All the essentials about insurance

There are dozens of different types of insurance, from insurance that you have to take out by law (such as car insurance), to policies that it's a good idea to have (such as contents insurance) to those that are 'nice to have' rather than necessities.
Figures from the Association of British Insurers show that, during the recession, one in four people cancelled their home insurance. While it's a good idea to make sure you're not paying for insurance you don't need, you should always think about what would happen if disaster were to strike before cancelling any insurance policies.

How does insurance work?

When you take out an insurance policy, you pay a premium to the insurance company. If you never make a claim, you never get any of the money back; instead it's pooled with the premiums of others who have taken out insurance with a particular firm.
That may not sound like a good deal, but the idea behind insurance is that everyone pays into a pot of money, knowing that only some of them will ever need to make a claim. If you have to make a claim (perhaps because your washing machine has flooded your kitchen and damaged your floor), the money comes from the pool of your and other policyholders' premiums.

How are premiums calculated?

Insurers are professional risk takers, which means they know the probability of different types of risk happening so they can calculate the premiums needed to create a fund large enough to cover likely loss payments.
Clearly, only a proportion of policyholders will make a claim in any one period. So, an insurer will take two important factors into account when calculating the premium it will charge. Firstly, how likely it is in general terms that someone will need to claim and secondly, whether the person who wants to take out the policy is a bigger or smaller risk than the 'average' policyholder.
Take three examples. In motor insurance, a young person with ahigh-powered car, or a driver with a long history of accidents will pay a higher premium than a mature and experienced driver with a car with a smaller engine who has not had an accident before.
Similarly, the owner of a fish and chip shop will pay a higher premium for his or her fire insurance than, say, the owner of an office. The risk is greater, so the premium is higher.
Someone who is young, fit and in a risk-free job will find it easier to buy life insurance and will pay lower premiums than someone who has a heart condition or is in a risky occupation.
The level of premium is also affected by the insurance company's desire to target a particular section of the market. So, if an insurer wants to encourage younger drivers to buy insurance from it, it may decide to undercut the premiums charged by some of its rivals.

Two kinds of insurance

There are two different kinds of insurance - life insurance and general insurance.
General insurance pays out:
  • If a car has an accident or is stolen
  • If a house catches fire or is burgled
  • If a holiday has to be cancelled
Most life policies, on the other hand, pay out when an event happens, such as when someone dies.
Anyone can buy life insurance but, the amount you pay in premiums will depend on your age, your health, and the type of work you do. The younger and healthier you are, the cheaper the premiums for life insurance. But if you work in a risky job, you'll normally have to pay more for life insurance.
Most types of insurance are annual policies. That means that the amount you pay can change every year and, if you've made a claim in the previous year or your circumstances have changed, it could affect your premiums.
However, some types of insurance, such as life insurance and insurance that pays part of your income if you cannot work because you're seriously ill, are long-term contracts. That means you don't get renewed quotes every year as the premium is set when you first sign up.
If you have a joint mortgage with your husband, wife or partner, you can take out life insurance that will pay out if they die before the mortgage is paid off. However, you can't take out insurance on someone unless you'd be financially worse off if they died.

What is the excess?

With many general insurance policies, you have to pay the first part of any claim - called the excess - if something goes wrong. The level of the excess can vary widely. For a travel insurance policy, it may be £25 - £50 while for a car insurance policy it could be £100 or more.
Sometimes insurers will impose a large excess if you've already claimed for something and you're likely to do so again, such as for flood damage or subsidence(which is when a building develops cracks because the foundations have moved).

General principles

Other principles apply to all kinds of insurance:
  • Insurance can provide compensation only for the actual value of property. It cannot cover the loss of sentimental value, for example.
  • There must be a large number of similar risks so that the likelihood of a claim can be spread among other policyholders. It must be possible for insurers to calculate the chance of loss so that a premium can be set which matches the risk.
  • Losses must not be deliberate and not inevitable. Clearly, you could not buy fire insurance for a house which was already burning nor life insurance for someone on his or her deathbed.
  • Lastly, there are some risks which have financial implications so vast that they can be dealt with only by the state. These risks (mainly those arising from war or the major escape of nuclear or radioactive material) are normally not insurable.