Caution urged over use of online insurance calculators

Caution is being urged by all players in the property sector regarding homeowners using insurance companies' online calculators in trying to assess the rebuild value of their properties.

Far from even being ''indicative'', examples of recent house sales in Dunedin and their respective rebuild costs differed hugely when run through an online calculator. As house policies come up for renewal over the next year, insurers will be switching from offering unlimited replacement cover on homes to the homeowners deciding on a sum insured, based on replacement cost per square metre.

Be it insurers, builders, valuers or quantity surveyors, all are highlighting that the online calculators are ''indicative'' only, and should a claim be made in the future, based on an online calculation, there is no liability if the assessment falls short on the actual cost.

Three vastly different houses, in the same Dunedin suburb, had their estimated rebuild costs calculated online, revealing little in common with actual sale prices.

The most expensive house, on a steep section which included a large driveway, retaining walls and fences and multiple bathrooms, was 136% costlier to rebuild than its last sale price, which was achieved just after the height of the building boom in 2007.

Vero's head of corporate affairs and marketing, Ron Burke, said the insurance companies were providing the online calculators but saying they were ''indicative'' only because it was not possible to provide an online facility which could take into account every possible option.

''Anyone who has built a house or done a renovation knows how much variation there is when you get quotes for work or price individual items,'' Mr Burke said.

He said current owners and prospective buyers were usually well aware of property values and could get information about property values from a range of areas including real estate companies or professional valuers.

Tony Chapman is the director of Chapman Consultancy, a registered public valuer of commercial and residential buildings in Dunedin, said there was little relation between purchase costs and an online rebuild cost.

He noted a client had recently used a reputable and easily accessible online calculator to come up with a value for a pending property purchase.

The difference between the online calculation and that of a registered valuer was $100,000, Mr Chapman said.

''This [online calculation] was just applying a set of statistics taken from a suburb over time,'' he said.

Online calculations
Does the cost of a house reflect its rebuild cost?
(Online calculation of three homes in same Dunedin suburb.)
House A: The online rebuild cost was 46% higher, or $153,000, than the last sale price. Equates to $3746sq m replacement cost.

House B: The online rebuild cost was 20% lower, or $53,000, than the last sale price. Equates to $2383sq m replacement cost

House C: The online rebuild cost was 136% higher, or $662,000, than the last sale price. Equates to $6377sq m replacement cost.


Why an exact replacement?

Why can the house owner not insure for a sum that they reckon will be enough for them to rehouse themselves, either in a new house on the same section, or an existing house elsewhere?  Why are they forced to by insurance companies to pay based on a new house the same size and type, if they would be happy with something smaller and quite likely more evo-friendly?

I predict insurance companies will find their new rules lead to more and more people quitting house insurance the moment they pay off their mortgage.  If they save the premium instead of spending it,  given that having one's home totalled is a low-probability event, they are likely to find that after not many years their savings are sufficient to repair damage from a small fire that has been confined to one room.  

Has anyone done the figures on "return" from house insurance, , over various periods?  This would have to take into account the probability of a big claim (not broken windows or damaged carpet), compared with buying Lotto tickets, and compared with wins from Bonus Bonds. Many people refrain from small claims on their insurance because of losing their no-claims bonus, which means that as well as paying the premium they pay for repairs out of their own pocket, making house insurance even less appealing when they can legally avoid it. 

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