By Jesse Harlan
Am I the Only One Who Thinks This Way?
“At least we have insurance on the place,” the owner thinks, trying to console himself while mentally tallying the smashed windows, stolen copper piping, ugly water-stained drywall, and spray-painted graffiti (not even close to being considered “art”). The break-in occurred around 6 p.m. in the once-bustling office park, and he angrily realized that it never would have happened seven months ago when the place was alive with activity.
I own a commercial property and I have insurance on it. Like many in my situation, it is easy to think that my policy is about the building, not about what’s going on with my tenants, that higher-than-normal vacancy rates don’t affect my insurance coverage. Oh, how wrong that thinking can be!
Unfortunately, during this unpredictable time of shifting demographics and increased vacancy, property owners don’t immediately think to call up their insurance agents and double-check coverage on an empty (or mostly empty) property. In this brief article, I hope to shift that thinking: The truth about insurance and vacancy is sobering and warrants our attention.
Vacancy and Why It Matters
Let’s take a look at the big picture. Insurance companies offer a policy based on the situation when it is presented to them, using all kinds of predictive tools about the local neighborhood, age of the building, distance to the local fire department, and so on. What they can’t anticipate is how that “risk profile” changes when there is nobody around.
Enter: Vacancy Provisions.
Think about your real estate portfolio. If no one is using the property on a regular basis, then it is less likely anyone will notice when something bad happens. It is also more likely that others (with nefarious intentions) will notice that people are around a lot less than they used to be. If no one is in the building on a regular basis, then no one will notice that the security light has been acting funny, that the alarm system reset in a power outage and is no longer armed, or that the heat hasn’t been working quite right.
You get the picture.
What Do You Mean by Vacancy?
Sure, if I have an empty shell of a property, I will probably remember to call my agent. But my building isn’t vacant – all of the suites are leased (true, they are working from home) and I still have one tenant in there every day. Does this even apply to me?
Well, it might.
Let’s get more specific. I’ll use a common insurance policy as an example, but the biggest takeaway is that we need to keep in close communication with our agents about this, because policies differ between companies. And unless you like reading insurance language for fun (like I do), that close relationship with your agent is key to making sure you don’t get surprised – in a bad way.
Many insurance policies define a vacant property in this way:
It is vacant unless at least 31% of the total area (square feet) is occupied.
But what do you mean by occupied? I mean, all the units are leased and they’ve got stuff in there, so that’s not vacant, right?
Well, that’s not enough. In order to be “occupied,” the units need to be used by your tenants to conduct their typical business activities. Now we might have a problem. Is that commercial office space devoid of anything but furniture, most importantly people? Are all the computers missing, parked in employees’ home offices? Does the tenant show up once a week just to collect their mail? Do they no longer see clients in that office but instead use Zoom from home, and they’re just waiting until their lease runs out?
How do you determine if you meet these thresholds? Well, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but which side of that risk do you want to be on?
An important note: Most policies consider properties under construction or renovation to be occupied, not vacant. So if your units are temporarily empty for that reason, you’re likely still in good shape.
Why is Vacancy Bad (for insurance)?
Okay, I’ll pay more attention to this. But what does it mean for my insurance if I have a vacant property (as you defined it)?
It will depend on your specific policy. But generally, after 30–90 days of vacancy, the coverages in the policy change.
- Many insurance companies say they won’t pay for any damage that happens from specific causes. One that might seem obvious: If no one’s around because the property is vacant, then theft, vandalism, and broken windows aren’t going to be covered.
- What else? What if that heat pump was going bad and no one told you because they were working from home? What runs through the sprinkler system? Freezing water could be a serious issue, and that may not be covered either.
- Then, beyond the list of “We won’t pay at all,” most policies reduce the amount they will pay for everything else.
- Finally, the fact that a property is vacant might allow your insurance company to cancel your policy with fairly short notice. Rushing to get a replacement within a week isn’t easy, and it’s certainly a hassle.
How Can We Fix the Problem?
Nice of you to point out the problem; what about a way to fix it? The good news is you can fix the vacancy-insurance issue. Here are a few places to start:
- Call your agent. It is critical to have a strong relationship with an agent who will read your policy and help you plan for these risks. Be careful here – not all agents take this as seriously as they should. Responses like “Nah, you’ll be fine” or “Everyone’s dealing with this, you’ll be okay” aren’t going to work at claim time. They are convenient for the agent, but not for you.
- Ask your agent to discuss it with the insurance company. Some companies might give you permission (get it in writing) to keep everything the way it is. Many offer a way to alter the policy and put you back in a full coverage situation, such as allowing you to decrease that 31% occupancy threshold, or extending the 30–90-day limit further out. One of these options might be perfect if you know the situation will be rectified in a few months.
- Get a quote for a Vacant Policy. There are insurance companies that focus specifically on providing coverage for vacant buildings. But be cautious here and ask your agent to walk you through the differences between this option and your current policy. Often these have more restricted coverage, meaning some things won’t be covered or the payout may be less at claim time.
A Few Closing Thoughts
When you own commercial property, there is no shortage of problems that demand your attention. As a commercial insurance agent, I’m well aware that questions like “What will happen to my policy if my building is less than 31% occupied?” cross your mind about as often as the spontaneous desire to read your insurance policy cover to cover.
But this is also the kind of thing that can turn an annoying claim situation into a devastating one. It’s my hope that you will call your agent (or find a new one if they aren’t helpful) and talk through these concerns. It’s my hope you’ll be on the front end, not the back end, of learning what vacancy means for your property insurance.
Don Jacobs Insurance Services
Jesse Harlan is a business insurance agent with Don Jacobs Insurance Services, a full-service agency with offices in Harrisburg, New Bloomfield, Middleburg, and Shamokin. He holds a Certified Insurance Counselor designation from the National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research. His primary focus is to research what can go wrong in a business and find ways to transfer that risk somewhere else. You can reach Jesse at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.
Featured in Commercial Real Estate Review – Fourth Quarter 2020