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Buying life insurance can be intimidating. But don't let that discourage you from trying to get the best deal on the policy that's right for you.

Because most of us aren't perfect, insurers ask a lot of questions and do medical tests when you apply for coverage to determine how much of a risk you are to insure. The bigger the risk you are, the higher the rate you'll have to pay.

So if you're getting life insurance for the first time or thinking about finding a new policy with a lower premium, it pays to know what criteria insurers use when setting rates and what you can do to improve your chances of getting the best price.

Of course, before shopping around for the best deals, remember to figure out how much life insurance you need and what type is best for you. You don't want to skimp to save money by buying a policy that will expire before you need it or that doesn't pay out enough to cover your loved ones' basic needs.

What to know about factors that affect rates

Your age and gender. These two factors have the biggest impact on your insurance rate, says Ray Dinstel, the chief underwriter for Genworth's life and long-term-care insurance. Clearly, youth has its advantages when it comes to getting a good life-insurance rate. And women usually get lower rates because they have longer life expectancies (giving the insurance company more years to collect premiums before it has to make a payout).

TIP: Apply when you're young(er). But remember, you really only need life insurance if someone else is depending on your income, such as a spouse or a child. So if you're single and in your twenties, don't feel like you have to rush to get a policy now just to snag a good rate. You still can get insurers' preferred rates in your thirties and forties.

Your smoking habits. If you smoke, expect to pay a lot more for life insurance. For example, a 40-year-old cigarette smoker will pay triple the rate of a non-smoker, says Byron Udell, founder and chief executive of AccuQuote, an online provider of life-insurance quotes.

TIP: The best way to cut your rate, Udell says, is to stop smoking for a year or more. Some companies require you to be smoke-free for three or five years to get their best rate.

Your health. High cholesterol is a strike against you. Cancer is an even bigger strike. However, insurers consider diabetes, hypertension, most digestive disorders and asthma as minor problems if you're getting proper medical care for these conditions, Dinstel says.

TIP: "Don't think because you a have health problem that your rates will be outrageous, " says Jim Davis, vice-president of underwriting at Phoenix Companies. For example, a non-insulin-dependent diabetic with a great family history and good health otherwise could get the standard rate, he says.

Get a physical before applying to find out if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or any other treatable condition. Start taking medication to get it under control.

Most importantly, don't wait until you have a serious ailment to apply for life insurance. If you do have a health condition, work with a broker who knows which companies would be more likely to insure you at the best rate.

Your weight. Because obesity and several other health conditions go hand in hand, insurers take your weight into consideration. For example, a 6-foot, 205-pound man usually can qualify for the best rate, Udell says. But a few more pounds would push him into a higher rate. The weight ranges to qualify for the best rates vary from company to company.

TIP: If shedding a few pounds before applying for coverage is out of the question, use an online quote site, such as AccuQuote or Insure.com. The site will let you see the underwriting criteria of several companies so you can find the ones with more-lenient weight requirements. Women who are overweight should apply to companies that use unisex weight tables, which are geared more toward men's higher weight ranges.

Your family history. All insurers will ask whether anyone in your family has been diagnosed with, or died of, heart disease, Udell says. Some will ask whether your parents or siblings have had cancer.

TIP: Again, use an online quote site or shop around to find insurers with more-lenient standards. For example, say you had a parent who died of a heart attack at age 69. That wouldn't preclude you from getting the best rate because some insurers ask whether you had a parent who died of heart disease before age 60 (as opposed to age 70, which is the standard many insurers use).

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