

The subsidies on these older properties started phasing out for vacation and second homes at the beginning of the year, and will rise by 25 percent annually until the rates reflect the actual risks. Homes with “severe and repeated” flooding will start to see the higher rates on Oct. 1, and also face 25 percent increases each year. Everyone else with a subsidy can keep it, at least until they sell to another owner or the policy lapses. Other properties may face higher rates when their community adopts a new flood insurance rate map (commonly called FIRMs) that shows a higher risk, but the best way to know is to ask your insurance agent. Preliminary maps are being released in New York and New Jersey in coming months, but they will not be formally adopted until late next year.

The new maps estimate the type of flooding that is likely to occur when a so-called 100-year storm sweeps into a specific area and establish a base flood elevation, or the level at which the water is expected to rise to in a storm. So incorporating those maps into rebuilding plans is important. (Early versions have already been released and are not expected to change much, FEMA officials said.)

The insurance premiums are determined, in part, by where your home stands relative to that base. The higher you go, of course, the less you pay. Consider a single-family home in a zone with a moderate to high risk of a flood, that has a flood policy with $250,000 of coverage: if the home is four feet below the base flood elevation, the homeowner would pay an annual premium of about $9,500, according to FEMA. But if the home was elevated to the base, the premium would cost $1,410. Hoist the home three feet higher, and the premium would drop to $427.

Elevating is challenging, if it is even possible, and then there is the bureaucratic morass many people are forced to push through to figure out how to pay for it all. That’s a major reason Chris Buono and his wife, who have two young boys, used their insurance claim money to pay off their mortgage, sell their damaged home in Silverton, N.J., and buy another house nearby but out of the flood zone.

They researched every possibility of saving their home, even considering lopping off the master bedroom and bathroom so the home could fit in their backyard while they installed wood pilings under the home’s original footprint. “It just kept coming down to a lack of solid answers and insanely varying estimates and the chance the bottom could fall out from under you years later in some way,” Mr. Buono, a professional guitarist, said. “Way too risky.”

He said many people he knew who were trying to elevate were scared about what they were getting themselves into. “How is that getting back to normal?” he said. “Living with a financial gun to your head after you paid to be covered.”

Homes in high-risk areas that have been “substantially damaged,” where repairs cost more than 50 percent of the structure’s value before the storm, must be fixed so that it complies with current law. Flood insurance policies do offer an extra $30,000 for this work, including elevation. But many homeowners said that did not begin to cover the added expense.

That’s the case for Will Martone and his wife, Eileen, both 62, who bought a second home on the water in Toms River, N.J., almost three years ago. They planned to work a couple of more years and retire there. But the storm caused more than $100,000 of damage, and their insurance claim paid less than half that. They have hired an advocate to help them recover more money, but that is only part of their problem. They, too, need to raise their home, since it sits below the level at which floodwaters are estimated to rise in the event of another big storm. If he does nothing, Mr. Martone said, his annual flood insurance premiums will soar to $31,000. If he raises his home by five and a half feet, he’ll pay $7,000 a year. And if he goes two feet higher, that will bring the rate down to $3,500.

They are entitled to collect the extra $30,000, but since their split-level home is on a slab, the costs are astronomical. That “puts me in the category of $150,000 plus,” said Mr. Martone, a district facilities manager for Siemens Industry, “which I do not have readily available. So there’s a good chance I’ll lose this home.”

Both New York and New Jersey have outlined their plans for various recovery programs in recent weeks, including community development block grants, even programs that would buy properties in high-risk areas for their pre-Sandy value. But people like Mr. Jampel, the founder of the homeowner’s advocacy group, say they do not believe there will be enough money to go around.

Yet for many homeowners, that’s their only hope. Emily Burek, 28, whose three-bedroom home in Highlands, N.J., took in nine feet of water, received $15,000 from her insurer thus far. But she said that covered only a third of her damages, and she is required to elevate. “Without any money to do that, I will be forced into foreclosure,” she said. “The town says there will be grant money, but they’ve also said a lot of things that turned out not to be true. So I’m not sure if it’s better that I just give up now and cut my losses.”

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Your Money: Fighting the Insurer Over Hurricane Sandy Damage

Four months after the storm, they are waiting to collect enough money from their flood insurance policy to repair the three-story, 150-year-old building that is their home. The water filled the five-foot crawl space under the house and rose to three feet on the first floor, which Mr. Kondaks had used as a painting studio and work space.

“Until you experience it, it’s hard to conceive,” Ms. Kondaks said. “You just think, ‘Water. Water cleans things. Water doesn’t destroy an 1860s house that has been here forever.’ ”

About a month after the storm hit, an insurance adjuster, representing the flood insurance company, arrived on the scene and spent a mere 20 minutes to estimate the cost of repairs, she said. The figure he came up with, about $49,000, is a fraction of what the couple said they expected to pay to restore their home to its prestorm condition.

As a result, Ms. Kondaks, who typically assists with her husband’s business installing fine stonework in homes, has instead been working on the claim as if it were her full-time job.

They surely aren’t the first storm victims to do battle with their insurer to try to collect what they believe they are owed. In their case, they say their dispute can be traced back to the insurance adjuster.

Adjusters are typically contractors hired by the insurers in the wake of a big storm. Known as “storm troopers,” they descend from all corners of the country to estimate what is called the “scope of loss,” or what it will take to put the home to its prestorm state.

“All of these guys are different,” said Leslie L. Knox, a public adjuster, who is hired by policyholders to help resolve disputes against their insurance companies. “Some are very knowledgeable, and some lack the experience necessary to handle the claims. There is such a dichotomy of talent out there.”

Flood policyholders typically dispute one of two things — what is covered by the policy and how it should be priced. In the Kondakses’ case, their public adjuster, Michael Palmiero of American Claims Adjusters in Brooklyn, said the scope of their loss had not been properly addressed by the insurance adjuster. “It was an impossible task to get him back to say, ‘You overlooked this. You need to sit down with us and we need to go over the whole file end to end.’ ”

A soft-spoken woman, Ms. Kondaks, who lives with her husband on the top two floors of their building, acknowledges that they are lucky compared with many other victims of Hurricane Sandy. But when she speaks about the problem with her insurer, she sounds as if she has been to war. From the way the couple has been treated by their insurance company, she said, “It’s getting hard to believe we even had a flood.” The adjuster submitted his final report “without reviewing any of the painstaking amount of documentation we provided — photographs, labor sheets, receipts and real estimates,” she added.

Those documents explained that, among a long list of other items, the couple had to remove five layers of flooring. Each layer held water for weeks after the storm, compromising the joists underneath, which are still exposed. “We are having to sanitize, scrape and seal every bit of wood that was exposed to salt water,” she said. “If we don’t do this, we risk dry rot setting in, not to mention mildew.”

The adjuster, working for Colonial Claims on behalf of Fidelity National Indemnity Insurance, estimated that the work on the floor joists would cost a mere $425, compared with the $2,927 projected by the contractor hired by the homeowners. The insurance adjuster’s overall report also excluded a stone floor and fixtures in the bathroom, insulation in the basement and a subfloor in the hallway, to name a few of the other missing items, she said.

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You’re the Boss Blog: Why I Have No Health Insurance

Adriana Herrera: I finally gave in and decided to see a doctor.Courtesy of Fashioning Change. Adriana Herrera: I finally gave in and decided to see a doctor.

Fashioning Change

A social entrepreneur tries to change the way people shop.

Three days after we established the Fashioning Change house in Santa Monica, I was in a car accident. I was rear-ended, and upon impact I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. Despite the pain, I didn’t give it much thought. I assumed it was because the seat belt had done what it was supposed to do.

Following protocol, I went to exchange information with the driver of the other car. The woman who hit me was in her early 20s, had an empty child seat in the back of her car, spoke broken English and was shaking. Fortunately, I speak Spanish and we were able to communicate. As we exchanged information I learned that she was from El Salvador.

As soon as she said that, I understood that she might not be an American citizen. I took a moment to call my father to ask his advice. He said that because I was in pain, I needed to report the accident. At that point I started to shake. I began to anticipate what this accident might mean for the woman’s life. Following my father’s advice, I called the Santa Monica police to report the accident and the dispatcher asked if there were any major injuries or damage. I told her no and she said that they were directing all units to something else that was happening. Her advice was to exchange information with the driver and call our insurance companies.

I took that as a sign that I should go with my instinct and try to keep the impact of the car accident as minimal as possible for both of us. We exchanged information with the understanding that she would have to cover any costs I would incur from the accident. We both seemed at ease with not having to involve law enforcement.

But in the weeks that followed, the pain in my side never went away. In fact, it got worse. There were mornings when I would wake up and the pain would be so bad that I’d get sick.

Why didn’t I go to the doctor? Well, I don’t have health insurance. I’ve always been a healthy person, and at the time I priced out health insurance I felt as though the money would be better spent building the company.

The timing of the car accident could not have been much worse. We had just begun to establish ourselves in the Santa Monica area, I was running from meeting to meeting, and it was the holiday season. To manage the pain, I started taking ridiculous amounts of Advil. I’d find myself sitting in a car right before a meeting, fighting back tears and telling myself to “Suck it up, suck it in,” a phrase my mother and I say when we’re trying to deal with a problem and maintain a smile.

The holidays passed, we were in January, and the pain still hadn’t gone away. I finally gave in and decided to see a doctor. When I shared this with Kestrel, who is in charge of product sourcing and is also my roommate, she was obviously relieved. She had watched me deal with the pain on a daily basis and had been very respectful of my choice not to see a doctor, until now. The choice had been part not wanting to deal with not having insurance, part really hating going to the doctor, part having more than enough to keep me busy at work, and part believing in living as naturally as possible. I assumed that my body would figure it out.

But that hadn’t happened, and now Kestrel suggested that I try a clinic in South Central Los Angeles for people without insurance. I called and tried to make an appointment but they didn’t have any availability. They suggested I come as a walk-in at 6:30 a.m., the time they open. Because the clinic is in a part of town with high crime (and because she is awesome), Kestrel came with me. When we got to the clinic at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday, it was already full of people.

Four hours later, a doctor examined me for 10 minutes and told me that my pain was in my gallbladder and that I would probably have to have it removed. This was both scary and confusing since the pain had started when I was rear-ended. He said we’d know for sure if I had to have surgery once they ran blood tests and I had an ultrasound. He wrote me a referral to get the ultrasound and blood work.

So I got my blood work done and went to a radiology office where everything was paid for out of pocket. It was $50 for the ultrasound – a price I gladly paid, knowing it can cost far more. The woman who did my ultrasound was really nice. As I walked into the room, she could read the worry on my face. To ease my nerves she made conversation and told me what she did and did not see. She did not see anything wrong with my gallbladder, but she did see an enlarged liver. I shared the details of my car accident with her, and she said she suspected that I had a fractured rib that was poking my liver. But she was not a doctor.

It was frustrating to think I had been walking around this way because I wanted to avoid the medical expenses. It was also frustrating that the woman who rear-ended me seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. But I have not had second thoughts about not waiting for the police. I find it harder to face the idea that I would have been responsible for keeping that woman from raising her child in this country.

It has been several weeks since I went to the doctor and they never got back to me. I called several times and no one ever answered the phone or returned a message. Needing to begin my healing process, I spoke with my parents — both of whom have worked in the medical field — and my mother gave me some advice on getting good, affordable care.

Step one, she said, was finding a good primary care physician. She made a list of doctors she thought I might like and I was lucky enough that my first choice took me as a new patient. Step two was knowing about the discount that comes with immediate “self pay.” If you pay for the appointment in full at the time of service, many doctors give a discount. In my case, I saved 40 percent.

Step three was knowing about professional third-party vendors through which I could order my own lab work, save money and take the results to the doctor. This is the process I went through, and it turned out my liver is fine — although I have a severely bruised rib that hasn’t healed because I haven’t slowed down enough to let it heal. The doctor prescribed pain cream but I never filled the prescription. I prefer natural steps, so I’m conducting more meetings through Skype, doing a little less running around, and asking for help carrying things.

Allowing personal challenges to get in the way of day-to-day operations can be deadly for an early stage start-up like Fashioning Change. No one that I met with in recent months had any idea how much pain I was in. I even hid the pain I was dealing with from my team as long as possible, which was particularly hard when we would laugh. Despite these challenges, the fourth quarter of 2012 was our best quarter ever.

Meanwhile, somewhat reluctantly, I am in the process of pricing out insurance.

Any suggestions?

Adriana Herrera is chief executive of Fashioning Change. You can e-mail her at, and you can follow her on Twitter.

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Bucks Blog: Thursday Reading: Avoiding Too Much Stuff at the Holidays

December 06

Thursday Reading: Avoiding Too Much Stuff at the Holidays

Avoiding too much stuff at the holidays, car insurance by the mile, the benefits of running in reverse and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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Bucks Blog: Monday Reading: Reconsidering Flood Insurance

November 12

Monday Reading: Reconsidering Flood Insurance

Reconsidering flood insurance, an island guide to Caribbean deals, plan to become an ex-smoker for good and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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Bucks Blog: Wednesday Reading: Three Travel Trips to Get Around the Storm

October 31

Wednesday Reading: Three Travel Trips to Get Around the Storm

Three travel tips to navigate the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, a possible insurance blow for flood victims, wireless charging for the Leaf and Volt and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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Bucks Blog: Underestimating Health Care Costs in Retirement

Paul Sullivan writes this week in his Wealth Matters column about an often-overlooked expense in retirement: the cost of health care. One study Paul mentions, by Nationwide Financial, found that people near retirement routinely overestimated the percent of health care costs covered by Medicare.

Financial experts told Paul that people nearing retirement should take a hard look at their retirement savings and consider whether those savings would be enough to pay for health services.

For those of you already retired, what has been your experience with health care costs? Have you found that Medicare and other insurance cover less of the expense than you expected? How have you dealt with that? And do you have advice for other Bucks readers?

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Bucks Blog: Tuesday Reading: When Doctors Stop Taking Insurance

October 02

Tuesday Reading: When Doctors Stop Taking Insurance

When doctors stop taking insurance, feeling the pressure to drink for work, American Express to refund $85 million and other consumer-focused news from The New York Times.

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You’re the Boss Blog: The Big Banks Say They Are Meeting Their Lending Commitment

Searching for Capital

A broker assesses the small-business lending market.

Earlier this month, I published a post entitled, “Are the Big Banks Keeping Their Commitment to Small Businesses?” It had to do with a commitment that 13 of the largest banks in the country made last September to increase their small-business lending by $20 billion over the following three years.

Before writing that post, I spoke with executives from three of the largest banks on the list, the Small Business Administration and the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade association that represents these banks. Because I wanted to understand what exactly the banks had promised to do, I asked some basic questions:

What types of small businesses were the banks talking about? Were they truly small businesses that needed capital, or were the banks including larger businesses that have tens of millions of dollars of revenue? What type of loans were included in this commitment? Were the banks including credit card lending? Do all of the banks have the same understanding of the commitment?

The questions might seem like nitpicking, but without a clear definition of the kinds of loans and the kinds of businesses, it was hard to know whether the commitment meant much of anything at all. Furthermore, judging by what the banks have stated in their call reports to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, it seemed the big banks had fallen behind in their commitment. But the Small Business Administration and the Financial Services Roundtable assured me that they would be issuing their own report card toward the end of September and that it would clearly state how the banks were doing at the one-year mark of their commitment.

In a blog post published Monday night, the S.B.A. administrator, Karen G. Mills, announced that in just one year “the 13 banks have already increased lending by more than $11 billion.” But the post offered no further information about what the terms of the commitment. Meanwhile the Financial Services Roundtable, the American Bankers Association and the Consumer Bankers Association sent out a release announcing the progress and stating, “Our members are fully committed to increasing lending to small businesses.” Their release was short and simple and similarly provided no additional detail.

According to Ms. Mills, the banks are up by $11 billion; according to the F.D.I.C. call reports, the banks have fallen behind by more than $2 billion. We are still hoping the banks will explain what exactly they have committed to do.

Ami Kassar founded MultiFunding, which is based near Philadelphia and helps small businesses find the right sources of financing for their companies.

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