'How could this be possible?' Fort McMurray condo board struggles to find insurance

The Winchester Greens condominium board only has a few weeks left to find property insurance coverage before it is left without protection.

In wake of 2016 wildfire, Winchester Greens building denied renewal by its insurer

The Winchester Greens condominium board is struggling to find property insurance for the building. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

After the 2016 Horse River wildfire that burned down more than 2,400 structures in Fort McMurray, residents of the 40-unit Winchester Greens condominium building considered themselves among the lucky ones.

Their apartment-style units didn't burn, but the condo board did claim $246,000 of smoke damage on its insurance.

Three years later, the condo board is struggling to find insurance coverage, in part because of that wildfire claim.

Under Alberta law, condominium boards must carry insurance on all units and common property against loss resulting from destruction or damage caused by fire, lightning, windstorms, hail, explosions, water damage and other perils.

The coverage must be for replacement cost value. Owners pay the insurance costs through their condo fees.

David Thompson, who sits on the Winchester Greens condo board, said near the end of September the board received a letter from its insurance company, Wawanesa, which declined to renew the building's insurance. 

"My initial response was, 'How could this be possible that you cannot get insurance for a condo building?'" said Thompson, who owns one unit in the building.

Since then, ReMax, which manages the property, has been trying to find insurance to cover the building, but so far nothing suitable has been found.

Previously, the premium for the entire building was $28,403. The building's replacement cost is valued at $18 million.

The insurance runs out on Oct. 30.

"If anything goes wrong, if we have water issues or flooding or fire … We would potentially lose everything," Thompson said.

Wawanesa officials declined comment on the Winchester Greens situation.

David Thompson with his wife Rebecca and their six-month-old son Samuel. Thompson says he's worried the condo board won't be able to find affordable insurance for the 40-unit building. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Thompson said Wawanesa has paid out five claims from Winchester Greens in the past four years:

  • 2016: $246,000 wildfire claim.
  • 2016: $49,000 water loss.
  • 2017: $40,000 water loss.
  • 2019: $27,000 water loss.

To date, So far only one insurance company of 18 contacted by ReMax has offered a policy to the condominium board: $5 million in coverage for a $250,000 premium.

That offer was rejected by the board as it would cost residents about $500 a month extra on their condo fees and would only cover a quarter of the building's replacement cost.

Thompson said he's worried that when the board does find insurance, it will be prohibitively expensive.

"My condo is currently worth half of what I paid for it," he said, adding that he worries the value will only keep dropping as condo fees rise. He said he paid $450,000 for his unit in 2012.

The insurance problem isn't isolated to the Winchester Greens building.

Katie Ekroth, the condominium manager with ReMax in Fort McMurray, said it's an issue they're seeing across Canada. 

"I know there are other [condo] corporations in Fort McMurray that are in the same boat," said Ekroth. She said many have had to take higher premiums and deductibles.

But "this is the first corporation in my portfolio that has actually been denied a renewal."

She said she's talked to other brokers and they're seeing premiums and deductibles increasing, primarily in areas that have been hit by natural disasters, like Calgary.

"I think it's completely unfair to be penalized because of an act of nature," said Ekroth. 

If no companies offer a reasonable policy, the condo may have to self-insure. That means the owners would need to come up with enough money to rebuild the entire structure should something happen. 

"The important thing for people to understand is that it's not isolated to just this one building," said Ekroth.

Rob de Pruis, director of consumer and industry relations western for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said the marketplace for commercial insurance has shifted over the last decade, because of large events like the Slave Lake wildfires, the flooding in southern Alberta and the Fort McMurray wildfire.

He said insurance companies are showing "more discipline" and taking closer looks at the risks associated with commercial buildings, like condominiums. 

Rob de Pruis says there are many options for people to use if their claim is taking a long time to settle. (Submitted by Rob de Pruis)

His advice to the residents at Winchester: keep shopping, there are hundreds of insurance companies in Canada and it could just be about reaching out to the right one. As well, residents of the condo should be extra careful to avoid potential insurance claims, he said.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada is also talking to all levels of government and insurance companies, trying to see if there is a policy that could be put in place to ensure that insurance stays on the market at an affordable rate. 

In the meantime, Thompson is waiting to see if his biggest investment will be protected at the end of the month.

Have a story? Email jamie.malbeuf@cbc.ca


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