Vernal equinox

The arrival of spring sends many a homeowner outside to take a look at one's property in order to ponder the upcoming summer's duties. Might I upgrade the lawn or add a rain garden, should a fence be put in to keep the dog away from neighbors and meter readers, is this the summer to replace that old roof?

My vernal view from the curb this year is different. Due to a hiatus I recently took from my day job that put me into "new shoes" I now think and feel that these questions need to be placed in a larger context, reflecting on everything from hurricanes in the South to hailstorms in Minnesota. This summer I will be acting stridently on some of the "fixes" mentioned above, in part due to having gained an insider's perspective on home insurance practices.

Above: 2008 was a terrible year for hailstorms in Anoka County, Minnesota, as cleverly displayed using Google Maps by a local remodeling contractor; fyi, 3-inch hail is tennis-ball sized, ouch!

Overview to the industry

Property liability insurance companies, like the one who insures my home, say they have been hurting: their profit margins have been at best, razor-thin, for years. And it has been worse since the economic downturn and the apparent increase in natural disasters of the kind shown in the map above. Response to managing risk is – unsurprisingly – complicated. (The bottom line for homeowners is that your insurance company wants your property to be in pristine condition when they insure you, but let's zoom back for a quick overview.)

The liability insurance industry in general refers to a collection of companies that monitor risk – for property or personal health issues – in exchange for payment. The size and scope of the property-liability piece itself is quite large; for example, the core companies, along with those of their sub-industries, number a thousand or more.

In response to the need for profitable risk management something unique has evolved: a collection of aggregators, standalone companies (also know as field service firms) that service most of the big insurance companies by providing such companies with first-hand property inspections, by the millions. What happens is that insurance underwriting executives contract with these aggregators who have offered underwriters their "best deals" for inspections. Once under contract the aggregators themselves then interview, hire, and train hundreds of independent contractors to do on-site field inspections of the insured's properties, i.e., those owners who are on a path to new policies or renewals under the umbrella of the underwriting companies.

Inspection as a career

I became aware of some of this – by chance – nine months ago. I was remortgaging my home and a trained inspector came by to view and document the inside and outside of my home. As I chatted, I wondered about the life of an inspector. She said she liked it: independence, professionalism, a mix of work outside and in, measuring/sketching home footprints, photography, data entry, writing, and other duties in the field and in front of a digital workstation.


Above: inspector photodocumenting the front of a property

After my chat I researched "property inspection" as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics characterizes it and discovered their only listed cover term was "construction and building inspectors." When last they gathered data (2010) the BLS had these job-holders numbering 100,000, with growth outlook at about the national average for the next decade. Median wage that year was $25 per hour; not bad, I noted, of course you'd have to be well-trained and know something very tangible.

But it was puzzling: I was unclear if the inspector who came by my house was under that BLS aegis: she was in fact a mortgage home appraiser, different from construction inspectors and quite unlike the insurance aggregator's independent-contractors I mentioned earlier. Whew. Like I said, it's complicated! But there's more (including my role in the mix).

Ethnographic research

I sat back and quietly said to myself, "no matter, hey, I could do something like this!" then asked, "why not take a leave of absence from teaching to examine it ethnographically, that is, quietly 'become one of them?'" My longing to work outside for a half year of "living differently" became real – and is the basis for more illustrated essays.