How to afford fire insurance in California

Tue Aug 22 2023

For the last five years (from August 2018 to August 2023), Californians have experienced an average of over 5,000 wildland fires per year, burning an average of over 800,000 acres per year. 

Just how bad were these wildfires for property owners? In just the past two years – from 2022 to 2023 – wildfires in California caused at least $3.2 billion in damage. And California isn’t the only state with wildfire concerns. Most western states, including Arizona, have seen more wildfires – even Florida saw several wildfires in 2022. More recently, Hawaii was devastated by a series of deadly wildfires on the island of Maui

The rising costs of damage from wildfires mean that insurance providers are paying more in claims, which means they’re turning to their own insurance providers – called reinsurers – with more claims on their policies. Essentially, everyone is feeling the pinch.

To manage their risk exposure, reinsurers typically have to raise prices for their customers. Their customers, the insurance companies, then have to raise prices for homeowners or send nonrenewal notices, effectively canceling homeowner's policies. In fact, nonrenewals in California have increased more than 31 percent since 2019.

This is a problem for those who live in areas with wildfire risk exposure. The good news is that if your current insurance provider sends you a nonrenewal notice or raises premiums beyond what you can afford, there are steps you can take to keep yourself covered for wildfire damage. 

Is fire insurance mandatory in California?

Before we get to the steps for finding more affordable fire insurance, let’s first address another question: do you even need it? While there is no state-level law requiring homeowners to have fire insurance, most mortgage lenders do require it as a condition of the loan. So if you have a mortgage on your house, it’s safe to assume that fire insurance is mandatory.

Even if you own your home free and clear, carrying fire insurance is the safest option. Fires can spark from shorted-out appliances, lightning storms, downed powerlines, tossed cigarettes, and dozens of other activities you have no control over. Fire insurance helps make sure you and your family can live normally even if a disaster hits.

Fire insurance is included in most standard homeowners insurance policies.

Now let’s take a look at how California homeowners can find affordable fire insurance.

1. Shop around for fire insurance

It’s a good idea to shop around for fire insurance even if you don’t live in California – or if you live in a region of the state that’s not prone to wildfires. It’s a good idea to shop around for just about everything, and fire insurance is no exception.

  • Search online. Some newer insurance providers sell directly to customers and don’t work with outside brokers to keep costs low. (While we are a direct-to-consumer insurance provider, we don’t currently offer coverage in California.)

  • Ask friends for recommendations. If you have friends and family in California, ask them about companies they’ve worked with to insure their homes. Once you have a list of recommendations, start gathering quotes to compare.

Ideally, once you’ve explored additional coverage options, you’ll find one that works for your home and your budget. If you don’t, move on to the next step.

2. Consider non-admitted fire insurance carriers

Most of the insurance companies you’ve heard of are “admitted” carriers, which means they’ve been approved by a state’s insurance department. If the carrier went bankrupt, the state would cover payments for claims on active policies.

Non-admitted carriers are not approved by a state’s insurance department. They’re less regulated so they can take on more risk. Non-admitted insurance carriers may be the only workable solution for someone in a high-risk wildfire zone.

Non-admitted carriers are also sometimes called surplus carriers or specialty carriers. If you’re unable to find fire insurance through admitted carriers for your California home, see what some non-admitted carriers offer.

3. Call the California insurance helpline

If even after considering non-admitted carriers you can’t find a fire insurance policy to cover your home, it’s time to call California’s insurance helpline at 1-800-927-HELP.

This line is maintained by California’s Department of Insurance and is designed to help California residents figure out how to find adequate insurance. A helpline worker might point you toward the FAIR plan.

4. Consider California FAIR Plan fire insurance

The California Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) plan is an insurer of last resort. Its website explicitly states that it is designed only for those homeowners who have made a “diligent effort” to find coverage elsewhere.

If you can’t find that coverage, though, the FAIR plan may be able to offer the fire insurance you need. If you do go this route, it’s important to understand a few things:

  • You’re responsible for knowing how much coverage you need. When you work with a private insurer, you can usually work with a representative who helps you understand the value of your home, your risk exposure, and the amount and type of coverage you need. With the FAIR plan, you have to calculate how much coverage to get on your own. You may want to work with an insurance broker to do this. Luckily, the California FAIR plan’s website explains how to find a broker.

  • California FAIR plan fire insurance doesn’t cover theft or liability. In this way, it’s different from standard homeowners insurance, which includes coverage for both theft and liability. If you purchase a policy through the FAIR plan, be sure to consider additional coverage to manage your other risks.

  • California FAIR plan coverage is limited to $1.5 million. If the cost of rebuilding your home is more than that, you’ll have to find supplemental coverage or attempt to self-insure by saving enough cash to make up the difference.

What to expect from California fire insurance prices

If you live in California and haven’t yet heard from your homeowners insurance provider, you may be one of the lucky ones – it’s possible your policy will be renewed with no major premium increases.

Individual cases may vary, though. One woman interviewed by the Wall Street Journal noted that, after getting a nonrenewal notice for a $2,350 policy, the only replacement policy she could find cost $18,000.

While that cost is extreme, it is likely less than the cost of rebuilding your home from scratch without insurance.


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