A Rutgers University law professor is recommending New Jersey lawmakers improve protections for homeowners who buy insurance policies for their dwellings.

Jay Feinman, a Rutgers law professor and co-director of the Rutgers Center for Risk and Responsibility, has authored a new report, ranking insurance protections state-by-state: "Use It and Lose It."

“Use-it-and=lose it is the insurance claim that if you file a claim, the insurance company might raise your premiums or not renew your policy altogether,” he said.

The professor said it "happens pretty widely, and what we’re focused on is the extent to which the state Legislature protects consumers against that sort of practice."

He said in some states, simply asking about coverage may result in a penalty — but fortunately, that’s not the case in New Jersey .

“If you call up your insurance company and say, 'A tree limb fell on my house. There’s damage. Would I be covered for that?' — then you’re protected against them raising your premium and not renewing you there,” he said.

Feinman said your insurance company can’t drop you for a weather-related claim, but the state legislature should pass a law to protect you from “having your insurance dropped if have a claim that’s not related to weather — if you have a pipe burst in your house, and causes some flooding.”

He said if a problem is not weather-related, an insurance company can raise premiums or even decline to renew a policy altogether.

Insurance companies report all problems and claims to national databases, and every insurance company has access to that information, “so if you are not renewed it could be harder to find coverage at the same rate. Sometimes it could be harder to find coverage at all," he said.

The bottom line, the professor said, is New Jersey lawmakers need to look at expanding protections.

“Right right now a lot of homeowners know this happens, or they suspect it might happen, and they’re discouraged from filing claims at all, which of course is the reason they bought their homeowners insurance in the first place," he said. "If you really need to file a claim you shouldn’t be punished for doing it."

Feinman said consumers should keep a couple of things in mind to protect themselves.

• “First, pick a high deductable on your insurance policy. Your homeowners insurance is not for small claims. It’s for very large losses. And second, if you have a small claim, maybe you should suck it up and pay for that yourself, rather than running into this trap," Feinman said.

• If you file a claim “and you have your premium increased or you have your coverage dropped because of a claim, contact the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance. See if they can help you out,” Feinman said.

He stressed for policies to change, “it depends on consumers talking to their legislators, talking to the governor, talking to others, but the Department of Banking and Insurance is willing to help consumers out, that’s a good first recourse if people have individual problems.”

Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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