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Insurance 101

Learn the basics about filing claims, taking inventory and other topics related to Auto or Homeowners insurance.

Auto

Chances are you already have auto insurance or will need it one day. To help you become an informed insurance consumer, we're happy to answer some frequently asked questions about protecting vehicles and their occupants.

Questions

What is auto insurance?

Auto insurance protects you against financial loss if you have an accident. It is a contract between you and the insurance company. You agree to pay the premium and the insurance company agrees to pay your losses as defined in your policy.

Auto insurance provides property, liability and medical coverage:

  • Property coverage pays for damage to or theft of your car.
  • Liability coverage pays for your legal responsibility to others for bodily injury or property damage.
  • Medical coverage pays for the cost of treating injuries, rehabilitation and sometimes lost wages and funeral expenses.

An auto insurance policy is comprised of six different kinds of coverage. Most states require you to buy some, but not all, of these coverages. If you're financing a car, your lender may also have requirements.

Most auto policies range from six months to one year, New Jersey Skylands issues annual or twelve month policies. Your insurance company should notify you by mail when it's time to renew the policy and to pay your premium.

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What is a basic auto policy?

A basic policy is a low-cost policy that provides minimum benefits. Under a basic policy, the following coverages and limits are required by law.

Personal Injury Protection (PIP)

Personal Injury Protection or PIP is often called "no-fault" coverage because it pays for injuries to a policyholder and their passengers, no matter who is at fault in an accident.

A basic policy offers $15,000 in personal injury protection coverage and includes up to $250,000 of medical benefits for catastrophic-type injuries.

Insurers will pay PIP benefits over the deductible amount chosen. PIP deductibles range from the minimum deductible of $250 and up to $2,5000. After the deductible is paid, there is a 20% co-payment on medical expenses up to $5,000 after which the insurer pays 100%.

Property Damage Liability Coverage (PD)

Property damage liability coverage pays to repair damage to other people's property caused by a covered automobile. This type of coverage also pays legal defense and settlement costs up to the limits of coverage. Under a basic policy, $5,000 of property damage liability coverage is mandated and higher limits CANNOT be purchased.

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What is standard auto policy coverage?

Your auto policy may include six coverages. Each coverage is priced separately.

Auto insurance provides property, liability and medical coverage:

1) Bodily Injury Liability

This coverage applies to injuries you, the designated driver or policyholder cause to someone else. You and family members listed on the policy are also covered when driving someone else's car with their permission.

It's very important to have enough liability insurance, because if you are involved in a serious accident, you may be sued for a large sum of money. Definitely consider buying more than the state-required minimum to protect assets such as your home and savings.

2) Medical Payments or Personal Injury Protection (PIP)

This coverage pays for the treatment of injuries to the driver and passengers of the policyholder's car. At its broadest, PIP can cover medical payments, lost wages and the cost of replacing services normally performed by someone injured in an auto accident. It may also cover funeral costs.

3) Property Damage Liability

This coverage pays for damage you (or someone driving the car with your permission) may cause to someone else's property. Usually, this means damage to someone else's car, but it also includes damage to lamp posts, telephone poles, fences, buildings or other structures your car hit.

4) Collision

This coverage pays for damage to your car resulting from a collision with another car, object or as a result of flipping over. It also covers damage caused by potholes. Collision coverage is generally sold with a deductible of $250 to $1,000-the higher your deductible, the lower your premium. Even if you are at fault for the accident, your collision coverage will reimburse you for the costs of repairing your car, minus the deductible. If you're not at fault, your insurance company may try to recover the amount they paid you from the other driver's insurance company. If they are successful, you'll also be reimbursed for the deductible.

5) Comprehensive

This coverage reimburses you for loss due to theft or damage caused by something other than a collision with another car or object, such as fire, falling objects, missiles, explosion, earthquake, windstorm, hail, flood, vandalism, riot, or contact with animals such as birds or deer.

  • Comprehensive insurance is usually sold with a $100 to $1,000 deductible.
  • Comprehensive insurance will also reimburse you if your windshield is cracked or shattered.
  • States do not require that you purchase collision or comprehensive coverage, but if you have a car loan, your lender may insist you carry it until your loan is paid off.

Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Coverage

This coverage will reimburse you, a member of your family, or a designated driver if one of you is hit by an uninsured or hit-and-run driver.

Underinsured motorist coverage comes into play when an at-fault driver has insufficient insurance to pay for your total loss. This coverage will also protect you if you are hit as a pedestrian.

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Can I drive legally without insurance?

NO! In New Jersey, consumers are required by law to purchase either a standard or basic automobile insurance policy. The standard policy provides a wide variety of coverage options that are not available under the basic policy. State law requires vehicle owners to purchase certain minimum limits of liability and first-party medical coverage as well as carry an Insurance Identification Card.

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What if I lease a car?

If you lease a car, you still need to buy your own auto insurance policy. The auto dealer or bank that is financing the car will require you to buy collision and comprehensive coverage. You'll need to buy these coverages in addition to the others that may be mandatory in your state, such as auto liability insurance.

Collision covers the damage to the car from an accident with another automobile or object.

Comprehensive covers a loss that is caused by something other than a collision with another car or object, such as a fire or theft or collision with a deer.

The leasing company may also require "gap" insurance. This refers to the fact that if you have an accident and your leased car is damaged beyond repair or "totaled," there's likely to be a difference between the amount that you still owe the auto dealer and the check you'll get from your insurance company. That's because the insurance company's check is based on the car's actual cash value which takes into account depreciation. The difference between the two amounts is known as the "gap."

On a leased car, the cost of gap insurance is generally rolled into the lease payments. You don't actually buy a gap policy. Generally, the auto dealer buys a master policy from an insurance company to cover all the cars it leases and charges you for a "gap waiver." This means that if your leased car is totaled, you won't have to pay the dealer the gap amount. Check with the auto dealer when leasing your car.

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Do I need insurance to rent a car?

When renting a car, you need insurance. If you have adequate insurance on your own car, including collision and comprehensive, this may be enough.

Before you rent a car:

  • Contact your insurance Agent. Find out how much coverage you have on your own car. In most cases, the coverage and deductibles you have on your personal auto policy would apply to a rental car, providing it's used for pleasure and not business.
  • Call your credit card company. Find out what insurance your card provides. Levels of coverage vary.

If you don't have auto insurance, you will need to buy coverage at the car rental counter. The following coverages are available to you at the rental car counter:

1. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW).

Sometimes called a Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), this coverage relieves you of financial responsibility if your rental car is damaged or stolen. The CDW may be void, however, if you cause an accident by speeding, driving on unpaved roads or driving while intoxicated. This coverage generally costs between $9 and $12 a day.

2. Liability Insurance.

This provides excess liability coverage of up to $1 million for the time you rent a car. Rental companies are required by law to provide the minimum level of liability insurance required by your state. Generally, this does not offer enough protection in a serious accident. If you have adequate liability coverage on your car or an umbrella policy on your home/auto, you may consider forgoing this additional insurance. It generally costs about $7 to $9 a day. If you don't own a car, and rent cars often, consider purchasing a non-owner liability policy. This costs approximately $200 - $300 per year. Frequent car renters sometimes find this more cost-effective than constantly paying for the extra liability coverage.

3. Personal Accident Insurance.

This provides coverage to you and your passengers for medical/ambulance bills. This type of insurance usually costs about $3 per day, but may be unnecessary if you are covered by health insurance or have adequate medical coverage under your auto policy.

4. Personal Effects Coverage.

This provides coverage for the theft of personal items in your car. However, if you have homeowners or renters insurance, you may be covered for items stolen from the car, minus your deductible. You need to have receipts or other proof of ownership. This type of insurance usually costs about $1.25 per day.

Some rental car companies combine personal accident and personal effects coverage together as one type of insurance, while others sell it individually.

The cost of insurance at the rental car counter will vary depending on the rental car company, state, and location of the dealer and the type of car you rent.

Some rental car companies may check your credit and driving history and may deny coverage. Check with the rental car company to find out its policy.

Note: If you're renting a car abroad, you may need an international driver's license.

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Homeowners

Whether you're a first-time home buyer or planning renovations to your existing home, you need to know your insurance options. We're happy to answer some commonly asked questions about protecting your biggest investment.

Questions

What is homeowners insurance?

Homeowners insurance provides financial protection against disasters. A standard policy insures the home itself and the things you keep in it.

Homeowners insurance also cover your liability or legal responsibility for any injuries and property damage (other than professional or motor vehicle related liability) you or members of your family cause to other people.

Damage caused by most disasters is covered but there are exceptions. The most significant are damage caused by floods, earthquakes and poor maintenance. You must buy two separate policies for flood and earthquake coverage. Maintenance-related problems are the homeowner's responsibility.

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What is in a standard homeowners insurance policy?

A standard homeowners insurance policy includes four essential types of coverage. They include:

  • Coverage for the structure of your home.
  • Coverage for your personal belongings.
  • Liability protection.
  • Additional living expenses in the event you are temporarily unable to live in your home because of a fire or other insured disaster.

Following is an explanation of each of the four elements of a standard homeowners insurance policy:

1. The structure of your house.

This part of your policy pays to repair or rebuild your home if it is damaged or destroyed by fire, hurricane, hail, lightning or any other disaster listed in your policy. It will not pay for damage caused by a flood, earthquake or routine wear and tear. When purchasing coverage for the structure of your home, it is important to buy enough to rebuild your home.

Most standard policies also cover structures that are detached from your home such as a garage, tool shed or gazebo. Generally, these structures are covered for about 10% of the amount of insurance you have on the structure of your home. If you need more coverage, talk to your insurance agent about purchasing more insurance.

2. Your personal belongings.

Your furniture, clothes, sports equipment and other personal items are covered if they are stolen or destroyed by fire, hurricane or other insured disaster. Most companies provide coverage for 50% to 70% of the amount of insurance you have on the structure of your home. So, if you have $100,000 worth of insurance on the structure of your home, you would have between $50,000 to $70,000 worth of coverage for your belongings. The best way to determine if this is enough coverage is to conduct a home inventory.

Expensive items like jewelry, furs and silverware are covered, but there are usually dollar limits if they are stolen. Generally, you are covered for between $1,000 to $2,000 for all of your jewelry and furs. To insure these items to their full value, purchase a special personal property endorsement or floater and insure the item for its appraised value.

3. Liability protection.

This covers you against lawsuits for bodily injury or property damage (other than professional or motor vehicle related liability) that you or family members cause to other people. It also pays for damage caused by your pets. So, if your son, daughter or dog accidentally ruins your neighbor's expensive rug, you are covered. However, if they destroy your rug, you are not covered.

The liability portion of your policy pays for both the cost of defending you in court and any court awards - up to the limit of your policy. You are also covered not just in your home, but anywhere in the world.

Liability limits generally start at about $100,000. However, experts recommend that you purchase at least $300,000 worth of protection. Some people feel more comfortable with even more coverage. You can purchase an umbrella or excess liability policy which provides broader coverage, including claims against you for libel and slander, as well as higher liability limits. Generally, umbrella policies cost between $200 to $350 for $1 million of additional liability protection.

Your policy also provides no-fault medical coverage. In the event a friend or neighbor is injured in your home, he or she can simply submit medical bills to your insurance company. This way, expenses are paid without their filing a liability claim against you. You can generally get $1,000 to $5,000 worth of this coverage. It does not, however, pay the medical bills for your family or your pet.

4. Additional living expenses

This pays the additional costs of living away from home if you can't live there due to damage from a fire, storm or other insured disaster. It covers hotel bills, restaurant meals and other living expenses incurred while your home is being rebuilt. Coverage for additional living expenses differs from company to company. Many policies provide coverage for about 20% of the insurance on your house. You can increase this coverage, however, for an additional premium. Some companies sell a policy that provides an unlimited amount of loss-of-use coverage - for a limited amount of time.

If you rent out part of your house, this coverage also reimburses you for the rent that you would have collected from your tenant if your home had not been destroyed.

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Are there different types of policies?

Yes. A person who owns his or her home would have a different policy from someone who rents. Policies also differ on the amount of insurance coverage provided. Check with individual insurance companies to determine what policy is appropriate for you.

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Can I own a home without homeowners insurance?

Unlike driving a car, you can legally own a home without homeowners insurance. But, if you have bought your home and financed the purchase with a mortgage, your lender will most likely require you to get homeowners insurance coverage. That's because lenders need to protect their investment in your home in case your house burns down or is badly damaged by a storm, tornado or other disaster. If you live in an area likely to flood, the bank will also require you to purchase flood insurance. Some financial institutions may also require earthquake coverage if you live in a region vulnerable to earthquakes. If you buy a co-op or condominium, your board will probably require you to buy homeowners insurance.

After your mortgage is paid off, no one will force you to buy homeowners insurance. But it doesn't make sense to cancel your policy and risk losing what you've invested in your home.

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Can I get homeowners insurance if I rent my apartment?

Yes, renters insurance is available and, in most cases, the premium is relatively inexpensive. This is because, unlike a homeowners policy, renters insurance covers only the value of your belongings, not the physical building. While your landlord may be sympathetic to the burglary you experienced or the fire caused by your iron, destruction or loss of your possessions is not usually covered by your landlord's insurance.

By purchasing renters insurance, your possessions are covered against losses from fire or smoke, lightning, vandalism, theft, explosion, windstorm and water damage (not including floods). Like homeowners insurance, renters insurance also covers your responsibility to other people injured at your home or elsewhere by you, a family member or your pet and pays legal defense costs if you are taken to court.

Renters insurance covers your additional living expenses if you are unable to live in your apartment because of a fire or other covered peril. Most policies will reimburse you the difference between your additional living expenses and your normal living expenses but still may set limits as to the amount they will pay.

There are two types of renters insurance policies you may purchase:

  • Actual Cash Value - pays to replace your home or possessions minus a deduction for depreciation up to the limit of your policy
  • Replacement Cost - pays the actual cost of replacing your home or possessions (no deduction for depreciation) up to the limit of your policy

With either policy, you may want to consider purchasing a floater. A standard renters policy offers only limited coverage for items such as jewelry, silver, furs, etc. If you own property that exceeds these limits, it is recommended that you supplement your policy with a floater. A floater is a separate policy that provides additional insurance for your valuables and covers them for perils not included in your policy such as accidental loss.

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How do I take a home inventory and why?

Would you be able to remember all the possessions you've accumulated over the years if they were destroyed by a fire? Having an up-to-date home inventory will help you get your insurance claim settled faster, verify losses for your income tax return and help you purchase the correct amount of insurance.

Start by making a list of your possessions, describing each item and noting where you bought it and its make and model. Clip to your list any sales receipts, purchase contracts, and appraisals you have. For clothing, count the items you own by category - pants, coats, shoes, for example - making notes about those that are especially valuable. For major appliances and electronic equipment, record their serial numbers usually found on the back or bottom.

  • Don't be put off!
    If you are just setting up a household, starting an inventory list can be relatively simple. If you've been living in the same house for many years, however, the task of creating a list can be daunting. Still, it's better to have an incomplete inventory than nothing at all. Start with recent purchases and then try to remember what you can about older possessions./li>
  • Big-ticket items
    Valuable items like jewelry, artwork and collectibles may have increased in value since you received them. Check with your agent to make sure that you have adequate insurance for these items. They may need to be insured separately.
  • Take a picture
    Besides the list, you can take pictures of rooms and important individual items. On the back of the photos, note what is shown and where you bought it or the make. Don't forget things that are in closets or drawers.
  • Videotape it
    Walk through your house or apartment videotaping and describing the contents. Or do the same thing using a tape recorder.
  • Use a personal computer
    Use your PC to make your inventory list. Personal finance software packages often include a homeowners room-by-room inventory program.
  • Storing the list, photos and tapes
    Regardless of how you do it (written list, floppy disk, photos, videotape or audio tape), keep your inventory along with receipts in your safe deposit box or at a friend's or relative's home. That way you'll be sure to have something to give your insurance representative if your home is damaged. When you make a significant purchase, add the information to your inventory while the details are fresh in your mind.

Download free home inventory software from the Insurance Information Institute

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