Auto insurance bound to rise

PERSONAL FINANCE

May 06, 2008|By EILEEN AMBROSE

You've weathered rising gas prices and skyrocketing food and health care costs.

Now, get ready for higher auto insurance premiums.

A recent survey by Insurance.com, an online insurance agency, found that premiums are rising in 28 states. "It's a reverse of a trend," says Sam Belden, director of consumer experience at Insurance.com.

Auto premiums have been flat or have fallen since 2004, Belden says, but insurers now are passing on rising health care and auto repair costs to consumers. The increases have been small, but they are a leading indicator of what's to come.

"The way insurance cycles work, things move as slow as molasses. Once you see a trend sort of changing into a new one, that becomes fairly significant," Belden says.

It will be no surprise that Maryland, according to the survey, has some of the most expensive auto insurance. Insurance.com looked at the lowest quotes in 47 states. In Maryland, the lowest premium per household averaged $2,165 in the first quarter of this year. That's $30 more than late last year.

Louisiana was the priciest at $2,674, up $29 from last year.

Belden says lots of factors go into determining the various rates between states. Those with lots of traffic-congested urban areas tend to have higher premiums. Rates also are higher in places where auto thefts are more frequent and repair costs steeper.

Rates can be higher if you live in a litigious area, adds Carolyn Gorman, vice president with the Insurance Information Institute.

So, short of moving to a state with no traffic or lawyers, how can you keep costs down?

Drive carefully, and avoid moving violations.

Raise your deductible, the amount you must pay out-of-pocket before the insurer kicks in any money. The typical deductible is $250, but go higher if you can afford it, Gorman says. Be careful not to raise the deductible so high that you would struggle to meet it.

Drop coverage you no longer need. If you have an old car, you might no longer need collision or comprehensive coverage that pays for repairs if the car is damaged, Gorman says.

Maintain a good credit record. Insurers in some states will look at your credit score to determine your rates. The argument is that consumers with weak scores tend to file more claims. It's a controversial issue.

The Federal Trade Commission released a report last summer that found credit scores "effectively predict the number of claims consumers file and the total cost of those claims." Consumer advocates disputed those findings, adding that the use of credit scores by insurers discriminates against low-income and minority consumers.

Maryland passed a law six years ago that limits the use of credit scores for auto insurance. An insurer can use your credit history when setting your initial premium. But thereafter, it can't refuse coverage or raise your premiums because of a poor score.

Shop for insurance well before your policy expires, Belden says. Some insurers give an "early shopping discount," he says.

Or, stick with a single carrier for all your policies, such as auto and homeowner's, Gorman says. An insurer often gives discounts if you have multiple policies with it.

If you have teenage drivers on your policy, encourage them to study hard. Students with good grades might qualify for a "good student" discount that could knock 5 percent to 15 percent off your premium, Belden says. You'll need to submit a copy of the report card.

You can save money by brushing up on your driving skills in a defensive driving course. A one-day class might cost $100, but insurers will give you a discount on premiums for a few years after you complete the course, Belden says.

Cars that easily crumple in a crash cost more to repair and are on thieves' most-wanted list are going to be more expensive to insure. So before you buy a car, check out its record on withstanding crashes and other factors by going to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Web site at www.iihs.org. The institute's Top Safety Pick is the 2009 Subaru Forester for its protection of passengers in a crash.

Have steep gas prices caused you to start walking to work or taking public transportation? If you're driving a lot less these days, tell your insurer, Gorman says. "They might give you a break," she says.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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