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Household cover on your doorstep

Remember household insurance? Most people would rather forget it. Many do. But there are now deals worth shopping for.

If all insurance is a necessary evil, then choosing cover for one's home and possessions seems one of the last items on which to waste effort - and even outlay.

If all insurance is a necessary evil, then choosing cover for one's home and possessions seems one of the last items on which to waste effort - and even outlay.

That is why one person in four is at least partially uncovered, either because they never bothered about the contents or else they allowed a policy to lapse after the premiums jumped. Even so, insurers collect about £91 for every UK inhabitant each year from premiums averaging about £300.

This emerges from a survey for the insurance industry by the consultancy Bacon & Woodrow. Its domestic expert, Edward Plowman, says: "Premiums are still historically low, as many companies and channels are now competing for business".

Yet the survey finds there is so much inertia about renewals that policy-holders tend not to shop around. It might benefit home-owners to review the level and extent of their cover, comparing current premiums with other insurers' rates. That applies especially to people with mortgages who are still conditioned by the historical right of the lender to name its own tied insurer - and pocket the commission.

The Halifax link with Sun Alliance has survived the amalgamation called R&SA, while Abbey National continues with what used to be called Commercial Union, whose own household lines are being rebranded as Norwich Union.

Since 1983, home-buyers have been generally free to decide on cover, but the Mortgage Code still allows lenders to recommend an insurer or insist on coverage; and, in certain circumstances, they are even entitled to place the risk themselves. Seven out of ten new borrowers are still leaving it to the lender - possibly paying too much and delaying any claim.

Yet there are more than 50 companies offering combined policies, including Tesco and Sainsbury. Copying Centrica, the latest is British Telecom with a discount based on calls. This does not worry leading insurers like Norwich Union. Its spokeswoman, Jill Elliott, says: "Feedback suggests that the public is getting so confused by the new brands with all their deals and discounts that they cannot make a straight comparison about what they regard as a tiresome duty."

It is hard enough to choose a policy among traditional insurers. Take a semi-detached, pre-war house with three bedrooms in a Midlands area rated 10 for risk on a scale of 13. Prudential quotes almost £102 for the building, with £104 for contents worth £40,000, or £129 for the latter only. Like most insurers, it does not load instalments. The same combination adds up to £18.95 per month with Legal & General, which also underwrites Gresham policies from Woolwich.

It might seem simpler to get a quotation from an insurer that sells directly - in other words, they operate only from calling centres or add them to branches. Direct Line and Churchill are among these. But the lines are usually busy and, after the recorded rigmarole, a live voice may interrogate you about everything from date of birth to rebuilding costs. Never call Alliance & Leicester's partner, Eagle Star (whoops, Zurich), on behalf of a relative!

A few insurers do have advanced and friendly sites for purchase online, but the telephone is probably still needed. This usually means going to an intermediary, preferably one of the 2,000 firms in the British Insurance Brokers Association (BIBA). Its spokeswoman, Jennifer Weller, says: "That is the only way to get really sound and straight advice based on personal requirements, especially as BIBA has strict rules."

Apart from a need for higher cover, there may be special items like jewellery or legal liability, not to mention easing travel cover by putting items on a domestic policy. And some people may have a claims history. Various insurers are also forever changing conditions such as flooding or subsidence - not to mention rates and ratings. In any case, the threshold before pay-out may be anything between £50 and £1,000. If a ridge-tile blows off, get some cement - not a claim form.

Applicants should remember three points, says Tracey Dickinson, operational manager at John Charcol Insurance Brokers, in Brighton: "First, it is vital to be totally honest rather than conceal something to save a few bob, like pretending to have special locks, because false disclosure could prejudice a claim. Secondly,do not blindly accept what seems to be an ideal quotation - you are entitled to request a specimen copy of the policy to spot any pitfalls. Thirdly, read the document afterwards to double-check that the cover and conditions exactly suit your needs."

Most people buy both buildings and contents cover together, as it is economic and convenient. But renters, especially students, should insure their contents anyway - unless there is well-defined provision on the parents' policy. The specialist for them is Endsleigh Insurance, with outlets on 82 campuses through its link with the National Union of Students.

Householders over age 55 should see what offers are available from organisations like Age Concern and Saga.

Everybody should look for no-claims bonuses and special offers - such as Prudential's advice on locks or Norwich Union's alarms - as well as the discounts for security measures, including membership of Neighbourhood Watch.