Insurance Online: Speed's at a premium if you want to buy insurance on the Internet

Finding exactly what you want online is still slow going but within five years most of us will be purchasing policies that way at better rates - and with the advantage of immediate cover.

Insurance on the Internet? Whatever next. For most folk on the Clapham omnibus the Net is still a bit of an effort, and most general insurance online services can provide only quotations to potential customers. Companies which allow you to buy your car insurance online are rare. But the pace at which e-commerce and the Internet are growing means we will all be buying a lot of our insurance on the Net in five years.

More companies are building websites and linking with Internet brokers. There are 60 general insurance companies (motor, buildings, contents and travel) selling on the Web, and a third will give a quotation online. The most developed market is motor, with 50 firms selling and more than 100 insurance brokers, and the total is rising fast (use the search engine find.co.uk).

Collecting a handful of quotes from different web sites is slow work, and you can have problems with the system refusing to let you go beyond a certain point when filling in questions. That means resorting to the phone. Even when you've gathered some quotes, you may not have hit upon a particularly competitive bunch. One shortcut is to consult online brokers such as 1st Quote (www. 1stquote.co.uk, tel 0181 598 8080), and Screentrade. A customer using Screentrade's website will type in his or her details, and immediately it will give several competitive quotations. You can buy the policy online, or phone Screentrade direct and agree over the phone.

Screentrade has a pool of only 16 motor insurance companies, which doesn't seem very much, but they have big names there (see table) and probably represent about 80 per cent of the market.

The company says it has selected the important companies with good quotes. You do have to remember that Screentrade, along with other screen brokers, has special relationships with certain companies. You can always spotcheck and find prices from one or two other "quote-only" companies to see how they compare.

The first insurance company to offer "quote and buy" on line was Eagle Star two years ago. It is proud of its product, declaring it to be "easy to use and comprehensive in that there are no follow-up questions." But it can be seen from the table that it isn't competitive. If you do opt to buy online, you are invited to key in your cheque card number or direct debit when paying.

Directline offers "quote and buy" for motor insurance, but not yet on contents and travel. Admiral offers a 10 per cent discount for motor insurance initiated on the Net. Axa does "quote and buy" travel insurance online and will post proposal details on its web pages for other insurance. Many insurers offer a "ringback" service for clients who fill in the forms online. An advantage is that the client has immediate cover.

Legal & General say its customers, having looked at the quote, are happy to clinch the purchase over the phone. The company has a "phoneback facility". Admiral offers a10 per cent discount on its motor policy and there are a growing number of other worthwhile incentives. You may find a quote from an online broker for a particular company may be more competitive than one from, say, an Independent Financial Adviser (IFA) or even direct from the company.

Is it any cheaper to buy online? Time rather than anything else seems to be the greatest saving, though online tends to be a little bit cheaper - up to 5 per cent.

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