Because homeowners insurance claims are fairly rare, we advise consumers to shop for the lowest price and put less emphasis on the quality of claims handling and other service issues. But when companies have similar rates, you may want to consider service as well as price. Fortunately, some low-priced companies still have good claims service.

Finding Reliable Advice

You want a company with responsive, knowledgeable agents or sales staff who give sound advice and accurate price quotes. Unfortunately, our undercover shoppers frequently find insurance agents and sales staff often don’t calculate accurate prices, and some offer alarmingly bad information and advice. Agents repeatedly quote wildly incorrect premiums, often more than double the correct amount. And we find some agents and insurance company staff don’t ask enough questions to enable them to quote accurate prices.

Also bad: Many companies and agents push add-ons or increased coverage limits without any discussion or explanation that they’re optional and will increase the premium.

But what really drove our shoppers nuts were agents who told us our requests for price quotes had to be approved by underwriters, and then never followed up. Often we had to email and call multiple times over several weeks to get information.

Also disturbing: how often our shoppers were subjected to upselling or downright dishonesty.

To get accurate information and prices, shop several companies and agents. Push hard for reliable information. Determine the exact types and amounts of coverage you want, then make sure the agent bases your premiums on that. Examine price quotes very carefully. If unrequested or unnecessary coverage is included, request an explanation. If the answer is unsatisfying, take your business elsewhere.

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Finding Good Claims-Handling Service

One of the most important elements of insurance company service quality is claims handling. Are claims paid promptly, and are the payment amounts fair?

Complaint Records

One way to spot serious problems is to look at records of complaints filed with states’ departments of insurance.

The table below reports counts of homeowners insurance complaints filed against companies in Maryland and Virginia for a recent two-year period. For each company, the table also reports complaint rates, which take into account the fact that some companies do much more business than others and are therefore likely to incur more complaints. The complaint rates indicate the number of complaints per $10 million in homeowners premiums written.

Feedback from Policyholders and Contractors

Another way to measure service quality is to survey customers. We collected feedback on homeowners insurance companies by surveying policyholders in the seven metro areas where we publish Checkbook.

The table below shows the percentage of respondents who rated each company “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) for each question asked on our survey. The companies that scored highest for “overall quality” were Amica, Chubb, Erie, and USAA; the companies that scored lowest were Allstate, Encompass, Farmers, GEICO, Hanover, Homesite, Liberty, and Progressive.

We also surveyed roofing contractors and asked them to rate homeowners insurance companies with which they had experience as “poor,” “fair,” “good,” “very good,” or “excellent” for “treating their customers fairly when paying claims.” Some contractors were unable to respond, since they had little or no experience working with customers who needed work done under insurance claims. But many did have opinions based on their experiences. The table below shows the percentage who rated each company “good,” “very good” or “excellent.” Not surprisingly, there is some correlation between companies’ scores with contractors and their scores with surveyed homeowners.