That’s easy money.
For example, Checkbook’s sample D.C. family (Zip code 20008, $844,000 replacement cost, built in 1937) would pay only $978 with Travelers; $2,752 to continue with State Farm, their current insurer; or more than $2,500 per year with Amica or Lemonade. Checkbook has done these types of comparisons for property insurance for 30-plus years, always turning up big price differences among the largest insurers.
Often, highly rated companies offer low premiums. To help you find a low-cost, high-quality company, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of homeowners insurance firms free through April 1 via Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/homeowners.
Because pricing methods and premiums can dramatically change over time, shop around for a better rate every other year or so. If you’re considering an insurance swap, know that you don’t have to wait until your policy term ends to sign on with a lower-priced company. Although you might have to pay a small administrative fee to cancel your current insurance, this fee is usually much less than the savings you’ll get from a lower-cost carrier.
Even if you select a low-priced company, don’t waste hundreds of dollars a year buying the wrong coverage. Some tips on minimizing premiums:
- Take a high deductible. You’ll get a big discount, and it will make you less likely to file small claims that may generate future premium hikes. Keep in mind that the purpose of insurance is to protect you from losses that you can’t afford to cover yourself. If you buy insurance for small losses, you pay insurance company overhead — sales, administrative and claims handling costs — to deal with losses you could cover out of your own pocket. You need to determine how big a loss you can incur without unacceptably disrupting your life, and then set your insurance deductible levels accordingly.
- Obtain an accurate estimate of what it will take to rebuild your home. Many homeowners do not maintain adequate insurance coverage, leaving themselves financially vulnerable in the event of a total loss. Don’t count on your insurer to keep your homeowners policy up to date. Every few years, have your insurer re-estimate your home’s replacement cost, and then adjust your coverage as needed. Keep in mind that insurance agents may try to sell excessive coverage by providing inflated estimates of replacement costs. If you buy too much coverage, you’re paying for insurance you can’t use.
- Limit the number of claims you make. Filing a claim will result in higher premiums from most insurers and may cause an insurer to drop you — which will make it difficult and more expensive to get insurance elsewhere.
- Maintain a good credit record if you live in the District or Virginia. With many companies, your credit score will influence the rates you’re offered more than anything else. (Maryland law prohibits homeowners insurance writers from using credit scores in setting rates, but auto insurance companies can and do use credit scores.) The prices most companies offer customers with poor credit are double what people with excellent credit get. With some companies, the poor-credit penalty more than triples their rates, and insurers increasingly use other secretive and opaque methods to calculate rates. Whether insurers should use credit histories and other data to set rates is a hotly debated topic among the insurance industry and consumer groups such as Checkbook.
- Consider declining optional higher coverage limits and other add-ons. Raising limits for some types of coverage — such as liability coverage — won’t increase your premium much, and most consumers find the extra protection worth it. But be wary of agents and companies that try to tack on extras without discussing them with you first.
- Consider buying your homeowners and auto policies from the same company. Many companies offer dual-policy discounts to customers who insure both their homes and cars with them; however, such discounts are usually small and won’t make a high-priced company a good deal. (Checkbook also evaluates auto insurance companies for quality and price.)
Keep in mind that what companies sell as their standard insurance policies varies, which makes direct cost comparisons more difficult. For example, some insurers estimate the amount of dwelling coverage needed and then automatically include an extra 25 percent or more of protection to make sure you’re covered in the event of a total loss. Similarly, while coverage for increased living expenses is usually set at an amount equal to 30 percent of the dwelling coverage, with some companies, there is no limit; they instead reimburse for actual living expenses for up to one year. And some companies automatically cover personal property using a replacement-cost provision rather than charging an extra premium for it. If you are interested in these types of enhancements, make sure you’re comparing prices for the same coverage.
Consider that what you get with basic coverage is particularly important if you own an older home, where you might want to make sure expensive-to-replace features such as woodwork are properly covered. Standard policies promise to repair or replace what is damaged, but not to pay for a replica of what was lost. Also, with older homes, make sure you’re covered in case there are additional costs to bring old systems up to code during a rebuilding process. Some insurers include this type of coverage for no additional charge, while others impose additional hefty premiums.
No matter which company you choose or which coverage you select, you’ll want a company or agent that offers unbiased information and quotes accurate prices. Unfortunately, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers often found many agents more interested in selling them too much insurance and unwanted options than dispensing solid advice and reliable price quotes. Their information was often incorrect, even dishonest. When shopping for insurance, speak with several companies and agents — and question price quotes that seem excessive or include unrequested coverage.
Document features of your home, and keep the list up to date. If you make improvements, promptly report them to your insurer. Take pictures or videos of your belongings, and keep this information in a safe place away from your home. Being able to prove the value of your home and belongings will ensure you’ll be fairly compensated in the event of a loss.
Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. See Checkbook’s full report on homeowners insurance free of charge until April 1 at Checkbook.org/WashingtonPost/homeowners.