Car insurance for snowbirds

By Susan Ladika

Snowbirds who fly the coop to Florida each winter need to make special arrangements to make sure their auto insurance claims are covered.

Anyone who has a vehicle in Florida for more than 90 days a year -- and the days don't have to be consecutive -- is required to register the car and meet the minimum state car insurance requirements.

You might be tempted to register the car only in your home state to save on car insurance rates and avoid dealing with two insurance agents and two insurance policies.

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But that strategy could backfire and cost you more in the long run. You could get a ticket at a traffic stop if you're caught without proper Florida registration and insurance, says Kirsten Olsen-Doolan, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Worst-case scenario: The insurance company finds you misrepresented the car's location, and refuses to pay your claim.

What Florida requires

"If you register a car in Florida, you need to have Florida insurance," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com.

You'll need to have at least $10,000 of personal injury protection (PIP) and $10,000 of property damage liability coverage on your vehicle to meet state law, says Olsen-Doolan.

Although car insurance requirements are minimal in Florida, David Thompson, a licensed insurance agent who teaches courses for the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, recommends you request coverage and limits similar to those on your vehicle at home.

And even if you have an insurance agent you love back home, your Florida car insurance has to be purchased through an agent licensed in Florida. Most big auto insurance companies in your home state will have agents in Florida as well.

What you don't need to get is a new driver's license, as long as you're a U.S. citizen.

Olsen-Doolan says you can retain your home state's driving license. If you're a Canadian citizen, you can keep your license from Canada, but also need a license from Florida or any other state in the country, she says. Canadian snowbirds face the same registration and car insurance requirements as those for residents of other U.S. states, she says.

Do you really need to bother?

In a word: Yes.

If, say, your legal residence is Pennsylvania and you have your vehicle, which is garaged in Florida, registered in your home state, "it's possible that the Pennsylvania insurer could deny claims, stating misrepresentation about where the car was located. The premium paid would be based on the Pennsylvania address and thus the insurer can say they weren't able to rate the car and driver properly due to not having the correct information," Gusner says.

It doesn't help that Florida has some of the most expensive car insurance costs in the country, tempting many to try to rely only on their home-state coverage. (You can get an idea of what coverage might cost at your Florida residence by looking at CarInsurance.com's survey of rates in all ZIP codes.)

On the other hand, if you spend only a couple of months each year in Florida, under that 90-day threshold, you can keep your vehicle registered and insured in your state of residence, Olsen-Doolan says.

If your vehicle is garaged in Florida year round, you can drop certain insurance coverage when you head back home, though that isn't necessarily the best move.

Saving money while you're away

One way to save money on your car insurance bill is to surrender your license plate and vehicle registration when you go home, so you can completely drop your insurance coverage, and then get new insurance and reregister your vehicle when you come back down the next year.

That works only if your car is paid off -- a lender would insist on full comprehensive and collision coverage -- and no one will drive your car while you're away. Your car would not be covered for any damage during that time.

Snowbirds are most likely to be in their home states during the summer, which is hurricane season. If you drop your comprehensive coverage and a hurricane blows through Florida and swamps your vehicle or crushes it with a tree, you cannot make a claim.

Your other option is to keep the car registered and maintain only PIP and property damage liability coverage. You may be able to get a low-mileage discount for that renewal period, Gusner says.

But Thompson cautions against making that move. "I've never been a supporter of suspending coverage," he says.

He recounts the story told by an agent in one of his courses. One of the agent's clients removed all coverage but PIP and property damage liability when he left the state, and planned to reinstate the coverage when he arrived back in Key West.

The man flew in to the state, jumped into his car for a quick trip to the grocery store, and got in a wreck, injuring the other driver.

By suspending coverage, "there's a huge potential for financial disaster," Thompson says.

"The least expensive choice today is many times the most expensive choice after a claim takes place."

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