Beaufort County residents haven't endured a hurricane in decades, but some might feel they've paid for one.
Wind- and flood-insurance rates have climbed steadily for homeowners over the years.
S.C. lawmakers blame a wind-insurance market that is stacked against consumers.
And at the federal level, a bill passed in 2012 to keep afloat a cash-strapped national flood insurance program pushed premiums sky-high, doubling or tripling rates for some Lowcountry homeowners and businesses.
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But relief is coming, according to local legislators and real estate officials.
Two months ago, Congress voted to temper the sharply increasing flood-insurance rates.
And on Wednesday, the state legislature passed a bill that will begin to reform a "broken" state wind- and hail-insurance system, according to its author, state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
"This will level the playing field between homeowners and insurers," Davis said.
SLOWING THE FLOOD
An overhaul of the government's flood-insurance program sent rates soaring for Beaufort County homeowners and hindered the real estate market.
Many agents say deals were lost or put on hold when buyers discovered how much flood insurance would cost. In some cases, annual premiums swelled thousands of dollars when a new homeowner renewed a policy and lost the subsidized rate.
In response to angry homeowners along the coast, Congress passed a measure in March to scale back the hikes.
The law stipulates that no individual policyholder will face an increase of more than 18 percent per year. It calls on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to "strive" to keep most policyholders' premiums to no more than 1 percent of the value of their coverage -- for example, $2,000 for a $200,000 policy.
The law also reinstates the federal insurance program's grandfather provision, meaning homes that complied with previous flood maps would avoid large increases when new maps show a greater risk of flooding. This helps older homes on Hilton Head Island, where 800 houses were built before the first maps were issued in 1976, according to town flood-plain manager Richard Spruce.
More important to the area housing market, the law ends a provision that required an immediate jump to full-risk levels when a home changes ownership. New owners will now initially pay the same rates as previous owners, with an 18 percent annual increase.
Beaufort County flood-plain manager Hakim Bayyoud said the law has eased the panic among homeowners who call for flood-map information.
But he cautioned that owners will still eventually pay market price for flood insurance unless further delays are put in place.
"It gives people time to think and gives a little relief, but it will still be here."
BRACING A FAILING WIND-INSURANCE PROGRAM
This week, Sen. Davis saw his wind-insurance reform bill breeze through the Statehouse.
Aimed at empowering consumers, it calls for the state Insurance Department to provide residents with easy-to-understand data about coastal property-insurance rates, including a website that shows comparisons among companies.
In addition, insurance data, such as the number of claims paid, would be shared with consumers and lawmakers to increase accountability.
It also directs the state insurance director to develop a model on which rates are based that reflects South Carolina's hurricane risk, which is less than other coastal states, according to Davis. Any insurance company that wanted to raise rates would have to justify the hike by the new model.
The current model was based on hurricane-risk numbers from Florida, Davis said. When used by insurance companies, it created costly premiums that were "disconnected from the risk assumed by the insurers," he said.
One provision of the bill that was cut would have doubled the money dedicated to a program that helps low- and moderate-income homeowners reduce their insurance rates.
The S.C. Safe Home program, created in 2007, offers about $1.5 million in grants to people with homes valued at $300,000 or less, Davis said. The money pays for owners to weatherize their property -- for instance, tying down their roofs -- thereby lowering insurance premiums.
Davis wanted to add another $1.5 million to the program.
Instead, his proposal was tucked into the Senate budget, which will be combined with the House's budget, to be voted on next week.
Davis said the funding for the program has a "50-50 shot" of passing.
"We're not doing giveaways to million-dollar homeowners here," he said. "This part of the bill helps low- and moderate-income owners help themselves."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.