Sundermann learned the hard way: Over three years, a customer with a stellar record filed four small, legitimate claims totaling less than $5,000 and was dropped by his insurance company. When Sundermann pleaded his customer's case, he was reminded that it was the frequency of his customer's losses, not the severity, that made all the difference. The lesson? Filing one big claim may well land you in less trouble than four small ones -- all the more reason to get a large deductible and pay for the smaller claims out of your own pocket.

6. 'You're paying too much for your policy'

When it comes to your home, the last thing you want is to be underinsured. But could you actually be overinsured? It happens a lot, regulators contend. And when it does, it's often the mortgage lender's fault. For instance, a bank may require that your insurance cover almost the entire value of your home, including the land -- which doesn't make a lot of sense, because land doesn't burn down -- when what you really want to cover is just the house.

If you're like most homeowners, your policy's rate gets raised every so often to account for inflation. But read the numbers carefully: Your rates may be quite a bit higher than the actual inflated value of your home. Insurers also inspect homes every so often to check on any additions. But that doesn't mean they get the last word -- Jim Davis' insurer jacked his premium way up after inspecting his house. But by challenging the inspector, Davis brought down the home's valuation by several thousand dollars.

"They were factoring in an uncovered porch area," scoffs the retired Texas insurance official. "That's an open space, not an area that would need replacing."

If you think your rates are higher than they should be, ask your insurance agent to come out and assess the home and try to come up with a more reasonable number, the consumer federation's Hunter says. Also, if you know the square footage of the house, speak with a builder and ask what it would cost to rebuild a home like yours -- that's the amount that should be used to determine your insurance premiums.

7. 'You're probably covered for a lot less than you think'

Rick and Anne Morrissey were sitting in the living room of their Indian Hills, Colo., home one day when they heard a tremendous crash in the backyard. Rushing outside, Anne was shocked to see that two giant elk had come through and demolished their children's swing set. They were even more shocked when their Allstate adjuster called and told them that damage by animals isn't covered by most insurance.

That's only one of the many surprises you might discover in the fine print on your policy.

That's also why, after Hurricane Katrina, even homeowners with flood insurance found that the personal belongings they'd lost in the storm weren't covered. Thomas Martin, the founder of national advocacy group America's Watchdog, lost $300,000 in possessions when a nearby levee broke and everything on the first floor of his home -- including jewelry, computers and flat-screen TVs -- was destroyed by "a toxic soup of sewage and oils." Had he known to take out the Federal Emergency Management Agency's supplemental-contents coverage in addition to his flood policy, Martin says, some of his destroyed valuables would have been covered.

Among the most commonly misunderstood parts of any policy are the ways it handles missing objects, says David Thompson, an independent agent in Vero Beach, Fla. If you drop a piece of jewelry down the drain, for example, it's generally not covered, but if you leave it by the sink in a public place and it's not there when you return, most policies will treat the loss as a theft and reimburse you for the loss.

8. 'We like some of our agents -- and their customers -- better than others'

Insurance companies will tell you that any authorized agent is a good agent. But, in truth, they play favorites, giving preferential treatment to those who generate the most business, have customers with the fewest claims, or both. And they offer them elite status: State Farm, for instance, includes its preferred agents in the President's Club.

Why should you care? Because buying through one of these favored agents can pay big dividends to consumers. The chosen few tend to have increased flexibility on pricing and, more importantly, greater leeway on underwriting guidelines. For instance, American International Group used to insure boats that traveled only 50 mph or less. But when Baton Rouge, La., star agent Michael Grace took on a client with a speedboat, he persuaded his company to underwrite it.

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The special treatment applies to claims as well. Says Sean Mooney, the chief economist at Guy Carpenter & Co., which advises insurance companies about risk: "When a claims situation comes up, (a preferred agent means) you have a friend in your court."

Other advantages preferred agents enjoy: They may have an easier time retaining someone who has had claims and would otherwise be canceled, and they can often get their clients moved from a company's standard carrier to its preferred one.

9. 'We're biased against older homes'

You have your eyes set on a beautiful period home built in the 1940s, with original slate roofs and fluted ceilings that look like they're right out of Architectural Digest. It sounds lovely; now try getting insurance. Insurers are increasingly clamping down on "mature" homes, even when they're only 30 or 40 years old.

"In Texas, a 1953 house is considered ancient," says Yvonne Darrah, who called at least 10 insurance companies before she could find one that would insure her 32-year-old Austin, Texas, home at a reasonable rate. "We were desperate," she says.

Even if you do get insurance for your older home, you may not get the best kind. Some companies won't sell "guaranteed replacement cost" policies -- coverage that will pay whatever it takes to restore your home exactly as it was -- in neighborhoods where property values are declining or where the property is old. You could end up with coverage that's limited to only a few risks. Or you might be offered "cash value" coverage -- these policies will cover only the cost of replacing what's damaged, minus depreciation.

"If you had a kitchen that was built 20 years ago and it's destroyed, the cash value is no help," says Mary Griffin, former insurance counsel at Consumers Union.

10. 'You need to check up on us -- and it's easy'

Insurers may not be the most forthcoming companies in the world, but, thankfully, you can find out a lot about them. You can find ratings reports from agencies such as A.M. Best, Moody's and Standard & Poor's at your local library or online.

You might be surprised at what you can get from your state's insurance department as well. Texas and Missouri, for example, have websites with information on the latest rates in different areas and tips on how to file a complaint. If nothing else, a phone call to the state will let you know what other consumers think of your insurance company.

"We can't recommend agents or companies, but we can certainly tell you the number of complaints filed this year," says a spokesperson for the Nevada Division of Insurance.

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