The secondary impacts of a recession frequently create an entirely new set of difficulties beyond credit crunch and cash flow problems. These ripple effects move through the marketplace in sometimes unexpected ways. One of those secondary impacts is the issue of how to maintain adequate insurance for the sudden glut of vacant commercial properties. Faced with an overabundance of vacant or partially occupied commercial space, owners and insurers are wrestling with how to structure policies, where to go to secure a new policy if an existing traditional policy no longer applies, and how best to make the kind of operational and financial changes necessary to mitigate the liabilities that are inherent to these buildings.
With vacancies in commercial properties escalating everyday, the need for sophisticated, flexible and effective commercial insurance policies is evolving. Understanding risk exposures in today’s changing commercial real estate environment is the first step toward crafting policies that meet the needs of both the insured and the insurer.
Vacant or Partially Occupied Guidelines
One of the core issues surrounding vacant or partially occupied commercial property insurance is a lack of available coverage options. There are not many companies that want to insure a partially occupied building. In many cases, a traditional ISO-backed policy will simply not cover buildings struggling with occupancy issues. It is also extremely important to make sure an owner’s existing policy is void before pursuing other options. There could be situations where an owner thinks his policy is still accurate, when it’s actually no longer providing risk protection. For those who violate the vacancy guidelines in their existing policy, options can become dramatically limited. Securing a policy through the excess and surplus lines market, where coverage is likely to be more expensive, is frequently the only way forward.
Vacancy worries almost always coincide with the need for additional belt tightening. The emergence of a new and complex set of liabilities and exposures, combined with the need to trim budgets and reduce premiums, can be a non-starter for those who are unwilling to adapt to new circumstances. Even if a building is experiencing partial vacancy, providers may identify new risks, and renewing an existing policy becomes a problem. The reluctance to insure, or the need to institute higher premiums or simply insure for less, can place tremendous new pressures on owners and operators.
Potentially costly exposures arise from a lack of consistent professional maintenance. Day-to-day funding for routine maintenance and upkeep is often one of the first casualties in the budget of a vacant or lightly occupied building. This attempt to save a few dollars can often have a detrimental long-term impact on the insurance and risk profile of a property. Alarm systems may be left off in a misguided attempt to save on electricity bills, increasing the risk of vandalism or theft. The increased risk of fire in vacant buildings is a tremendous concern for insurers, as sprinkler system maintenance and testing often falls by the wayside when occupancy drops. The fees associated with proper maintenance can be a significantly easier burden to handle than the policy limitations, increased rates and premiums that will follow an accident claim and possible lawsuit.
Save Money Without Cutting Corners
Insurers and owners can work together to save money by re-examining priorities and exposures. Some exposures are unavoidable, and the character and attributes of the building itself can play a large role in determining how much leeway is available to insurers. When determining an appropriate level of coverage, providers will consider the context of surrounding buildings (clusters of vacant properties may present more of a crime risk) and other key elements such as the age of a building, when the plumbing was updated, the structural integrity of the roof, the electric infrastructure and other basics.
The most important thing owners can do is fully understand their existing policy. Some owners may consider cutting rental rates to help bolster occupancy levels, and in some cases it may be possible to negotiate with the underwriter to navigate a temporary lull in occupancy. Steps such as hiring additional security and taking other safety and maintenance precautions may be enough to satisfy the insurer that risks to the property have not become too great. In almost all cases, however, these are temporary measures; the only true long-term solution to change the policy or improve occupancy levels.
Working together, both the property owner and the insurer can identify the best ways to handle changes in potential exposures. By taking a closer look at recent claims, it is often possible to identify a cost-saving solution by increasing the deductible on an element of coverage where the exposure is less pronounced. When it comes to insuring properties, the best way to save money is not just to understand where problems exist, but to also identify where they do not.
Follow the Green When Going Green
Green construction and design is an important factor to consider when developing insurance strategies. Some carriers are offering new insurance products to cover renovation and rebuilding expenses. While it’s slightly more expensive to insure a green building, owners are drawn to long-term savings through fewer health claims and health insurance benefits, higher employee and operational efficiencies and lower maintenance costs.
For any vacancy or property with lower than expected occupancy, the importance of a thorough examination of the current terms of a policy and the past history of claims is paramount. Going forward, owners and insurers who are best able to handle new exposures that crop up in this changing economic landscape will be in a good position when financial circumstances improve.
— Daniel Larmore and Patrick Grace are executive vice presidents of Meadowbrook Insurance Agency, a division of Meadowbrook Insurance Group.