Farmers Insurance Goes ‘Green’ for Homeowners

Los Angeles, CA – With an industry-leading commitment to the environment, The Farmers Insurance Group of Companies® has began offering a new eco-friendly product for its Texas customers wishing to ‘go green”. Called “Eco-Rebuild”, this new endorsement will supplement Farmers homeowners insurance by allowing customers to replace destroyed property in ways beneficial to the environment.

“We are excited to bring this product to the market and give our earth-conscious customers an option previously not available to them,” said Jeff Reinig, Farmers Insurance Senior Vice President of Home Product Management. “This is quite literally an investment in our global future and we are excited to be the industry leaders.”

The “Eco-Rebuild” endorsement includes:

•$25,000 for extra costs incurred to rebuild or replace with “green” materials.

•If the house is an Energy Star Qualified Home, the endorsement will cover the cost of upgrading damaged property to meet new Energy Star requirements.

•Reimbursement for recycling debris rather than disposal.

•Reimbursement for extra costs incurred by using other means of power in the event of loss of alternative power generating equipment.

In addition to Texas , the product is also available in 28 other states: Alabama , Arizona , Arkansas , California , Colorado , Idaho , Illinois , Indiana , Iowa , Kansas , Michigan , Minnesota , Missouri , Nebraska , New Mexico , North Dakota , Ohio , Oklahoma , Oregon , South Dakota , Tennessee , Utah , Virginia , Washington , Wisconsin and Wyoming .

This is one of many “green” products Farmers offers its customers including a discount for owning a hybrid vehicle and other green initiatives offered through Zurich Financial Services.

About Farmers Insurance Group:
Farmers Group, Inc. is a wholly owned subsidiary of Zurich Financial Services, an insurance-based financial services provider with a global network of subsidiaries and offices in North America and Europe as well as in Asia Pacific, Latin America and other markets. Farmers® is the nation’s third-largest Personal Lines Property & Casualty insurance group. Property and casualty products are underwritten and issued by the Farmers Exchanges and their subsidiaries, which Farmers Group, Inc. manages but does not own. Headquartered in Los Angeles, Farmers insurers provide Homeowners, Auto, Business, Life insurance and financial services to more than 10 million households. For more information about Farmers, visit our Web site at http://www.farmers.com.

Cool, moist weather slows wildfire season in West

(AP) PHOENIX – Wildfires are usually raging by now in Arizona , but something odd happened this year.

As June drew to a close – typically the busiest part of Arizona’s wildfire season – the temperature fell and moisture was above normal, surprising fire managers who had expected an active season.

“The first part of summer we’ve really dodged a bullet in terms of our weather,” said Rick Ochoa, a fire weather meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “We’ve had rainfall and the cooler temperatures really kept a lid on things.”

Similar weather has also led to fewer fires than normal across much of the West, he said. But the season is still early and parts of the West will heat up significantly at the end of this month, Ochoa said.

An above-normal fire potential is expected in portions of California and Washington later this month because they’ve missed out on spring rainfall and had quick snow melt-off. There’s also above-normal fire potential this month in parts of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

States that likely will see below-normal Julys are parts of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.

Arizona and New Mexico’s fire seasons typically begin earlier than other parts of the West, wane when summer monsoon rains roll in and sometimes pick up again in the fall if rainfall is scant.

The rest of the Western fire season follows a more typical pattern, with peak fire season hitting in midsummer and early fall.

Arizona’s season has been below normal so far. The state had 990 significant wildfires that burned about 117 square miles so far this year. That’s compared to a five-year average of 1,800 wildfires that destroyed 357 square miles, according to the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

New Mexico also has seen less activity than normal, with 730 wildfires consuming about 481 square miles. That’s compared to that state’s five-year average of 880 fires that burned about 585 square miles, according to the coordination center. 

From the beginning of the year through mid-May, southeastern Arizona, southern and eastern New Mexico and west Texas were experiencing fairly active seasons before moisture hit the area, said Chuck Maxwell, predictive services meteorologist for the center, which oversees those three states.

“What we really didn’t expect was for things to shut down in the second half of May and not come back again,” Maxwell said. “It’s a year without any widespread, long-term, big fires.”

He said less fire can be good and bad.

“We want to have regular fires of some intensity to burn out the stuff that’s there; we just don’t want to have catastrophic fires,” he said, adding that low-intensity burns renew the ecosystem and restore forests to their natural states.

Forest managers in the West are taking advantage of the break.

In northern Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest, for example, fire managers are letting a small lightning-caused fire continue to burn because it’s doing more good for the land than harm, forest spokeswoman Jackie Banks said.

The lower temperatures and moisture this June also allowed Kaibab managers to start a prescribed fire that burned three square miles.

“It’s been a good thing in so many ways because we’ve been able to reduce the risk of higher intensity fires instead of running around trying to put everything out,” she said. “It helps improve forest health, improve wildlife habitat, reduce some of those accumulations of fuels on the forest floor.”

Not everyone is benefiting from a slower wildfire season.

Seasonal firefighters and government contractors are getting no work or less work than they’re used to.

Beryl Shears, owner of Phoenix-based Western Pilot Service, said his 13 airplanes contracted by the government have flown 20 to 30 percent of the amount they flew in 2007 and about 40 percent of what they flew last year.

“It’s awfully hard to stay prepared when our pilots don’t fly as much, to be ready to fly in 15 minutes after sitting around day after day,” he said. But regardless of what type of season it is, Shears said, the government still pays his company to have the airplanes and pilots at the ready.

“Yes, we do make more money in big years,” he said, “but really when you think about it, it’s the best of both worlds for all of us. We make a livable income for pilots, employees and mechanics, and yet there’s no wildfire, so nothing burns.

“The cost to government agencies is less, and we’ll be here next year if its a more severe wildfire season.”

FIRE VICTIM WARNS OTHERS: GET RENTERS INSURANCE

(KVAL News – Oregon )  After a fire destroyed all of her family’s belongings, a Eugene-area woman is warning all renters to purchase insurance.

“You can’t save the sentimental things, of course, but at least if you have children, there is something” if you have insurance, said Rhea Chrismer. “You can replace their bedrooms again.”

A fire destroyed Chrismer’s rented house and garage last Monday, charring most of the family’s belongings. The cause of the fire has not been determined and the investigation is on pause unless new information surfaces, according to Heather Miller with Lane County Fire District 1.

Chrismer, boyfriend Micheal Kezer and Chrismer’s three children were not home. The family was renting the property on Territorial Road but did not have renters insurance.

According to a Farmers Insurance branch in Eugene , the average person will pay less than $200 a year for a renters insurance policy.

“We’re not going to let this stop our little family,” she said. “I’m learning good things come from bad things. You meet really good people.”

People like the passerby who saw smoke coming from the house Monday, searched the rooms for people and finding none, let the family’s dogs outside. The dogs survived.

People like the communities of Crow and Lorane, who have offered clothes and started fundraising efforts. If you would like to donate to the family, an account has been set up at the Selco Bank on Gateway Street. Mention the Kezer Family Fund.

To see a short video of this story, click here: http://www.kval.com/news/49463987.html

45,000-plus Valley properties remain in foreclosure

(The Arizona Republic) Thomas Kelly explains the foreclosure process to those outside the banking industry by likening it to a tube.

“You get put in the tube when you’re 90 days late, and you might come out the other end of the tube six months later,” said Kelly, spokesman for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

What Kelly’s analogy doesn’t explain is how, for the past three years, thousands more Phoenix-area property owners have been entering the tube each month than coming out of it.

At present, the system is backed up with more than 45,000 “pending” foreclosures, up from about 2,300 in June 2006, according to a historical analysis by the Information Market, a Phoenix research firm.

Most experts expect pending foreclosures to increase even more before leveling off sometime within the next 12 months.

There has been much speculation among real-estate professionals about reasons for the apparent backlog of houses and condominiums headed toward foreclosure.

There’s a widespread belief that banks are purposely limiting the flow of foreclosure homes onto the market, which helps prevent home prices from sliding even further but could prolong the market’s long-term recovery.

Likewise, some say lenders are dragging their heels on repossessing and selling extravagant homes, and to a lesser extent commercial properties, including raw land, because the demand for big-ticket real estate is too low and because selling off large assets at sharply reduced prices could cause some smaller banks to fail.

Lenders have been relatively quiet about their strategies for working through pending foreclosures, which has only fueled various theories.

But Kelly said such theories give the banks too much credit.

“We’ve got such an enormous portfolio of homes to deal with, we don’t have time to say, ‘Let’s do this with this one, and let’s do that with that one,'” he said.

Monthly foreclosure totals have risen and fallen a number of times since the housing market peaked in 2006, although the general trend has been upward.

However, the number of pending foreclosures, properties on notice for a trustee sale but not yet sold, has increased steadily without exception since April 2006. In the past year, it has climbed by anywhere from 500 to 5,000 properties each month.

As of Friday, there were 45,709 total pending foreclosures in Maricopa County , according to the Information Market. Those are in addition to the roughly 73,000 foreclosures completed during the past three years.

Also as of Friday, the county was on track to reach 5,000 foreclosures by the end of this month, which would be the second-highest monthly total on record, having reached a high of 5,240 in February.

Even if 5,000 properties complete the foreclosure process this month, an even greater number will enter it.

As of Friday, lenders had served pre-foreclosure notices on 5,700 additional properties, a net increase of at least 700 in pending transactions for the month.

Actual foreclosures in the past three years total about 73,000, according to the data.

Some Valley foreclosures may be taking longer than the usual 91 days from notice to sale because the borrowers are attempting to work out a loan-modification or “short sale” agreement with the lender.

In Maricopa County, short sales have increased in the past year but still account for less than 5 percent of property sales.

 

Modifications help

 

Colleen Gunderson, Tempe-based Century 21 All Stars owner and designated broker, believes banks have intentionally slowed the release of foreclosure properties onto the market at the behest of the federal government, which provided many banks with bailout funds.

“There is a process in place to sort of warehouse these properties until a time when it’s more beneficial to place them on the market,” she said.

It’s the right approach, Gunderson added, because dumping 45,000 foreclosed-on properties onto the market all at once would deliver the knockout punch to a real-estate economy already leaning against the ropes.

New, standardized loan-modification guidelines issued by the Obama administration in March appear to be doing a better job of keeping some borrowers out of foreclosure than modifications made in 2008, according to two federal bank regulators, but it’s still too early to know for sure.

More than half of loan modifications negotiated before the Treasury Department launched its $75 million Making Home Affordable program in early March were back in default within six months, according to a study conducted by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Those same officials said in May that the rate of re-default fell by about 12 percent among those borrowers whose monthly payments were reduced.

However, the number of loans headed toward foreclosure has risen significantly despite better modifications.

In March, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington, D.C., conducted a study of the nation’s roughly 8,000 banks with online-news service msnbc.com and reported finding a 150 percent increase in loans at risk of foreclosure compared with a year earlier.

Kelly said job losses are one likely reason for the continued high volume of foreclosures, in addition to people walking away from mortgages even though the payments are affordable because they owe far more than the home is worth.

 

Commercial is next

 

Although most Valley foreclosures thus far have involved residential property, commercial-property owners and lenders are preparing for apartment, office and retail foreclosures to rise sky-high in the coming months.

Selling those properties back to the market could take years in some cases, analysts said, because there is little interest in new office and retail space, even at the low-rent end.

Craig Henig of commerical real estate brokerage CB Richard Ellis in Phoenix said banks aren’t in any rush to foreclose on commercial real estate because it forces the lender to adjust the property’s book value to today’s considerably lower market price.

Significant write-downs on a few multimillion-dollar commercial loans could put a small or financially stressed bank out of business, he said.

“I don’t know how they could sustain the amount of markdowns,” Henig said.

However, Kelly said the holding costs associated with thousands of foreclosed-on properties outweigh any benefit the bank might realize from waiting to sell them.

He also noted that the value of commercial real estate and high-end homes is still on the decline, which means waiting is likely to cost lenders even more.

“The goal is to get that asset back earning money for you,” he said.

Be prudent about sharing vacation data online

(SFGATE.COM)  These days, kids and even many adults think nothing of telling the world – or at least their 795 closest friends – that they’re not at home by posting their whereabouts or vacation plans on Twitter, Facebook or other social media.

Israel Hyman, an Arizona video editor who says he has close to 2,000 people following him on Twitter and also uses Facebook “a lot,” recently was burglarized while he was in Kansas City.

“We had mentioned that we were going out of town for an extended period and even Twittered about the trip as we drove for three days,” he told an Arizona television station. While he was gone, video-editing equipment was stolen from his home. Although he is not sure his tweeting tipped off the burglars, he says he will be more careful in the future about what he shares online.

“People just don’t realize the kind of information they give out in social-networking sites can be used on its own or with other information to commit identity theft and other fraudulent activity,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Most social-networking operations let users restrict access to people they approve. But many people fail to take this important step, especially if they are seeking a wide audience or trying to look ultra-popular.

Others assume they are safe because they restrict access to the kind of friends they would share their vacation plans with in person. What they forget is that these friends may share that information. “There is nothing to stop them from showing it to someone else or doing a screen capture and sending it on to somebody,” Stephens says.

According to the British government Web site Get Safe Online, 13 percent of social-network users report posting friends’ pictures without their consent and 7 percent report posting friends’ contact information without consent. Those most likely to give away their friends’ information are 18- to 24-year-olds.

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Know your friends

If your kids tell you they are networking only with “friends,” beware. “What an adult thinks of as a friend and what a friend is in social media are two different things,” says Peter Spicer, communications manager with Chubb Personal Insurance.

Spicer says parents should remind their kids “not to post the fact that we are going on vacation. That’s a heads-up to criminals.” Tell them it’s OK to post pictures and talk about the trip after they’re home.

Joanne McNabb, chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection, says she hasn’t received any complaints from people who think they were robbed because they disclosed their whereabouts on social networks. But, she says, “It’s a risk in the online world just like in the offline world.”

Robbers have long been known to scour the newspaper for death or wedding announcements and target homes when families are likely to be at the funeral or on a honeymoon.

“It’s not that these Web 2.0 things are creating new crimes. They are providing some new vectors or venues for the crimes that can happen anyway,” McNabb says.

While you’re away

Stephens says vacationers also need to protect themselves against identity fraud when they’re away from home.

His Web site, www.privacyrights.org, offers these tips for travelers:

– Photocopy or make a list of the contents of your wallet. Keep it in a locked location at your hotel or with a trusted person at home whom you can contact if your wallet is lost or stolen.

– Don’t carry unnecessary credit cards, your Social Security card or other documents that could compromise your identity if lost or stolen. If you have a Medicare card, make a photocopy without the last four digits of your Social Security number.

– Carry two credit cards. If you carry only one and it is deactivated because of suspected fraud or the magnetic strip gets damaged, you’ll be in trouble until it is replaced.

– Use traveler’s checks or credit cards. Leave your checkbook in a secure locked place at home. Do not use debit cards (check cards). This reduces your vulnerability to having your checking account emptied while you are on vacation.

– When dining in a restaurant, try to keep an eye on your credit card. If the server removes your card from sight, he may be able to create a “clone” by using a portable card skimmer that will copy the information from the card’s magnetic strip.

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– If you are bringing your laptop, be careful when using it to access online banking or other password-protected services from Wi-Fi networks. Be sure to use Wi-Fi hotspots that are secure. For Wi-Fi tips, see links.sfgate.com/ZHHR.

– Don’t access sensitive information from a cybercafe or other public computer because keyloggers (software that can track your keystrokes) may be tracking you.

Vacation tips

– Don’t post your vacation plans or whereabouts on social-networking sites until you return.

– Ask the post office to hold your mail. Mail piling up in an unlocked box indicates to burglars that you are not home and puts you at risk for identity theft.

– Suspend (but please don’t cancel) your newspaper subscription.

– Ask a trusted neighbor to report suspicious activity around your house to the police and remove any free newspapers that pile up in your yard.

– Park a car in the driveway.

– Set your lights, TV or radio on a timer, preferably one that switches on and off at varying times.

– Have package deliveries sent to your office or make sure they won’t be left on your doorstep.

– Unplug toasters and other appliances; shut off the water to your washing machine.

– Don’t leave a voice-mail message saying you are out of town or your return date.

– If you must leave an out-of-office reply on your e-mail, don’t say you are on vacation or when you will return.