HAVE you held off getting insurance because you do not want a sales agent in your home? Or because you do not know what to look for in a policy or how much it should cost? Maybe you should check out the Internet. Insurers and brokers in Australia, Britain and the United States are already active on the Net. Their Hong Kong counterparts are following suit, if slowly. Even in the western countries, most insurance Web sites limit themselves to offering the same kind of information you could find in a brochure. But some can calculate price quotes on-line, and one or two sell policies electronically. Insurance consumers in Hong Kong can get information on-line from American International Assurance ( www.aiahk.com ), Winterthur Life Hong Kong (www. winterthur.com.hk) and Summit Insurance (Asia) (www. hsinchong.com/summit). AIA and Winterthur outline their local product ranges on their sites, but prices are available only for home-contents and domestic-helper insurance. More local insurance Web sites are expected to appear in the next few months, and the Confederation of Insurance Brokers (CIB) plans to launch a site next year, after surveying its 200 or so members about their Internet usage. This is good news for consumers. In the US, where insurance customers are estimated to have spent US$40.5 million on-line last year, proliferating Web sites allow would-be buyers to shop around for the cheapest deals. One US report found that policies available over the Internet were one-third cheaper than those offered by traditional insurance agents. This is because it is cheaper to provide services over the Internet than through bricks-and-mortar outlets. Even companies that do not offer insurance directly via the Net find that providing information on-line can be a cost-effective way to bring in new leads. And Web-generated customers tend to be the best kind: well-educated, affluent and young. The Internet is such a cheap and convenient medium that banks, and even software companies, are using it to gain a foothold in the insurance market - and as competition has increased, prices have come down. Be aware, though, that bargains found on-line will not necessarily materialise. Consumers in the US have found that premiums quoted on-line are often applicable to only the healthiest and lowest-risk customers. A detailed medical examination can result in an upward revision of the premium. And, in most cases, insurers still insist on face-to-face meetings with potential customers to get a verifiable signature and a medical exam. Some are beginning to accept payment over the Internet, but most are waiting for a legal framework to be established before accepting payments on-line. The International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) is writing guidelines for on-line sales of insurance and has formed a sub-committee to examine how to supervise and regulate companies that are capable of selling insurance across national boundaries. A spokesman for Hong Kong's Insurance Authority said the IAIS sub-committee's findings would be reviewed when they become available. There is no firm timetable for their release, however. Few policies offered by US-based companies are available to people living outside the US, and any Hong Kong resident who did find a policy that he could buy from an overseas company would not be protected by the SAR's regulatory regime. To be protected locally, you must buy your insurance from agents registered by the Insurance Agents' Registration Board (IARB) or brokers registered by the IARB, the CIB, the Professional Insurance Brokers' Association or the Insurance Authority. Agents operate on behalf of a single insurance company; brokers operate independently on behalf of their clients. Charles Monat, founder and managing director of broker Charles Monat Associates ( www.monat.com ), specialises in helping local residents find coverage from local units of US-based insurers. He said that greater use of the Internet would force local insurance companies to keep on their toes and could help push down prices. 'I'd like to see premiums come down,' he said. 'This market is controlled by a handful of major companies, and they keep rates high.' But many local insurers are cautious about launching Web sites. 'The feeling is that the Internet is inappropriate for selling, except for very simple products,' a Hong Kong-based spokesman for National Mutual Asia said. Other members of the AXA group, to which Hong Kong-listed National Mutual belongs, had tried various ways of selling over the Net, he said. But only one, a venture selling car insurance in France, had clearly succeeded. Gary Bennett, managing director of CMG Asia Life Assurance, echoed this, saying that CMG's Australia-based parent had found the Internet best suited for simple products, such as car insurance and some term life-insurance policies. CMG Asia plans to launch a Web site in the middle of next year.