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Jennifer Fuld , general manager at Air Quality Environmental in St. Petersburg , checks a slide for mold and other airborne spores to find the source of respiratory problems in a home.

Mold Takes Hold
Published: Aug 11, 2002

 Any way you look at mold in Florida - either as a legitimate health threat or as an overblown nuisance - you've got to figure this icky mess will cost somebody.

Insurers say they are getting socked with claims on homeowners' insurance for mold damage in unprecedented numbers. State Farm, for instance, said the number of claims jumped from 90 in 2000 to 337 in 2001.

Claims can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, so we're talking about more than the cost of Lysol to spray on shower tiles.

Insurers, homeowners, regulators and state legislators are debating who will be financially responsible for mold damage, under what circumstances insurers should be liable and whether it is fair to put dollar limits on such claims.

Mold has swelled into a big financial issue in the last few years in other states that, like Florida , attracted building booms: Texas , California and Arizona .

Homeowners complain their mold infestations often started in hard-to-detect places, behind walls on the backside of plasterboard, under carpets. Sometimes, the mold spills out to an interior wall through cracks.

Things get really bad when the mold reaches a home's air-handling system and hops a ride to the living quarters. People in mold-contaminated homes complain of allergies, headaches, and more serious ailments, such as breathing problems and memory loss.

Scientists recommend building materials like plasterboard be thrown out when they are infected with mold: It's just impossible to eradicate the mold from a porous surface.

Florida 's Mold Policies

Although Florida data is not available, a bellwether example of mold's cost comes from Texas , according to the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group. The average cost or getting mold out of a Texas house hit $35,000 this year.

The cost of handling mold claims in Texas , where more forms of mold damage are covered than in Florida , added an average of $444 to homeowner's policies in 2001, up from $23 in 2000.

Several insurance companies in this state have asked the Florida Department of Insurance to cap the amount they have to pay on mold claims at $10,000.

Currently, mold damage in Florida is covered only when the mold can be traced to damage from a ``covered peril,'' like a hurricane. That means if a storm blows off part of your roof, allowing rain in, and mold takes hold inside your walls, you're covered.

But if a pipe inside a wall develops a leak onto plasterboard and triggers a mold infestation you're on your own.

The insurance department, which regulates carriers in Florida and approves or rejects rate increases, wants some public comment injected into this muddle. It will hold a forum in Tampa this month, the third in a series hosted around the Sunshine State . About 300 people attended the first one in Plantation in July.

One Homeowner's Experience

Lois Hekker, a homeowner from Sarasota , said she might come to the Tampa forum. Hekker, a real estate agent who represents buyers, bought a home in Sarasota in 1987 and says her story is a cautionary tale for people near the water.

Her house sits in a community built in the 1950s overlooking Siesta Key. ``It was the view that settled my soul,'' she said.

For years, the property was fine. Drainage ditches carried moisture away from the house, she said. Then, she said, some changes were made to neighboring properties in the early '90s that funneled storm water onto her property. ``I get all the flooding for the entire community,'' she said.

She started getting the water damage in late 1993. Mold followed into the wall behind her den. She argued with her insurer, State Farm, over the claim. State Farm, she said, wouldn't pay, citing alterations on adjacent properties as a complication causing the flooding.

The insurer then dropped her, forcing Hekker into the state-run pool that is operated for people who can't get property insurance on the private market. Her insurance cost went up from $750 a year to $4,000, she said, with a $2,500 deductible.

Hekker hasn't been able to get a solution to what she sees as the original cause of the problem, alterations to the neighboring flood control mechanisms. State Farm declined to comment on the dispute.

Meanwhile, Hekker still has exterior repairs to make as a result of flooding. She has replaced the wall and tile floor in the affected area twice at her own cost, which she estimated at about $5,000.

Still, the mold comes back because of continued exposure to moisture, she said, causing her to have headaches. Her adult son cannot visit the home because his throat seems to close up, she said.

``I can't sell this house,'' she lamented, because no one would want it with the problems. Real estate agents must disclose problems with properties, she said.

Hekker thinks her experience will be repeated in other homes and condominiums by the water. The structures aren't just in a flood plain, she said, they're in ``a mold plain.''

She's also joined a national consumer group, called Policyholders of America ( federal levels for laws setting standards for mold issues.

Insurers Plead Their Case

The insurance industry is not taking the criticisms lying down. Company representatives correctly point out that mold can result from many causes.

Yes, mold sometimes follows an event insurance will cover, like strong wind or a rainstorm. But mold also can follow leakage caused by a construction defect, such as a gap between the roof and the walls or the wall and the floor, or just poor roof maintenance such as inattention to leaks.

Insurers argue they shouldn't be stuck with the financial responsibilities for those claims.

Further, homeowners' insurance shouldn't be confused with health insurance, said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

If a tree crashes through your window and breaks your leg, the homeowner's insurance only covers the repairs to your home, not your limb, he said.

Likewise, he questioned whether these policies ought to be responsible for the health effects of mold. Hartwig, like others in the insurance industry, contends health claims are being magnified by the media and exaggerated by attorneys who sue insurance carriers.

But homeowners with claims are seeking help. Some turn to public adjusters, who prepare a claim and often deal with the insurance company's adjuster.

The goal is to secure a larger payout than the homeowner would have alone. The adjuster is paid a percentage of the claim.

``Mold is absolutely a big deal, it's a hot topic,'' said Charles R. ``Dick'' Tutwiler, owner of Tutwiler & Associates, a Tampa firm that deals with homeowners, condominium associations and businesses.

Navigating The Cleanup Industry

Insurance isn't the only challenge for homeowners with mold problems.

A cleanup industry has emerged, but in Florida companies that test homes for mold and cleanups aren't regulated.

Costs vary widely for in-home air testing, said Wolfgang Paltian, owner of Air Quality Environmental Inc. in St. Petersburg . It's smart to ask companies how they test and what they'll charge - often from $500 to $2,000 or more - and what exactly lab results will tell you, he said.

The scientifically accepted practice is for a tester to get a comparison of the mold indoors and the mold outdoors before determining a house has a problem.

``We look for a real big gap between inside and outside,'' said Paltian, meaning the inside mold count is much higher.

Experts suggest consumers hire one company to test the air and, if needed, another company to handle the cleanup. It can be considered a conflict of interest if the same company that tests your home is the one that says you need a $20,000 repair job, which is not unusual.

``People need to be aware of the company they are hiring,'' said Brian L'Hommedieu, owner of Fort Myers-based MicrOscope Inc. which specializes in mold cleanups.

``We're not regulated by state license,'' he said. ``I wish we were. It would separate the men from the boys; it's not carpet cleaning.''

Don Nehrig agreed.

``You want to make sure they have some training,'' said Nehrig, a senior environmental manager for OHC Environmental Engineering Inc. in Tampa .

Consumers will see different kinds of certifications from various industry groups.

L'Hommedieu was trained by the Indoor Air Quality Association as a certified mold remediator. The trade group, based in Kensington , Md. , requires applicants to pass a three-hour test after completing about three days of specialized training. There also are also requirements for some higher education and/or experience in a related field.

Nehrig's designation as a certified indoor air quality professional came from the Association of Energy Engineers, based in Atlanta . That group's certification test lasts four hours. Candidates need a blend of a college degree, experience and a previous lower-level certification from the group. Candidates also can take preparatory seminars.

There is no one common course of study. That makes it important to check references, Nehrig said.

In this field of so many complexities and differing opinions, there is one agreement: Fix leaks quickly.

``If you've had a moisture intrusion, the faster you address it, the less likely it is that mold will grow,'' said L'Hommedieu.

Reporter Jo-Ann Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7804.  


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