Ding Dong: Your Home Insurer Is Movin' In

Insurance company technology is already monitoring drivers with devices like Progressive's "Snapshot," which logs your mileage, speed, braking and other data. Now an onslaught of James Bond-like gadgetry will give insurers a similar look into our homes.

Most of this equipment -- forward-looking infrared (FLIR), moisture meters, vibration detectors, acoustical hearing devices and air-born ultrasound -- appeals to homeowners who want to protect their property from electrical fires, leaks, mold and other hazards. There's currently little downside, and a lot of upside, to the technology that property-casualty insurers are now offering, mostly to their high net worth policyholders.

But new insurance patents, such as "spectral images," could give privacy experts and regulators cause for concern.

Filing the patents

A search of recent patents and press releases shows that home insurance companies are engaged in a battle to find and adapt new technology that will out-distance and differentiate themselves from competitors.

Chubb, Fireman's Fund, The Hartford, USAA, CNA and Zurich are among the leaders in this race to reach into the homes of customers.

Insurers that target high-end clients have the advantage; their clientele can afford the higher premiums that pay for these costly services. Homeowners with expensive art and jewelry collections are usually more than willing to pay for special treatment, and insurer Chartis offers a special service for yachts. However, an insurance technician is unlikely to visit the average policyholder.

From Benz to bicycle

But the cost of these devices, such as the FLIR cameras that take "pictures" inside walls, ceilings and floors, have plummeted to the point where they are now stocked on the shelves of Home Depot. It's only a matter of time until these devices will be in your home and affecting your insurance rate -- if you want them.

"When we started using FLIRs in 2006, the camera used to cost as much as a Mercedes-Benz. Now it costs as much as an expensive bicycle," recalls Keith Weinhold, Chubb's appraisal technical specialist, who predicts that prices will come down further.

The camera itself has also shrunk and is now the size of a flashlight. And before long it may morph into an app on your cell phone, say experts.

Hot spot, cold spot

A FLIR records heat images. By going through an ordinary home, which usually takes about an hour, a technician can find "hot" and "cold" spots, particularly in winter when the temperature is warmer inside than outside and when there is moisture in the form of rain or snow.