Reviewed by Stefan Tirschler
Updated September 12, 2022
pre·mi·um | ˈprē-mē-əm
Definition: The payment made to an insurance company in exchange for insurance coverage.
Tiffany was pleased to learn that her premium would be decreasing next year.
The payment a customer makes to an insurance company in exchange for their insurance policy is called the premium.
Premium is just another way of saying “payment.”
Insurance companies normally collect premiums in advance. When a customer buys a new insurance policy, they pay their premiums in exchange for the coverage they’re receiving during the term of the policy. Most commonly, insurance contracts are annual: the customer pays one year’s worth of premiums at the beginning of the year, and the insurer agrees to provide coverage for that length of time.
Some home insurance providers (including Square One) offer other payment options, like monthly installments.
Even though customers pay their insurance premiums in advance, the premiums have to be earned before the insurance company can count them as actual revenue. Premiums are earned over the life of the insurance policy for which they’ve been paid.
For example, let’s say you buy a new home insurance policy that lasts one year, and you pay your $1,000 annual premium up-front. On the day you buy it, the insurance company hasn’t earned any of that $1,000, because no time has passed since they started insuring your home.
After six months has passed, the insurance company has now earned half of that premium: $500. They’ve covered your house for half of the agreed-upon time period. Even if you’ve made no claims during that time, the insurance company has still earned the premium, since they would have responded to a covered claim during that time, if there was one.
At the end of the year, the insurance company has earned the entire $1,000 premium, and the policy term is over. The insurance company will inform you what your premium will be if you wish to continue insurance coverage for another year, and then the cycle starts over.
Earned premiums are important if you need to cancel your policy in the middle of the term. The insurance company will refund the unearned portion of your up-front premium payment. If you cancel your policy halfway through the policy term, you’ll get a refund of about half of your premiums.
Most insurers have what’s called a minimum earned premium, or similar. The minimum earned premium is the amount of premium the insurance company earns as soon as they issue a new policy. So, using the earlier example: if you bought your $1,000 policy and cancelled it on the same day, the insurance company would subtract the minimum earned premium before refunding you the rest of your $1,000.
The minimum earned premium reflects the insurance company’s costs to issue the policy. Even if the customer cancels a policy the same day they buy it, the company still has administrative costs to cover. Agents or underwriters may have spent time working on the policy, plus the general overhead costs like office lease payments or electricity bills.
Minimum earned premiums may be a flat rate for all customers, or a percentage of the premium, depending on the insurer. Many home insurance providers will use a sliding-scale cancellation surcharge known as short rate cancellation instead of a flat minimum retained premium. In any case, the terms will be laid out clearly before you agree to buy a new policy.
In Square One’s case, we use the term Minimum Retained Premium instead. The first $50 of premiums are non-refundable. After that, there’s no fee or other penalty for cancelling.
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Home insurance providers collect premiums in exchange for accepting the risk of protecting a home. All their customers’ premiums get pooled together, and the insurance company pays claims out of this pool.
The first step in calculating premiums is predicting how large a pool the company will need. Insurance companies employ actuaries to make these calculations. Actuaries analyze mountains of data to figure out how much the insurance company should expect to pay for claims over the course of the next year (or several years).
Based on that information, the insurance company knows how much premium they need to collect in total to ensure that they’ll have enough cash to cover their customers’ losses – also known as the loss ratio.
Of course, not every insurance customer pays the same premiums. Individual premiums are calculated based on the relative risk of insuring a home: customers who are very likely to draw from the claim settlement pool pay higher premiums than customers who are not likely to make any claims.
Basically: more risk for the insurance company equals higher premiums.
In deciding how much to charge each customer, insurers evaluate dozens or even hundreds of factors. Many of those factors are outside the control of the individual customer, which is part of why many people feel frustrated by seemingly random insurance premiums.
Every insurer has their own approach, but when it comes to home insurance, there are certain things that every home insurance company looks at when determining premiums:
Location of the home. There are actually many factors rolled into one here, but the physical location of an insured home is a very important premium rating factor. For example, a home located on a floodplain is (obviously) at risk of being damaged by a flood, so insurers would charge higher premiums to insure it.
Home’s proximity to fire protection. Fire is one of the most destructive risks a home faces, so being close to fire hydrants and fire halls helps lower premiums. This is not typically an issue for homes in cities, but rural homes may be many kilometres from fire protection.
Replacement cost of property. Since the insurance company is agreeing to cover the cost of rebuilding or replacing insured property (homes, furniture, or anything else) they will charge higher premiums for more expensive property. This is part of why tenant’s insurance tends to be less expensive than homeowner’s insurance: tenants don’t need to insure the replacement value of their home, since they don’t own it.
Age and type of in-home systems. Plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems can all be factors in determining home insurance premiums. Old wood stoves present a fire risk, especially if they haven’t been maintained properly. Outdated electrical systems, like knob and tube wiring, increase the home’s risk of fire as well. Homes with well-maintained, modern systems may see lower premiums than homes with aging systems.
Occupancy. Insurers usually charge lower premiums to owner-occupied primary homes. Vacation homes have a higher risk because they’re often empty, with no one present to respond to issues. Rental homes are riskier because the owner can’t control who is coming and going from the property.
Age and construction of home. Old homes are at greater risk of suffering damage than new homes, so they’re often more expensive to insure. The style of construction is a factor, too; a solid concrete building may be more expensive to build or repair than a wood frame structure.
Liability factors. Since home insurance includes liability coverage, insurers will charge higher premiums for homes that are at greater risk of having liability claims. For example, a house with a tall balcony that has no railing would be at risk of having a guest fall and seriously injure themselves, so the insurance company would charge a higher premium (or more likely, ask that the homeowner install a railing).
There are many other factors that home insurers may consider, which is why you’ll often receive wildly different quotes on home insurance from different providers. Everyone has their own secret sauce, so to speak, when it comes to calculating premiums.
In the end they’re all trying to accomplish the same thing: insure as many properties as they can while collecting enough premiums to cover all their customers’ claims (without going bankrupt).
Looking for another insurance definition? Look it up in The Insurance Glossary, home to dozens of easy-to-follow definitions for the most common insurance terms. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.
About the expert: Stefan Tirschler
Stefan is responsible for underwriting leadership, market expansion, and product research and development for Square One's operations. Stefan has earned his Fellow Chartered Insurance Professional designation, and maintains a level 2 general insurance license in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Stefan is also an Education Committee member and CIP/GIE instructor for the Insurance Institute of Canada.
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