August 2010

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Each summer California faces a nearly perfect storm: blistering heat, plummeting humidity – and the existence of dry undergrowth.  The largest wildfire in modern history was the terrifying Cedar Fire (San Diego County, 2003) which burned 2,232 homes and took 15 lives.  Wildfires can have large appetites and can impact many communities. In the summer of 2008 alone California wildfires consumed an estimated 1.5 Million acres.   

The past efforts of the fire fighters to save lives and residences have been nothing short of heroic. Relieved homeowners often returned to find their home intact, but their landscaping destroyed.  Most condominium associations and planned unit developments may have substantial amounts of money invested in common area landscaping improvements.   And replacing damaged landscaping is not only expensive, it’s essential to assure the appeal and marketability of the homes in the development.  It’s also critical that planting be established to curb the potential for soil erosion of any Association-maintained slopes.

Can trees, lawns, plants and shrubs be insured on the Association’s master policy? The answer is “yes”- to a degree.  The fact is most insurance carriers do provide a token amount of coverage for fire-damaged trees, lawns, plants and shrubs but there are built-in limitations and the Association will need to rely on their insurance professional to make certain the coverage has been appropriately tailored for their potential risks.   In some cases, even the best policy will provide only a fraction of the cost to replace the landscaping. 

It’s important to know that trees, lawns, plants and shrubs are items where coverage is typically limited to very specific perils or causes of loss. Exactly how broad the coverage may be will vary from carrier to carrier but typically you’ll find coverage for four distinct types of loss:  fire, lightning, explosion and riot or civil commotion.  More liberal policies might offer coverage for vehicular or aircraft damage as well as vandalism and theft but don’t count on it. Wind, probably the greatest threat to trees, is rarely covered.   Fire, by contrast, is nearly always a covered loss.

Condo Association Carrier:

Perils:

Trees, Lawns, Plants and Shrubs
Basic Limits
(Unless endorsed higher)

F, L, E, RCC, A

$25,000

F, L, E, A, Ve, RCC, V, T

$10,000

F, L, E, RCC, A,Ve

$10,000 (Subject to a $500 Limit for any one tree, shrub or plant)

F, L, E, RCC, V & T

$5,000

Broader “Covered Cause of Loss”

$3,000 per occurrence

F, L, E, RCC, A

$25,000 (Subject to a $500 limit for any one tree, shrub or plant)

F, L, E, RCC, A

$1,000 Each, $5,000 any one loss

F= Fire; L=Lightning; E=Explosion, RCC=Riot Civil Commotion: V=Vandalism, T=Theft, A=Aircraft, Ve=Vehicle damage resulting from vehicles which you do not own, operate or lease

After any fire loss the immediate focus is the limit of insurance provided.  Some insurance carriers offer a token $5,000 for trees, lawns, plants and shrubs coverage, while others may offer up to $25,000.  Sometimes collecting on these already low limits is further hampered by a “per tree, per shrub, per plant” limitation of $500.

One of the greatest challenges, of course, is determining how much coverage a project should have.   Determining the correct insurable limit may prove difficult since the project’s developer bore the expense of the original landscaping many years ago.  The current board may be unaware of how expensive it is to replace damaged trees and shrubs and even if they were able to ascertain the original costs, as trees grow, so do their monetary value.  As you can see, restoring the aesthetics of the community to their original condition at the time of loss may be both difficult and expensive.

And the cost to replace them with a similar-sized (specimen) tree may be shocking.   Big Tree Nursery, an Escondido, CA-based nursery, which specializes in full-height specimen trees, indicate that the basic specimen tree that’s only 10’ – 20’ tall could cost between $2,040 and $2,640 per tree. 

So where do we start in determining a correct insurable value?   The best starting point is to hire a landscape professional (and perhaps consult an arborist) to identify and develop an inventory list of the current landscaping as well as their best estimate of the cost to replace.   While you’re at it don’t overlook the irrigation equipment since it (including most sprinklers and drip systems) may be manufactured from polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based components which are very prone to damage as a result of a wildfire’s tremendous heat.

Once you’ve developed a realistic replacement cost for your landscaping, the final step is to contact your insurance professional and obtain the cost to increase your trees, lawns, plants and shrubs coverage to the appropriate level.   At that point the Board will be in a position to evaluate whether or not to transfer this exposure over to an insurance carrier – or to retain the exposure and hope that Mother Nature spare them the next time the Santa Ana winds blow.

By Timothy Cline, CIRMS

Timothy Cline Insurance Agency, Inc.

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This letter contains only a general description of coverage and is not a statement of contract. For a more detailed description of the policy conditions and exclusions, please consult the policy itself.
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