A Minnesota insurance company has found a unique way to get in on the ground floor of the banking industry's efforts to sell homeowners insurance.

St. Paul-based Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Co. is brokering such policies through a subsidiary it set up last year, HomePlus Insurance Agency Inc. The company, which finds price quotes from dozens of property and casualty competitors, is the only one offering such a service to banks, consultants say.

The $13 billion-asset company hopes to add automobile and life insurance soon.

Minnesota Mutual's service works like this: A lending officer sends a customer's mortgage application electronically to HomePlus agents, who in a matter of hours respond with quotes for various policies.

Previously, the mortgage lender simply gave its customers names of several insurance underwriters. It was then up to the customer to shop around for quotes. This proved inefficient, observers said.

Minnesota Mutual's service "adds convenience, which is what will make or break insurance sales through banks," said Kenneth Kehrer, an insurance consultant in Princeton, N.J.

Banks pay the insurer a referral fee. The advantage for them is they don't have to train their own agents or research the hundreds of insurance companies that sell such products, said David Steppat, director of marketing at HomePlus.

And property and casualty insurance is so cheap these days that banks want to maximize savings in setting up programs in order to eke out a profit, he said.

"It's a fairly thin-margin business," Mr. Steppat said. "A number of banks find they just don't want to put in that much effort and sink that much money into the operation."

Also, finding carriers is tough. Most have specialties instead of products for the mass market. For instance, Chubb Securities Corp. underwrites policies for expensive homes, while Minnesota Mutual targets the middle market, Mr. Steppat said.

Most of the top 100 mortgage lenders, including BankAmerica Corp., Norwest Corp., and PNC Bank Corp., have signed up with HomePlus in recent years, said Mr. Steppat.

A bank customer can choose insurance from carriers such as ITT Hartford Life Insurance Co., Chubb, Continental Casualty Co., and Allianz of America Inc.

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