10 things that can raise or lower your homeowners insurance (© Diane Macdonald/Getty Images)Click to enlarge picture

© Diane Macdonald/Getty Images

Admittedly, insurance doesn't top the list of considerations in the hunt for a new home. It's not as if buyers spend hours ogling nifty premiums on the home and garden channels.

But just keep in mind that perky woman from the insurance commercial and the mantra she chimes: "Isn't getting discounts great?!  … Yes!"

Bone up on the insurance breaks now — when choosing a home — and it could mean thousands of dollars pocketed every year for use on the fun projects down the road. Often, things about the home itself can affect your insurance rates — factors that are costly, if not impossible, to change later. (Bing: Find an independent insurance agent)

Below, experts outline 10 factors that make the biggest impact. Study up on these, discuss the details with your insurance agent and keep them in mind when you're evaluating homes to buy.

1. Is the area susceptible to hurricanes, mudslides, wildfires or other natural disasters?
Natural disasters have become so costly that many large insurers now refuse to provide homeowners with coverage in certain high-risk areas. Buy within a half-mile of brush in wildfire-prone California, for example, and you may be forced to shop smaller, high-risk insurers, which might charge three times more, independent agents say.

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The same might go for coastal areas or steep slopes. Buy in, and it could mean an extra $3,000 or more in premiums every year — for as long as you're there. The average cost of a homeowners insurance policy is projected to be close to $900 for this year, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

"It can be a big, big problem if you get in a situation where none of the big companies want to insure you," says Tim Gaspar, owner of Gaspar Insurance Services, an independent agency outside Los Angeles. "You have to go to a high-risk company, and they can charge whatever they want to charge you."

Tilmon Brown, a developer who remodeled an old brick firehouse in Mobile, Ala., for his own family, learned after years in the house that his insurance company had canceled wind coverage because of high costs of hurricane repairs.

Never mind that his solid structure has withstood hurricanes or that he couldn't find an insurer offering the coverage. The state finally set up a wind pool, for which he pays $2,100 a year on top of his $700 homeowners coverage — a total more than quadruple his previous annual bill.

Brown says he'd opt out of the insurance, which has a $50,000 deductible, but his lender requires it. Some buyers in high-risk zones where state pools aren't available have been unable to close on home sales.

If the home is susceptible to floods or earthquakes, you'll need a separate policy no matter where you live.

2. How's the roof? New? Wind- and hail-resistant?
If the roof — or the plumbing, for that matter — has not been updated in 25 years, you could also have difficulty getting into anything but a high-risk, expensive insurance group, Gaspar says.

"Unfortunately, you'd be limited with what insurance companies are willing to deal with it," he says. "It's not even a price issue."

If the roof is new and it's constructed of impact-resistant material, you could qualify for a discount if it's an area subject to hail or high winds. The amount of the discount varies but could be as high as 20%, says Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm, the largest provider of homeowners insurance in the country.

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The same principle applies to construction under the roof. Masonry, for example, is more likely to withstand nature's forces and so is considered less risky, eligible for perhaps another 10% discount, Luedke says.

3. Is the plumbing new?
Ditto on the plumbing. If the system is a quarter-century old or has had unresolved problems in the past, insurance providers will be wary.

"Companies are scared to death of water claims because they can lead to mold, and mold is very expensive to remediate," says Bill Wilson, vice president of education and research for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, a trade group.

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If the home inspector reports leaky pipes, it might be wise to request additional information, or even upgrades, prior to purchase.

4. Does the electrical system meet current code?
Unlike the plumbing and the roof, the electrical system doesn't need to be replaced to qualify for a good insurance rating, agents say. But it does need to have been updated within the past 25 years to meet current codes. That means circuit breakers; no old-fashioned fuses.

5. How far away is the fire department?
If the home is more than five miles from a fire station, your rates will likely start rising, says Dawn Roberts, general manager of LeDoux Insurance Agency in Eugene, Ore. They might jump by 20% to 240%, depending on the home's distance from a station or hydrants.

State Farm doesn't measure the distance; it looks at whether homeowners in the area have submitted claims for fire losses.

"If there are a lot more State Farm fire claims in a given year in a given area, then the risk is greater," Luedke says. "We believe it's more accurate that way. If you rate how close you are to a fire department, you're not taking into account the proficiency of the fire department."

So how do you get access to the claims history of an area? Well, it's not likely that a private company in such a competitive industry is going to turn those data over for public consumption. But buyers can ask insurance agents to draw up estimates based on different variables and from different companies.

Perhaps the neighbors submitted recent claims, driving State Farm's rate higher, but a nearby fire station pulls down the rate with another company.

"Homeowners insurance has always been very competitive, so the tried-and-true way to save money is to shop around," says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute.