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Archive: Oct 2016

  1. The Beginner’s Guide To Homeowners’ Insurance

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    homeowners-insurance1Insurance. Do your eyes glaze over just reading the word? It may not be the most thrilling subject, but it’s essential for new homebuyers to understand the nuts and bolts of their homeowners insurance. Virtually all mortgage lenders require insurance coverage to protect their investment. If the house you live in is destroyed, the real owners – and in most cases, that’s the bank – would suffer a huge monetary loss.

    You don’t even have to “own” your home to need homeowners insurance; many landlords require their tenants to have coverage. But whether it’s required or not, it’s smart to have this kind of protection anyway. We’ll take it step by step as we walk you through the basics of this type of policy. (For a breakdown of basic insurance terminology, check out Understand Your Insurance Contract.)

    What a Homeowners’ Policy Provides
    The elements of a standard homeowners’ insurance policy provide that the insurer will cover costs related to:

    • Damage to the interior or exterior of your house – In the event of damage due to fire, hurricanes, lightning, vandalism or other covered disasters, your insurer will compensate you so that your house can be repaired or even completely rebuilt. Damage that is the result of floods, earthquakes and poor home maintenance is generally not covered and you may require separate riders if want that type of protection. (To learn how to protect yourself and what financial documents you need in your emergency kit, see Preparing For Nature’s Worst.)
    • Loss or damage to your personal belongings – Clothing, furniture, appliances and most of the other contents of your home are covered if they’re destroyed in an insured disaster. You can even get “off-premises” coverage, so you could file a claim for lost jewelry, for example – no matter where in the world you lost it. There may be a limit on the amount your insurer will reimburse you. Even if your Rolex or mink coat is damaged at home, there will be a limit on the coverage for that, too – unless you purchase a separate “floater” policy that insures the item for its full appraised value. According to the Insurance Information Institute, most insurance companies will provide coverage for 50-70% of the amount of insurance you have on the structure of your home. If your house is insured for $200,000, there would be up to about $140,000 worth of coverage for your possessions – would this be enough for you? In order to answer this question, you would need to have a list of all your possessions and their value, also called a “home inventory”.
    • Personal liability for damage or injuries caused by you or your family – This clause even includes your pets! So, if frisky Fido bites your neighbor Doris, no matter where the bite happens to occur, your insurer will pay her medical bills. Or, if Junior breaks her Oriental vase, you can file a claim to reimburse her. And if Doris slips on the broken vase pieces and successfully sues for pain and suffering or lost wages? You’ll be covered for that, too, just as if someone had been injured on the premises of your home or property. While policies start in the range of $100,000 coverage, experts recommend having at least $300,000 worth of coverage according to the Insurance Information Institute. For extra protection, a few hundred dollars more in premium may buy you an extra $1 million or more through “umbrella coverage”. (For more insight, see It’s Raining Lawsuits: Do You Need An Umbrella Policy?)
    • Hotel or house rental while your home is being rebuilt or repaired – It’s unlikely you’ll ever need this protection, but if you do find yourself in this situation, it will undoubtedly be the best coverage you ever purchased. If your house has been completely destroyed or is so damaged that it’s uninhabitable, you may need to rent another house or live in a hotel until it’s repaired or rebuilt. This portion of homeowners’ coverage would reimburse you for the cost of rent, hotel, restaurant meals and other incidental costs because you were unable to live in your house. Before you book a suite at the Ritz-Carlton and order caviar from room service, however, keep in mind that policies impose strict daily and total limits – but, of course, you can expand those daily limits if you’re willing to pay more in coverage.

    Different Types of Coverage
    All insurance is definitely not created equal. The least costly homeowners insurance will likely give you the least amount of coverage, and vice versa.

    There are essentially three levels of coverage:

    1. Actual cash value – This value covers the house plus the value of your belongings after deducting depreciation (i.e., how much the items are currently worth, not how much you paid for them).
    2. Replacement cost – This is the actual cash value without the deduction for depreciation, so you would be able to repair or rebuild your home up to the original value.
    3. Guaranteed (or extended) replacement cost – The most comprehensive, this inflation-buffer pays for whatever it costs to repair or build your home – even if it’s more than your policy limit! Certain insurers offer extended replacement, meaning it offers more coverage than you purchased, but there is a ceiling; typically, it is 20-25% higher than the limit.

    How Much Does It Cost?
    The average yearly premium cost for U.S. homeowners insurance in 2008 (as of 2010, the latest year for which data is available) was $791, according the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, but premiums vary widely and depend on multiple factors. First, of course, price will be determined by how much coverage you buy, a decision you can only make after evaluating the market value of your house, completing a household inventory, and deciding how much liability protection you want.

    Other variables that need to be considered include your zip code. If you live in a high-crime area, for example, insurance premiums will be higher. Companies also take into account the size of your house, how close it is to a fire hydrant, the condition of your plumbing, heating and electrical systems, how many claims were filed against the home you’re seeking to insure, and even details like your credit score that reflect on how responsible a consumer – and, therefore, a homeowner – you are. (If you’re worried you won’t measure up, read Five Keys To Unlocking A Better Credit Score.)

    No matter what initial price you’re quoted, you’ll want to do a little comparison shopping. And don’t forget there are many other ways to slash costs, such as raising deductible levels, buying multiple policies from the same insurer, getting all available discounts (for security devices, such as burglar alarms, for example), checking for group coverage options through credit or trade unions, employers, or association memberships, and boosting your credit score. (To learn more ways to reduce premiums, see Insurance Tips For Homeowners.)

    Selecting an Insurance Company
    Price is important, but it is not the only or even the most important factor. When it comes to insurance, you want to make sure you are going with a provider that is legitimate and creditworthy. Before you sign on the dotted line, first contact your state’s insurance department to make sure the company is licensed, as all insurers are required to be. Second, check its financial strength by going to websites of the top credit agencies (ex. A.M.Best, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s) and searching their financials. Finally, consider asking relatives, friends and coworkers for referrals. It always makes sense to benefit from the experiences of others, so ask someone you know who has filed a claim about an insurer’s customer service representatives, the speed with which a claim was appraised, processed and paid, in addition to your friend’s general level of satisfaction with the insurer.

    Conclusion
    As with all insurance policies, they are under-appreciated until they are needed, and then they quickly become a godsend. Getting yourself set up with a comprehensive homeowners policy can go a long way toward making your home truly a place of comfort and security.

  2. Does Your Credit Score Affect Your Car Insurance Rate?

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    buy-car-feat-imageDoes your credit score impact your car insurance rate? It’s a question you might have wondered about before — especially if you have a particularly spotty credit record. Unless you live in New Jersey, Hawaii or Alasaka, the short answer is yes. The explanation of the relationship between credit scores and car insurance rate-setting is more complex, however.

    What Factors Into a Car Insurance Rate?
    Obviously, your driving record has an impact on the estimated risk your insurance company assumes by taking you on as a driver. There also are other risk elements that affect your car insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute: where you park your car at night, your gender, your age and the kind of car you drive. Also relevant to your rate, according to insurance companies, is your credit score.

    The practice of using credit scores in setting insurance rates has been around for at least 20 years. According to at least two studies, a 2003 study done at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and a 2007 study by the Federal Trade Commission, there is a statistical correlation between how much a consumer costs an insurance company and that customer’s credit score.

    The Texas study looked at a random sample of 175,647 people in the state and found that “the lower a named insured’s credit score, the higher the probability that the insured will incur losses on an automobile insurance policy, and the higher the expected loss on the policy.” The study’s authors noted that they did not attempt to explain why credit scoring added significantly to the insurer’s ability to predict insurance losses.

    The FTC study found that credit-based insurance scores are effective predictors of risk under automobile policies. “They are predictive of the number of claims consumers file and the total cost of those claims,” study authors write. “The use of scores is therefore likely to make the price of insurance better match the risk of loss posed by the consumer. Thus, on average, higher-risk consumers will pay higher premiums and lower-risk consumers will pay lower premiums.”

    It’s also important to note that insurance companies don’t use traditional credit scores. They build their own scores based on FICO or Experian scores: Basically, companies take your score and use it in their own model.

    But Is This Fair?
    According to J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America, credit scoring was the first classification factor used by insurance companies that was not based on traditional actuarial research. Before this, he says, rate factors were determined by developing a thesis and then testing it by collecting data to determine if it was correct. For example: If the thesis was that drivers with a DUI conviction might have more claims in the following year, actuaries might look at statistical evidence to see if such a thesis was correct.

    Hunter said that advocates for the use of credit scores in car insurance rate-setting “still cannot explain what they are measuring, coming up with explanations like, ‘Sloppy with finance means sloppy with driving.’

    “Of course, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, many people developed worse credit scores that had nothing to do with their sloppiness,” he said.

    “The fact is that credit is a surrogate for prohibited rate classes such as income and race,” Hunter said. “Insurers are prohibited from using these factors in all states and we think this is their way around the prohibition.”

    But others argue that insurance is a numbers game and the practice, even if unfair, might be logical. Frankie Kuo, an analyst at ValuePenguin.com, says that insurers are “doing their best to find out whether their future and current policyholders are a good or bad risk to take.”

    What You Can Do To Mitigate Your Costs
    Regardless of whether the use of credit history is fair, it is legal in all but three states. So what can you do if your credit score is in less than perfect shape? As always, your best bet is to shop around for an insurance company.

    “Insurers always differ in how much weight they put on each rating factor, and I guarantee you consumers will always find one that finds their imperfect credit score less of a problem than other insurers do,” Kuo explains.

    According to a study by WalletHub, Geico appears to rely the least on credit scores, while Farmers Insurance seems to lean on it the most heavily.

    For consumers who have difficulty finding coverage at all, in almost every state there is an assigned risk plan that helps high-risk drivers find coverage for a limited period of time. “Even if the rates may be higher than if they obtain a policy in the voluntary market, they will be avoiding insurance lapse, which not only contributes to higher rates in the future, but also possibly legal consequences,” Kuo explained.

    Finally, improve or maintain your credit history by paying your bills on time and not skipping payments. You also should check your credit report and keep an eye out for possible errors. Consider free credit monitoring with a company like CreditKarma and free annual credit-history reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.

    Via Edmunds.com

  3. 5 Insurance-Buying Mistakes to Avoid

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    insurance4Buying insurance can be confusing, but when the unexpected happens – a house fire, a fender bender or a broken bone – it’s a relief to know that some of those financial losses will be covered. But how do you know how much coverage you need? And what questions should you ask before buying a policy? Many consumers aren’t sure. Insurance coverage is far from one size fits all, so here’s a look at mistakes some consumers make when buying insurance.

    1. Assuming insurance is out of reach. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 48 million Americans had no health insurance in 2012. And about 30 percent of U.S. households have no life insurance, according to LIMRA, a worldwide research and consulting organization for insurance and financial services. In some cases, consumers skip insurance because they think it’s out of their budget. Often, that’s not the case, according to Marvin Feldman, president and CEO of the LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that educates consumers about financial planning and insurance. The LIFE Foundation collaborated with LIMRA on the 2013 Insurance Barometer Study, which found that the average consumer thinks life insurance is three times more expensive than it actually is. “[Consumers are] not researching it to determine what the cost is,” Feldman says.

    When buying health insurance or property and casualty insurance, ask about potential discounts. “Two-thirds of consumers don’t realize they can get financial help if they buy their own health insurance, and they can get financial help if they go and buy in these health insurance marketplaces,” says Lynn Quincy, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, a division of Consumer Reports. “You may be way overpaying if you don’t investigate this possibility.” While health insurance discounts are often income-based, homeowners and auto insurers offer discounts for everything from being a member of groups like AARP, to being a good student or a good driver, to having a home security system.

    2. Relying on assumptions or outdated figures. Changing economic conditions mean you might need more insurance coverage than you had in the past. Take life insurance. In the past, consumers might have based their life insurance coverage on their current income, but “if something happens and you’re no longer around, you need more capital at work to provide the same income [to your beneficiaries],” Feldman says. Disability and long-term care insurance are even more complicated than traditional life insurance. “For disability, do you want coverage that lasts forever? Are there health issues in your family?” Feldman asks. “That’s where you need to speak to somebody to get some guidance.”

    In the case of homeowners insurance, your home could be underinsured if you’ve renovated or if the cost to build a home has increased due to higher material costs or other factors. That’s why experts recommend reviewing insurance coverage once a year to make sure it still fits your needs. Talk to your insurance agent if you’re unsure.

    3. Shopping on price alone. Comparing insurance policies can be confusing, but resist the urge to simply choose the policy with the lowest premium. Consider the company’s reputation and the coverage you’d get for that premium. “As a general rule with health insurance, the higher the premium, the lower the amount you pay when you go to the doctor,” Quincy says. Private health insurance plans must provide coverage examples showing what your estimated out-of-pocket costs would be for, say, having a baby or managing Type 2 diabetes. Some examples might not apply to you, but they can help you compare plans and see how much you might pay in coinsurance and copays.

    “Make sure you’re shopping apples to apples and getting quotes based on the same coverage that you have,” says Lori Conarton, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute of Michigan. Your property and casualty insurance may not cover things like food spoilage in the event of a power outage or stolen electronics worth more than $1,000, so you may want to purchase extra endorsements to cover those possibilities, she adds.

    With disability or long-term care insurance, prices can vary depending on the length of the elimination period – the amount of time you must wait before coverage kicks in – and whether the policy includes inflation protection, so consider these factors, too.

    4. Glossing over the details. Make sure you understand what your insurance policy covers. For health insurance, it’s cheaper to see doctors who are in-network and buy prescription drugs covered by the formulary, so Quincy suggests checking to see if your doctor is in-network and if your prescription drugs are covered before you buy a policy. Otherwise, you could get an expensive surprise.

    Read your insurance policy and contact your insurance agent if anything is unclear. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t find out what coverage they should have had until they have a loss,” Conarton says. “Here in Michigan, we’ve had a lot of winter weather, and some people don’t know that flooding is not covered under a regular homeowners insurance policy.” However, you can usually buy a separate flood insurance policy. Many people also assume that drain and sewer backups are covered by insurance, but often they’re not, Conarton adds.

    5. Setting your deductible too low. Setting a low deductible typically means higher premiums, and in the case of property and casualty insurance, a greater likelihood of small claims that could ultimately raise your premiums. Insurance is designed to protect against losses you could not cover yourself, so if you can afford to pay the first $500 or $1,000 in losses yourself, you may not need a lower premium. “Consider your own financial situation,” Conarton says. “How much of the risk are you willing to assume before you make a claim and the insurance company pays on your claim? You really have to think about how much of that loss you could pay yourself.”

    Via USNews.com