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5 things you must know about homeowners insurance

california_mudslides.gi.top.jpgHeavy rains caused mudslides in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., in early February. By Sarah Max, contributing writer


(MONEY Magazine) -- 1. Loyalty is overrated

Many insurers have been raising rates to make up for losses they suffered during the financial crisis, industry experts say. At the same time, insurers are competing hard for new customers, which means some of them are cutting better deals for new policy holders than for existing ones, says Deeia Beck, executive director of the Office of Public Insurance Counsel, a state consumer agency in Texas.

When your annual renewal statement lands in your mailbox, check InsWeb.com and NetQuote.com to see if you can snag a better deal elsewhere. Consider moving your auto policy too; bundling home and auto coverage with the same insurer can cut your total premiums by 5% to 15%.

2. You may have too much coverage

It's common for policies to contain inflation-protection provisions that automatically increase your coverage amount. "In most years, that's a good thing," says Scott Richardson, director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance. Now that construction costs have fallen? Not so much.

For now, pass on inflation protection and adjust your coverage amount to a more realistic figure. Lowering replacement value from, say, $300,000 to $250,000 might shave 10% off your premium.

3. A bad rep can cost you

Just as lenders check your credit history before figuring out what rate to charge you, insurers tap into national databases such as the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) to see what claims you've filed in the past. Those records can be full of errors, warns Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, an insurance advocacy group.

Check your insurance report for mistakes at choicetrust.com; it's free if you've been denied coverage ($19.50 otherwise).

4. Small claims can cost you, too

Go with the highest deductible you can afford and bank the savings to cover the cost of minor repairs. Filing a claim for every broken window or leaky pipe can drive up your premiums by 10% to 15%, says Don Griffin, a vice president at Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. (Some experts say that even inquiring about making a claim can raise a red flag.)

Increasing your deductible from, say, $500 to $1,000 can lower your annual premium by as much as 25%, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

5. A home's history matters

In the market for a new house? It may seem unfair, but claims associated with the property before you buy it can result in your paying more than you would otherwise. "Certain locations [such as those vulnerable to flooding] may be more prone to claims," explains Kiran Rasaretnam, CFO of InsWeb.

To get info on past claims, ask for a copy of the seller's CLUE disclosure report (see No. 3). Yes, you're stuck with the history of the house you buy, but you can use what you find to negotiate a lower price with the seller.  To top of page

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