Australian bushfires a stark reminder of the value we place in home

This blog first appeared as an opinion piece in Stuff on 12 January 2020 

My elderly mum lives about 80km north of Sydney, and while the fires that are currently burning are some way off from her house, it’s tinder dry like the rest of the country, and she’s surrounded by gum trees. At Christmas she told me this was the first time in her 30 years of living there that she’s felt scared. Thankfully, she has a plan. She’s gathered her precious things together and packed a bag, ready to leave if she needs to. My son and his family, who live further south, were seriously fearful as they drove north around the fire-affected areas to join the family.  We are truly thankful that we were spared the heartache and uncertainty that many others are now facing.    

Given that so much of our past, present and future is gathered in the place we call home, I can’t help but think of those who face the daunting prospect of creating that place all over again. It’s relatively easy, if somewhat time-consuming, to replace items like bedding, clothing and electronics, or even rebuild a house. But it’s the things that can’t be replaced that can make a tough situation that much tougher. It’s the sentimental items, which may not be worth much in dollar value, that are priceless to those who have lost them, and which give their home its heart and soul.

This reminded me of a little, well-loved Chinese teapot. Not mine, but that of a family who have made their home in New Zealand and whom we discovered while conducting countrywide research with Auckland University about the concept of ‘home’. No matter where they live, this family created their sense of home whenever the teapot was taken out of its packaging and put on display. It’s obviously more than just a teapot; it’s an important part of their heritage, with ties back to family in China, and can never be replaced in the way many of us might replace a broken vessel used for brewing tea.

It was one of the findings that resonated with me from the research and helped highlight just how diverse our country and people have become. I’m an Australian-born New Zealand citizen and have lived here long enough to know that the concept of home, which we often relate back to the 50s and the quarter-acre dream, is no longer one-size fits all. Add in the ability to afford your own home, and it is clear Kiwis now have very different ideas about their personal habitat, and the meaning they attach to where they live versus several decades ago.

For some, it’s memories of the house they grew up in, their connection to the land and their ancestors, the heritage of the country they were born in, where they’ve travelled, the objects they’ve collected along the way, and how they utilise it to interact with family, friends and pets. It’s also about the communities they are part of and the desire to put down roots.

Interestingly, having stable roots isn’t just for homeowners. We found that many renters, particularly those who were resolute they would never be able to afford their own home, were just as keen for stability as their homeowning counterparts. Kiwis are now renting for longer, and often at a more mature age – so it makes sense they want to build their lives around the space they inhabit. This may be a good reminder for those who provide rental accommodation. As is the rule for most businesses; it’s more economical to look after the clients or customers you have, than to try to attract new ones.

For many the researchers spoke to, the realisation that their investment in their home can no longer be their only retirement strategy is disconcerting. And selling up the family home doesn’t always free up capital; downsizing usually means wanting to live more centrally, closer to amenities and that generally translates to a higher cost and a smaller nest egg.

So, where does the research lead us? From our perspective at AA Insurance, we wanted to make sure we understood what home meant to Kiwis, so we can offer them the right options and advice to help them protect it. Insurers can often be considered glacial in their agility, but we’re already making changes that will better suit our customers. It’s our way of acknowledging that insurers need to step up and do what people entrust us to do, offer ways to look after our customers against the worst that Mother Nature throws at us, and do what we said we’d do if something happens.

I also think the insurance industry as a whole could make it simpler for Kiwis to understand what is and isn’t covered by their policies and how to ensure they have adequate protection should the unthinkable happen. Our customers are paying for peace of mind when they choose to insure with us, and we need to make sure that is what we deliver.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but the importance of home to every one of us has become more apparent as the bush fires continue across the Tasman. Our thoughts are with our fellow antipodeans facing the indescribable. Working out what they need, what they don’t, what to save, what to leave behind. It’s a frightening prospect. Others haven’t had the luxury of time to consider their options, they’ve had to leave with the shirts on their backs. And a number have been unluckier still.

Chris Curtin

Chief Executive, AA Insurance

About AA Insurance

AA Insurance is an independently operated, New Zealand-based joint venture between the New Zealand Automobile Association Limited (NZAA) and Vero Insurance New Zealand Limited (VINZL). Since 1994 we have demonstrated trusted expertise in home, contents and car insurance in New Zealand, and in 2018 introduced commercial small business insurance. We underwrite our own policies and sell direct to New Zealanders. Our 1000+ employees look after 500,000+ customers with more than 1,000,000 policies.

We proudly partner with Variety New Zealand – the Children’s Charity (as the lead partner of its Beds for Kids programme), Student Volunteer Army and support grassroot school sports via our Big Little Sponsorship sports grant in partnership with Eden Park. We are consistently recognised in industry awards and honours, including being voted the Reader’s Digest Most Trusted General Insurer for 13 years running, named Canstar’s 2023 Home and Contents Insurer of the Year and Outstanding Value Award winner, and currently ranked 7th amongst 100 of New Zealand’s most successful companies in the Kantar Corporate Reputation Index (since 2015).

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