Insurance premiums for condominiums, cooperatives and homeowners associations have been skyrocketing over the past few months. Some associations have been stung by rate increases of between 300 and 500 percent, and insurance company experts say that rates are expected to continue to climb through next year.

For a typical 100-unit condominium building in the Washington area, an insurance package probably will cost about $25,000 this year, which is about 250 percent more than a year ago, said Jane Haeseker, an account executive with Huntington T. Block, an independent insurance agency that works primarily with community associations.

For an average small homeowners association with 50 homes, $1 million worth of liability coverage would have cost between $100 and $250 last year, she said. Today, it would cost between $700 and $1,000, with possibly higher rates if the association has any pools, ponds, lakes or creeks.

"There's a crisis in property and liability insurance," said Huntington T. Block, president of the company. "I've never seen a more difficult insurance market for condominiums and homeowners associations than I see today."

The problem is not just with condominiums, but has hit homeowners associations of all sizes as well, Haeseker said.

When the Reston Home Owners Association checked into renewing its insurance policies last fall, the management team that runs the 16,000-member organization was shocked to find that the best rate RHOA could get for property liability was twice what it paid the year before.

The liability insurance for RHOA's directors and officers was even worse: For what once was the cost of a three-year policy, RHOA could only get one year of coverage.

Millie Montagne, RHOA's manager for administration operations and personnel, said that, when RHOA first heard what its insurance carrier was planning to charge to renew the association's policy, she called other community associations in the area to see if they were facing the same problem.

"What we found is that it is worse for some other associations, particularly the small associations, than it is for us," Montagne said. "One 40-home community association that had just a few acres of open space -- no pools, or tot lot or anything -- had just received a 700 percent increase in their insurance."

Across the United States, condominiums and homeowners associations are struggling to find the funds to pay the higher rates, and some associations are finding they cannot get coverage for some things they have had little trouble insuring in the past such as high diving boards and some types of water damage.

The crunch in insurance rates for community associations reflects what has happened over the past few months to other segments of the insurance industry, experts say.

Through the early 1980s, high interest rates brought insurance companies good returns on their investments, allowing competitive price-cutting as companies vied for customer dollars to increase their investments. As a result, Block said, many condominiums and homeowners associations were able to use their insurance coverage as a maintenance program, finding it cheaper to make continuous claims for a leaky roof than to fix the roof.

Jim Dowden, executive vice president for the Community Associations Institute, said that rates for property casualty and liability have gone up, as RHOA found. Because insurance companies are licensed to write a certain dollar amount of insurance, when rates go up, they must cut back on the number of policies they can write, sometimes squeezing out groups that they otherwise might be willing to insure.

Dowden said those associations that will face the toughest time getting insurance over the next two years will be those with a history of claims and those properties with anything that increases their liability risk such as lakes, pools and underground parking. Also, properties with a high number of absentee owners, such as resort property, can expect to get hit with a big rate hike.

"From what we are seeing, it is worse for an association that has a string of claims, even if they are small claims, than for one that has had one big claim in the past," Block said. "The insurance companies feel they should insure for catastrophic problems, not small, predictable maintenance problems."

Block said that associations possibly could get reductions in insurance rates if they can convince their insurance carrier that they are trying to control losses and keep the property in shape.

"For the first time, insurance companies are looking at individual associations, checking their claim histories, going out to associations to look at their grounds and facilities, rather than dealing with them as statistics," Block said. "Those associations that don't practice preventive maintenance could find themselves with big rate increases."

Associations should consider installing smoke detectors, putting up additional outside lights, enforcing pool regulations and keeping up with regular repairs, Block said. Some condominium associations even take care of maintenance of items inside individual units in an effort to keep down losses from water damage or other problems that could spread from unit to unit.

Water damage is blamed for more property damage claims from community associations than anything else, Block said, and some companies are raising deductibles for water-damage claims above deductibles for other items.

With rates going up and fewer companies writing community association coverage, insurance company representatives said associations should start the insurance renewal process at least 90 days before expiration of existing policies.

Dowden also cautioned community associations to check their coverage carefully and question whether they need everything they have purchased in the past.

Associations also should check their documents to make sure that the bylaws do not require a type of insurance coverage that the association now is unable to purchase. If the coverage is unattainable, or too expensive, the association should change the bylaws to reflect that, they said.