Low-cost, low-need insurance

Special Offer! For only $2.95 a month ($35.39 a year) Sunshine Sure will GUARANTEE that the sun will come up every day from now on. Even on cloudy days, Sunshine Sure will make sure the sun is up there somewhere. Act Now! MasterCard and Visa accepted! Don't Delay! Sunshine Sure hasn't opened for business yet, but the way things are going, it won't be long. Someone will find a way to get the public to pay for something it already gets for free, or something that's needed so rarely most people shouldn't be paying an ``insurance'' premium for it. The list of businesses offering these gurantees includes rental car companies, credit bureaus, real estate agents, and appliance manufacturers.

The latest of them came in the mail a few days ago from our local phone company. For $1.95 a month, the company will provide ``worry-free'' service if there's a problem with any of your telephones or the phone lines in your house.

The need for this, the phone company says, grows out a Federal Communications Commission ruling that makes the user responsible for the maintenance of phone equipment inside the home, although outside lines are still maintained by the phone company. Since the basic charge for any service call - around here, at least - is $55 an hour, the $1.95 a month ``protection'' seems cheap indeed. Then again, maybe not.

Deregulation of the telephone business also means many people are turning in their leased phones and buying phones instead. These phones would not be covered by the program. If you do lease your phone, and it breaks, you can take it to a telephone company office and have it replaced or repaired.

That leaves the phone lines in your house. Whether you think these are apt to need repair any time soon probably depends on the age of your house and the lines, but for most people, this kind of repair is fairly rare. It probably makes more sense simply to add the money to your savings in case of a future breakdown.

Similar logic can explain why many people don't sign up for appliance repair programs. If you buy quality appliances in the first place, they shouldn't need to be fixed very often, and if you saved all the money spent on ``warranty extensions'' for all your appliances and electronic gear, you could probably meet any repair bills. In most cases, these programs do little more than add to the profits of the appliance company or retailer.

Another ``insurance program'' has also been around a while, but some recent changes in the rules make it worth another look. For years, people who rented cars have been asked if they wanted to sign up for the collision damage waiver. This usually cost $5 to $10 a day and covered the customer's maximum liability, about $3,000.

Now, many rental companies are making the customer responsible for all damage to the car, which can run up to $20,000 or more. If you don't take the waiver, you better make sure your own insurance company will pay for any damage. Before renting a car, call your insurance company and make sure your policy covers rentals. Be clear that you're not talking about a loaner while your own car is in for repair. If your policy has a deductible for your car, ask if the same thing applies to the rental. Also, there are some state exemptions that could leave you uncovered if you don't take the waiver, so ask your agent about this, too.

Many people pay for the car rental with a credit card, which leads to another program you don't need to pay for. A few months ago, TRW Inc., which owns one of the largest credit reporting companies, introduced TRW Credentials. For $35 a year, customers can find out at any time what's in their credit report, and will be told if anyone has made a request to see their file.

The fact is, if you're turned down for credit, you get to see this information for no charge, and if you're just curious, you can see the report for $5 to $15. Very few people want to see their credit report often enough to spend $35 a year on it. Anyway, TRW is only one of many credit reporting agencies, so membership in Credentials won't provide a very complete picture.

Your $35 provides an extra bonus - for TRW. When you join Credentials, you hand over information about your income, age, family size, place of work, and savings. This is valuable information to market researchers and direct mail organizations, who pay TRW handsomely for it. People who reckon they're on enough mailing lists have another reason to skip this offer.

Another offer requiring very close scrutiny was brought to our attention recently. For several years, ERA Real Estate has been running advertisements assuring home sellers that ``If we don't sell your house, we'll buy it.*''

In case you didn't notice, there's an asterisk there. In the print ads, the asterisk leads to the bottom of the page, where among other tings, very tiny type tells you the ``purchase price will be determined solely by ERA.'' In some cases, real estate experts we talked to said that purchase price can be as little as 60 percent of the original asking price. In a decent housing market, if a home is priced properly in the first place, it should sell for no less than 85 to 90 percent of asking price.

``ERA buys these houses at such a discount, they can afford to sell them below market value or hold onto them until the market turns around,'' an executive at one mortgage company said. While a few local real estate companies have programs like this, no other major firms have bothered, the executive noted.

``We feel it isn't in the best interest of the seller for us to be buying their home,'' a spokesman at another real estate firm pointed out. ``It's our job to make sure the house is priced and marketed properly.''

An ERA spokeswoman would not say how close the company's offer comes to the asking price, but she did note that it is made after two appraisals and the customer is free to refuse the offer, even if the house had been listed with ERA until then. She also said the offer isn't made until the house has been on the market for seven months.

The ERA program, like many of the other guarantees discussed here, may be right for some people. If you're more comfortable paying a little extra to eliminate as many worries as possible, some of these programs may be fine. Before signing up for any of them, however, think through all of your options and decide how many of the little things in your life you want to pay someone else to guarantee.

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