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YOUR MONEY: Insurers offer personal touch for the Nth time

AS THE the first N-registered cars hit the road on Tuesday, their owners may have given insurance of their new toys less thought than went into buying them.

August is the busiest time of the year for buying car insurance and - as with any kind of cover - it pays to shop around. As companies chase each other's customers for business, many are offering special discounts and improved claims service, and a few pence spent on phone calls might save pounds on your premium.

The last time the N-registration came around in 1975, the only way to buy motor insurance was through a broker. Direct insurers did not hit the UK market until 1982, when Preferred Direct arrived, and there were very few incentives around, let alone discounts.

Nowadays, the least one expects is a no-claims discount, and most insurers offer payment by instalments. Neither was offered in 1975. Preferred Direct, for example, now offers a new car to replace a N-registered one if it is a total write-off within 12 months of first registration, access to Clearway - a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year claims service - and action within two hours of a report being made. A free courtesy car is provided, and the damaged car will be returned, spick and span inside and out.

"The new few years will see a shift towards a more personal service, as direct insurers target retention and cross sales," says Trevor Bloom, assistant general manager of marketing at Preferred Direct. "The emphasis will no longer be on improving call turnaround times but on responding to customers as individuals."

Direct Line, which offers a no-frills service - so no free courtesy car - has its efficient Teleclaim service. You just ring up with your policy number; the person at the other end takes the details and fills in a form on his or her screen. The nearest repairer can be faxed and the car collected within hours. It will be valeted before return.

"We have just commissioned a Mori survey, which shows that an overwhelming number of people - 84 per cent - would switch policies if they receive poor claims service. The garages we use have to sign up to service standards, and if they fall behind we send a team in to find out what is going wrong," says a Direct Line spokesman.

Eagle Star Direct has recently launched low-mileage discounts and varying discounts for payment methods. On claims, it says its basic objective is to deal with simple claims at one touch of the phone.

Guardian Insurance is introducing new discounts on 1 September, which will benefit owners of older cars, policy holders who have younger drivers on their policies, and a 10 per cent loyalty discount after two years.

Churchill Insurance gives discounts for couples, women drivers, low mileage, security devices, and people over 45. Married couples will get a third off their premiums. "However cheap the insurance, the most important thing you should look for is a good claims service," says a spokeswoman.

"People don't want to be off the road while their car is being mended, so they require a courtesy car and quick service. We have just opened the first ever insurance company-owned accident and repair centre in Rother- ham, which should improve our service even more. And we intend to open another 10 to 12 in due course."

A new package of discounts has also been announced by Direct Line. Discounts of up to 10 per cent will be offered to limited-driver policies - restricting cover to up to four named drivers - and increased discounts for insured and spouse policies. Over 150 particular ranges of cars that have shown to have a better than anticipated claims record will also qualify for premium reductions of up to 5 per cent, and 150 postal districts will also receive reduced premiums.

Preferred Direct's most popular discount is the 20 per cent reduction in premium for every accepted referral. "Some people manage to pay nothing on their premium because they introduce so many people," says a company representative.

AA Insurance has just launched a new pay-as-you-go breakdown cover to its policyholders. Special AA cards are being issued to 1.1 million policy holders, and one call to its Claimline should bring an AA patrolman or garage agent to the rescue.

It also pays to use specialist insurance companies if you fall into a specific category, such as being over 55, or own a special car. Age Concern Insurance Services has launched its new motor insurance policy underwritten by Shead Motor Policies, which is available to anyone over 55, with no upper age limit. "One of our oldest clients, I think, is 94 years old," says a Shead spokes- woman. "We find most of them are far more honest, so do not overclaim."

The no-claims bonus goes up to a 65 per cent discount, and loyalty discounts can push this up to 77.5 per cent. It offers additional discounts for immobilisers and low annual mileage, and does not penalise policy holders for health conditions that many older people suffer from.

Independent Insurance specialises in classic cars and other non-standard cover includes high-performance and kit cars, drivers with too many driving convictions, medical conditions or high-risk occupations. It has just revised its booklet, Simple Guide to Classic Car Insurance.