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Title: Magnifying Disaster: The Causes and Consequences of Home Underinsurance
Authors: Hassani, Sara Nephew
Advisors: Scheppele, Kim L
Contributors: Sociology Department
Keywords: disaster
information asymmetry
Subjects: Sociology
Issue Date: 2013
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Existing surveys demonstrate that in the United States, most homeowners believe that their home insurance coverage will cover the complete costs to rebuild their home in the event of a total loss. Yet, most dwellings are insured for an amount that is less than what would be required to rebuild -- a condition called "underinsurance." By conducting historical research on the United States home insurance market, I show that insurers have recognized underinsurance as a problem afflicting the home insurance market in every decade since the Depression. Insurers have repeatedly attempted, and failed, to resolve inadequate insurance-to-value -- through salesmanship, innovations in valuation methodologies, and automation. This result complicates theories of inadequate insurance, drawn from insurance economics, that explain inadequate insurance as primarily a problem of demand. A longstanding supply-side problem of accurate property valuation has contributed substantially to widespread, persistent underinsurance. Using fieldwork conducted after the 2003 and 2007 San Diego wildfires, I show how pre-loss policyholder experiences supported their expectations that their home insurance would be sufficient: analogical reasoning from small losses to large losses; interactions with insurance agents; and legal consciousness of the insurance contract. This case demonstrates how the presence of information asymmetry in a market can accompany "false certainty" of transaction outcomes -- not just perceived uncertainty of transaction outcomes -- among low-information parties to transaction. Market features that are often credited with reducing uncertainty need not always equip market actors with better knowledge; these conditions can elide potentially variable transaction outcomes, consequently contributing to widespread market misconceptions. In contrast with most existing disaster recovery studies, I find that even households with reputable insurers struggle with insurance after disaster. Policyholder efforts to overcome inadequate insurance did not only consist of taking out loans or using savings; rather, individuals actively attempted to minimize the size of their home insurance gaps through actions intended to increase insurance payouts or decrease rebuilding costs. For insured households, gap-minimizing strategies -- which I identify as negotiating, barn raising, and downsizing -- constituted much of the disaster recovery process.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Sociology

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