Can Home Insurance Companies Deny You Coverage Based on Your Reporting?
A muckraking journalist and political podcaster struggled to buy a home because insurance providers deemed them a high-risk liability. Is that normal?
A Reader/Writer Asks:
My partner and I were denied home insurance last year on the grounds that I “operate a home-based business” — i.e. write and host a podcast from home. A number of residential insurers said I’d need commercial insurance before they would offer a home insurance policy.
I reached out to three different brokers, who each asked me to fill out a 10-page form to send out to several underwriters. A question on the forms was about “investigative/exposé” content. Not one of them provided a quote, let alone a policy, covering me as a writer who does investigative and political content/commentary.
We were finally able to buy our new house after I secured a residential policy by incorporating my business at another location; they were okay with me having a home office, but not a registered business from home. However, the insurance would not cover me in the event of any defamation suit or other liability, just equipment that might be damaged or stolen. If someone sued me for something I wrote, the insurance company would be worried about the house being in jeopardy.
There’s been very little written about insurance for freelancers. When I canvassed my contacts of media colleagues I found that pretty much all of them were themselves uninsured. How are we supposed to cover ourselves while doing high-stakes reporting?
—The Uninsured Firebrand (Tuf)
You can add me to your list of freelancers operating without a lifejacket. In fact, according to a super-scientific Twitter poll that I ran yesterday, zero percent of 45 freelance writers and journalists have commercial insurance.
I’ve known that I should get my shit together following cases of news companies leaving their freelancers out in the cold without an indemnity clause. Granted, I rarely get into the deep end of journalism, unlike yourself, who swims with sharks as a matter of profession.
Regardless of your fiery brand, your situation surprised me. I’ve been operating a “home-based business” for as long as I’ve been a homeowner, 11 years, and have never struggled to secure homeowners’ insurance. That doesn’t mean my business is protected, obviously, but my office gear is covered if it’s stolen from my home.
I’m guessing most of the freelancers who responded to my Twitter poll have homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, too. Most home and renter policies still offer inexpensive add-on policy endorsements to cover risks related to a home business (about $50 to $100 monthly). But the fact that you were flat-out rejected before disclosing the function of your work leads me to wonder if something is amiss in the insurance industry.
Turns out, there is.
“We’re seeing a lot of real significant challenges in the marketplace,” says Rob De Pruis, a director with the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Even before the pandemic, property and liability claims over the last five years increased 30 and 40 percent, respectively. Factor in years of low-interest rates and companies are becoming “more disciplined.”
Rob says, “They’re taking a real close look at their risks, to make sure that that’s within their risk appetite in order to provide coverage.”
This also explains why commercial liability might have ran in the other direction upon seeing “Yes” ticked beside the question, “Do you engage in any investigative journalism or publish exposé content?”
Or maybe it was because of the details you provided about this content. Either way, Tuf, it feels like you’re being punished for your honesty.
I asked Rob, the western director of ICB’s consumer and industry relations, whether you’d have been better off representing yourself more generally as a writer/podcaster. He strongly warns against it. The form you completed (provided for subscribers here) is long and detailed for a reason. If a provider feels you didn’t share sufficient information about your business conduct, they could make the case that you misrepresented yourself.
“That could be the basis for avoiding your policy, or not handling your claim,” he says. “If there was a lawsuit — a big one you might face is defamation — even if the claim was baseless, your home liability policy would not even provide you with legal defense coverage to shut it down.”
The route you finally took by registering your business as a corporation, and then registering that corporation at another address, was a structural maneuver to protect your house from becoming collateral for your business. It was a band-aid to get the house — congrats — but it’s not going to help you cover your legal costs in a worst-case scenario.
So what the heck is a freelance journalist to do when they can’t even get a commercial underwriter to offer a quote for coverage?
Rob is confident you’ll find the coverage, but says it’s going to take plenty research and digging. To cast the widest net, look for brokerages with access to international markets. “Many brokerages have risk management services as well,” adds Rob. “They would be able to help you develop a comprehensive plan to reduce your exposure. And that’s really some of the added value that you would have in working with some of these larger international type representatives.”
I’m also more optimistic for you after reaching out to my freelancer friends and followers. To list a few of the Canadian companies recommended to me: Hub International, Wawanesa, AON, Gallagher, and Marsh. Ask representatives about their libel and errors and omissions — the protection we need most — and keep in mind that such claims still come with high-priced deductibles between $25,000 to $50,000, according to ratehub.ca.
I can’t say if they’ll have the stomach for your work, Tuf. But I can tell you that they do have the stomach for some freelancers, including me. So thanks for the motivation I needed to start getting my shit together.
Something for Your Toolkit
SelfControl, Freedom, and Other “Distraction Killers”
Whether you were born with attention deficit hyperactive disorder or you developed something like it in the digital age, “distraction killer” apps and plug-ins are excellent defences against lost time. I use a free desktop app called Self-control to help me focus on my writing by enforcing custom website “black lists” (Twitter, Facebook, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.mx, Amazon.kg…) or “white lists” (Thesaurus.com).
There are plenty of free browser plug-ins that work just like it (StayFocusd, PoD, Monastery), but if you need something robust then invest in Freedom for about $30 per year or $65 forever. Freedom is basically a chastity belt for writers. It simultaneously blocks sites, apps and games across all your platforms for up to 24 hours at a time.
And One Shameless Plug…
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At Large is edited by Danielle Paradis. She’s also a contributing editor to CANADALAND covering the national media. Send her story tips and pitches at email@example.com, or check out her other work at danielleparadis.com.