BuildFax Develops Up-to-Date Property Data for Insurers

By Jonathan Schwarzberg | January 23, 2012

In many ways, insurance is a battle for information. From marketing to underwriting to claims, the ability to know as much as possible about a potential insured, especially for property risks, is vital.

A company called BuildFax is working to collect information from building departments and turn it into a practical resource for insurers across the country. The company was built around the concept of providing insurers with up-to-date information on properties including additions, remodeling and demolitions.

BuildFax believes this information from building departments has been previously untapped on a national level. There are 19,624 building departments across the country, and BuildFax now has live data from 63.5 percent of them, including those in all the major cities and counties. The company has information on 70 million properties in the United States so far.

“Right now we have the big ones and the medium ones,” said Joe Emison, a co-founder of Buildfax and vice president of research and development. “We don’t have the small ones and the tiny ones…It’s all a cost game. It costs us about the same amount of money to get Los Angeles as a small town.”

Depending on demand from insurers, the company could add many of the small areas in the future. What they already have is enough to provide insurers with a lot of information, and the concept is catching on.

Over the past 18 months alone, the Austin, Texas-based BuildFax says it has run more than 15 million addresses through its system for the insurance industry. According to the most recent count, more than 20 carriers have purchased BuildFax data either directly or through a reseller. The company has more than 30 other carriers in various stages of pre-sale.

Information is available for both personal and commercial properties though the trend currently leans toward insurers looking for information on personal properties by approximately 85 percent to 15 percent.

What sends insurers to BuildFax is the information from these building departments. Traditionally carriers have relied on time-consuming site visits and information from tax assessors to back up what property owners were telling them. However, site visits don’t always tell the whole story, and the information from tax assessors has sometimes proven to be years old.

“Outrageously, tax assessors do not keep up with the granular changes to a property,” said Holly Tachovsky, co-founder and president of BuildFax.

She said that the more reliable method of keeping up to date on property is using information filed through the building departments. Property owners are very likely to file changes to the property with the building department, especially on substantial changes that affect the property value. The building departments also note if a property owner starts and then stops a project.

“Being able to actually see the properties as they change over time is something they haven’t been able to do,” Tachovsky said.

In addition to big projects like additions, insurers are able to use BuildFax to see when homeowners undertake things such putting on a new roof. This can be very valuable to know in wind-prone areas like Florida and hail-prone states like Colorado.

“Every carrier for roof age is relying on the honesty policy of the homeowner, who may not even know,” Emison said. “These are both correlated with wind and hail loss.”

This information is valuable to claims adjusters trying to make sure that a carrier isn’t paying out for something previously covered. For instance, if a home faces hail damage and receives a payout, insurers can use BuildFax to make sure that there is a record of work on the property if a request comes in again for more hail damage. If the work was not properly permitted or not even done, then liability can be limited for the second round of claims.

“Getting that knowledge lets them act properly, and it’s non-invasive,” Emison said.

Because property exposures are so closely related to geographic areas, BuildFax says it has seen more interest in its products coming from California, Colorado, Florida, Texas and other states with the potential for catastrophe-related damages.

The broad scope of information harvested is particularly valuable for these regions. The information can be used to note other broader trends, too. BuildFax saw the boost in remodeling months before it was being talked about by economists and the national media.

Insurers are able to get information from BuildFax in a variety of ways. Carriers can obtain access to information on specific properties, or information on their entire books of business.

Emison said that typically carriers will look at getting some reports or a book run that will cost between $5,000 and $25,000 depending on the size.

Another way that BuildFax information can help insurers is with marketing. Tachovsky said carriers have found it useful to be able to see a list of properties that meet specific specifications that a company might consider a good risk.

In Florida, they can check to see if certain properties qualify for wind credits and in California they can check for seismic credits. Insurance companies can then contact the property owners directly to offer their services.

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