Finding the right insurer for your bike can be an ordeal. Chris Wheal describes his long road to finding the right quote.

My mid-life crisis arrived last year in the shape of a 750cc big trail motorbike (a Honda Africa Twin). I had plans for Ewan McGregor Long Way Round-style European tours and taking the bike off-road, as well as using it to ferry me from my London home to and from the various training courses I run from Manchester to the south coast.

Despite having owned and insured a bike for at least 12 of the past 20 or so years, I had not owned a bike for five years, instead hiring them as needed. That meant no no-claims bonus.

But brokers were able to offer a good deal if I could keep the bike in a locked building. However, the owner of the empty garage opposite was away for several months so I couldn't get access. I ended up keeping it on the path in front of my house and opting for Honda's own broker (run in the background by Rugby-based CIA Insurance Services) with a policy through Highway.

When I did eventually get access to the garage, Highway did not offer a discount because it was a metal structure, not brick-built. But explaining that to Honda on the phone and by email didn't stop the broker sending me a reminder to sign the garage declaration every week or so for several months.

It took a stroppy letter to the MD to put a halt to the tirade of reminders, but I received no apology.

Come renewal, the last thing I was going to do was stay with Honda after such poor customer service. So, I spent three days trawling internet sites and calling specialist motorbike brokers for third party, fire and theft quotes.

I learned some strange lessons. First was that it didn't matter what job I put down. Not one quote was affected if I changed from 'journalist' to 'trainer', 'training adviser' or 'training consultant'. As I wanted cover for using the bike to get to and from training courses, it seemed most honest to explain this. I didn't want a claim on the way to or from a training course and the insurer to try to void the policy by saying: 'We didn't know you ran training courses, we thought you were a journalist.'

Only was unable to quote me as a journalist. When I called, they ran through a number of options and asked about what I actually did. When I said I was managing director of my own

company they leapt with joy and put me down as a company director.

Again, I queried that I didn't want a possible future claim refused for making a misleading claim, but they promised to put the details of my company's business in the notes. They then produced a quote from Norwich Union (NU).

I also discovered that it made no difference to any quote if I declared my SP30 speeding fine (in a car) from 2003, nor if I mentioned my car accident from 2004 that the court decided was my fault. And it's not always obvious if I should have mentioned this accident.

Having never had a motorbike accident or claim, when websites asked about accidents or claims, my reaction was to say 'none'. Some made clear that the question included claims in any vehicle but, for example, did not.

The explanation at was even less helpful. The info box says: "A 'loss' usually refers to theft or fire. A 'claim' usually refers to claims connected with accidents. It is very important that you tell us about all facts that could affect this insurance. If in doubt, disclose the information, as failure to do so can lead to your insurance being cancelled or declared invalid from inception, an increase in premium, a claim being rejected or you being prosecuted."

That would lead me to assume that it is asking about only motorbike claims.

There were other anomalies. Bennetts' website, which does explain that it wants details of car accidents and claims too, asks for the full amount paid out. This required digging through letters from my broker for the exact figure. When I entered the full amount, the site rejected it, demanding: 'The figure must be numeric'. After trial and error, I discovered it would only accept whole pounds after I deleted the 40p from the total and put in the rounded number.

But my favourite was, which asked: 'Was the accident your fault or 50/50?' and left you with a choice of 'yes' or 'no'. Was that 'no' it wasn't my fault and 'yes' it was 50/50 or 'yes' it was my fault and 'no' it was 50/50?

The Financial Services Ombudsman takes a dim view of this lack of clarity. "If it is not clear, generally our view is that the insurer cannot rely on consumers' misunderstanding of the ambiguity to get out of paying," says an ombudsman spokesman. "We do also look to see if it would have changed the underwriter's view of the risk at the time."

On both counts, insurers and brokers would have found a consumer's complaint upheld. A disproportionately high 15% of motor cases coming in front of the ombudsman are from motorcyclists.

One of the biggest areas of claims to reach the ombudsman concerns garages and whether or not the garage in question meets the conditions of the insurance.

Garage descriptions do not normally appear in any policy documents. This too was a major concern for me. What is and what is not a garage?

Specialist web-based insurer Ebike has the answer in its Frequently Asked Questions section. It says: "Generally a garage is classed as a locked brick built or concrete building with a roof. Sheds can be accepted on occasion by emailing us. Please note that a wooden garden shed would not be acceptable."

My email about a metal building with a concrete floor went unanswered and my phone call was referred to an underwriter who would call me back - the call never came. The difference in price between garaged and ungaraged was nearly £30 or 17%.

Bennetts' reply was: "We are currently unable to process any email requests". On the phone the broker confirmed mine was a garage. Swinton's website has the option of garage or "other construction locked garage" but the Swinton's system only offers a call back, which never came.

"Yeah, that system leaves a lot to be desired, mate," was the response when I called, but when the broker heard the quotes I had already received, he said he couldn't match it anyway.

Two insurers featured prominently. NIG came up twice: once with a premium of £226.77 and a £600 excess through and once with Choice ( would not quote and when you ring, you get through to Choice) at £203.10 with an excess of £150.

NIG's explanation was: "In both cases the excess should have been £450. The larger excess is a blip in the electronic quotation

system and the lower excess was because the person misheard. The price difference is due to a rate concession with that particular broker."

NU featured three times. Bennetts declared my building was a garage and quoted £289.34 with an excess of £175. Motorcycledirect

originally quoted (as a company director, remember) £273.72 but then claimed to have confirmed with NU that my building was not a garage but claimed the insurer had discounted to £225. The excess was £175. Devitt said the building was not a garage from the outset and quoted £312.43 with an excess of £250.

Simon Black, NU's head of pricing for insurance brokers, had some answers. Devitt's substantially higher quote was easy to explain - the firm has been penalised for bringing NU such a poor book of business. "Devitt's excess was increased, as were its rates, in June 2004 to reflect the performance of their account relative to the rest of NU's experience," Black says.

The other differences were down to the brokers failing to take advantage of keener premiums on offer.

Black says: "NU revamped its motorcycle premiums at the beginning of 2006 as it had become out of step with the market. Where the 'new' rates have been implemented in the market, new business volumes have more than doubled. Both Motorcycledirect and Devitt utilise the new rates. The reasons for premium differences reflect the relative performance of each account.

The situation with Bennetts is not quite so straight forward - NU targets different segments of the market via a number of different products. Unlike Motorcycle Direct and Devitt, Bennetts uses its own IT system rather than a proprietary software house. This means, as with any organisation, that it manages its own IT prioritisation schedule and have yet to implement NU's revised rating structure.

Four walls
So do I have a garage, or what? "If it has four walls then I'd say it was a garage, or at the very least a locked building - so would benefit from a discount. If it has three walls - two sides and locked doors facing the outside world - but an open end facing into your garden, then this would not be classed as a garage or a locked building and would need referring to one of NU's underwriters.

"It would then consider your own claim history and details of the bike and apply some common sense in determining whether to grant a garaging discount. In this case, such a discount would probably be given as the structure appears from the outside world to be fully enclosed," says Black.

So who am I now insured with? After all the best quote - particularly as it included legal expenses and European breakdown cover, which meant the broadest cover of any quote - was for just over £215 through Carole Nash and with Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA). It also had the lowest excess of any quote at just £100. I heard some harrumping from brokers when I'd mentioned Carole Nash and R&SA and the reason was simple: Carole Nash has had exclusive access to R&SA's motorcycle underwriters since 2001.

Dave Greaves, business manager for R&SA's specialist business explains that working with Carole Nash has enabled the firm to fine tune its rating and to accept some more unusual risks with confidence, such as heavily modified bikes.

Greaves reckons R&SA is already, with only one broker outlet, selling as much as £15m in premiums now.

The ABI figures put R&SA at number five in the league table (see box). "We intend to grow our portfolio through specific motorbike brokers - a relatively small number of specialists. It won't be available to all intermediaries." Bennetts is the first new broker to have access to R&SA underwriting and has just gone live," says Greaves.

R&SA was particularly impressed that Carole Nash puts all its staff through the CBT (the compulsory basic training riders must have before they can take any bike on the road) and pays for them to go all the way to gaining their full motorcycle test. And R&SA like the marketing style.

"They never mention being the cheapest. They offer an all-encompassing product in every quote. Others offer a stripped down product with a high excess to win on price but then you have to add everything else on," says Greaves. Carole Nash claims to cover 300,000 of the estimated 1.1million bikes on the road through 250,000 policies.

Now, Carole Nash has me as a customer too.