Higher rates to be expected

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PORTLAND (AP) – Fear that the Northeast is overdue for a major hurricane is among the factors that could push Maine homeowners’ insurance rates higher.

Other forces that could nudge insurance rates upward include rising costs of reinsurance, the backup insurance to cover carriers in case of major catastrophes, and lackluster returns on investments that would otherwise ease some of pressure to raise premiums.

The impact of reinsurance looms as a potential factor largely because of last year’s trio of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Maine isn’t in the usual track for tropical storms, but there have been increasing fears that the Northeast is overdue for a major hurricane. Tropical storms have been occurring more frequently and with greater intensity.

So far, major premium increases have been held at bay by competition in the industry.

“There is a need for our company to want a rate increase,” said Charles Brakeley, vice president for insurance operations at Patriot Mutual in Brunswick. But the company has held off because of competitive pressures.

The Insurance Information Institute says the average annual cost of homeowners insurance has risen from $416 in 1995 to a forecast of $739 this year, with about two-thirds of that increase in the last five years. The increase is due in large part to a decrease in returns on investments, which required insurers to put more emphasis on premium income.

Some insurers have filed requests for small increases this year, but so far none of the major carriers has asked for a substantial rate increase, said Alessandro Iuppa, Maine’s insurance superintendent.

The Northeast has been spared of major hurricanes since 1954, as the storms veered away from the area or were weakened by the cooler waters of the region. That may be changing.

Accuweather, a commercial weather forecasting firm, said it expects the Northeast to face a major hurricane soon, possibly as early as this year’s storm season, which begins in June. And a major hurricane in the Northeast could cause greater damages than Katrina.

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