Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Consumers’ Checkbook.
You’re probably paying too much for homeowners insurance coverage.
Each year, most Washington-area homeowners let hundreds of dollars — and, for many, more than $1,000 — slip through their fingers because they buy coverage with high-priced companies.
Nonprofit consumer group Washington Consumers’ Checkbook collected sample premiums from the area’s largest insurers for several illustrative Washington-area homes, and here is an example of what we found:
• For a typical policy for a sample frame house and family in Montgomery County, lower-cost rates ranged from $687 with Homesite, to $831 with USAA and $980 with Penn National and higher-cost rates ranged from $1,498 with Liberty Mutual to $1,503 with Erie.
• For a sample frame home in the District, lower-costs rates ranged from $742 with USAA to $929 with Homesite and higher-costs rates were more than $2,200 with Encompass and The Hartford.
• For a sample brick house in Arlington, lower-cost rates ranged from $636 with USAA, to $678 with Homesite, and $686 with Erie and higher-cost rates ranged from $1,363 with State Farm, to $1,600 with Nationwide.
There are enormous opportunities for area homeowners to save because so much of the homeowners insurance business in the Washington area is written by several large companies that often are not competitive on price.
To find a low-cost, high-quality company, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of homeowners insurance companies for free through May 31 by visiting www.checkbook.org/press/washingtonpost/homeowners-insurance/.
The prices you’re offered depend on several factors. Since your home and family’s location and characteristics likely differ from the sample profiles Checkbook used for its comparisons, do some shopping on your own. And if you’re considering an insurance switcheroo, 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. Here are some tips on reducing 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. But 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.
• If you live in the District or Virginia, maintain a good credit record. Maryland prohibits the use of credit scores to set homeowners insurance rates, but the District and Virginia do not, and rates in those areas are very much affected by credit scores. In fact, with many companies your credit score and other financial information have greater influence on rates than any other factors: The prices most companies offer customers with poor credit are double what they offer customers with excellent credit — with some companies, the poor-credit penalty more than triples their rates.
Many consumer groups — including Checkbook — oppose this use of credit scores, arguing that the scores are not a direct measure of insurance risk and that using the scores in insurance pricing hurts low-income consumers, whose scores tend to be lower on average. Companies, unfortunately, are increasingly using secretive and opaque methods to calculate their rates.
• 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. But 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.
Take into account 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 like woodwork are properly covered.
Standard policies promise to repair or replace what is damaged, but not to pay for an exact 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.
Often their information was 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 that you’ll be fairly compensated in the event of a loss.