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July 12, 2022

Personal Auto Insurance 101



When it comes to picking car insurance, sometimes it’s just easiest to go with what your friends use, or the company whose commercial you’ve seen the most on TV lately. But that’s probably not the best idea. Like any business, insurance companies all have different rates, plus they can vary greatly in everything from their coverage to their office hours to the speed of their claims service. So, shopping around is essential to getting a good deal, and the proper coverage and service for you.

But don’t walk into the process blindly. You have to know what questions to ask when you’re shopping around, because not every agent you speak with will give you in-depth info on their coverage and all of your options. The good ones will do that, but the not-so-good agents will only cover the basics. It’s up to you to ask a wide range of questions so you can truly compare plans.

If you’re like most people, though, you’re not an expert and don’t even know what you need to know about insurance (how’s that for confusing?). Keeping the following list of 10 questions close by can keep you on track while researching insurance companies and will help you choose the policy that’s right for you.

10: What kinds of coverage do I need?

For starters, you have to purchase any coverage mandated by your state. Most states only require liability insurance, which covers the costs of anyone who’s injured or dies as a result of a car crash you caused, plus damage to their vehicle, any property damage and legal fees. But consider these additional types of coverage as well:

Collision.This covers repairs to your car after an accident, no matter whose fault it was. You generally have to pony up for the deductible, which is a set amount of money you agreed to pay before the insurance company kicks in the remainder. Collision coverage is important — but only if your car is newer. Let’s say you have an older car worth $3,000 and collision coverage that costs $200 per year with a $1,000 deductible. If your car gets totaled, you’d collect $2,000 after paying the $1,000 deductible. That’s not a great payback. But if you have a newer car worth $30,000, you’d collect $29,000 after paying the $1,000 deductible. That’s more like it!

Comprehensive. Comprehensive pays for damage to your vehicle from non-crash incidents, such as fire, vandalism, acts of nature and theft. This coverage normally carries a deductible, too. As with collision coverage, whether or not it’s wise to purchase comprehensive depends on the value of your car; you can find out what that value is by looking at an online guide such as the NADA Guides at www.nadaguides.com. Check your vehicle’s value every year and re-evaluate your collision and comprehensive coverage [source: Zeman].

Uninsured and underinsured motorist protection. Also called UM and UIM, these coverages may be required by your state. Less expensive than collision and comprehensive, UM and UIM cover the costs of car repairs if an uninsured or underinsured driver hits you. There’s no deductible, but there’s also typically a limit on how much you’ll be able to collect — generally about $3,500 [source: Zeman].

Personal injury protection. This coverage pays for medical expenses and lost wages to you or your passengers if someone hits you. If you’re injured while riding in someone else’s car, it will also cover those medical bills. This is pretty important coverage to carry, although if you’re healthy and have a disability policy, you can opt for the minimum coverage [source: Bankrate].

9: What is my risk assessment?

The insurance rate you’re offered is based on several factors that comprise how much of a “risk” you pose to the company — that is, how likely it is that you’ll be making a claim. The more of a risk you pose, the higher your rate will be. Companies use data such as your age, sex, driving record, criminal record, credit rating and where you live to determine your risk. Are you elderly or a teen (groups known for having a lot of fender benders)? You’ll pay more. Gotten a lot of speeding tickets? Ditto. Live in the middle of a high-crime district, where car thefts in particular are rampant? Out of luck again. Shop around to see which insurance company offers you the most favorable rate [source: Cars Direct].

8: Who will my policy cover to drive my car?

This is a question many people overlook. What happens if your 15-year-old, who’s learning to drive, has a crash? Will your insurance pay? What if a friend borrows your car and hits another vehicle? What if you’re self-employed and driving your car for work purposes — say, delivering pizzas, or running to the bank — are any crashes you cause covered? Every insurer and/or state handles these situations differently, so make sure you know the answer [source: Jones]. While you’re on the topic, ask the agent what happens if you borrow someone’s car and have an accident, or if you have one in a rental car.

7: What will my deductible be?

If you’re involved in an auto accident and file a claim, you’ll most likely need to pay a certain amount of money — your deductible — before your insurance company will pay the rest of the bill. Common deductible amounts are $0, $100, $500, $750, $1,000 and $1,500 [source: Car Insurance Rates]. You can lower your premium (your annual or semi-annual insurance payment) by raising your deductible. Carrying a higher deductible in exchange for a lower insurance premium can be a wise move, because you may never get in a car accident. However, just make sure you don’t set your deductible so high that if you are in an accident, you can’t afford to pay it — because if you can’t pay the deductible, your vehicle won’t be repaired.

6: Do you offer any discounts?

Pretty much every insurer offers a raft of discounts, but don’t assume your agent will automatically give you the ones you qualify for. You often have to inquire about what discounts the company offers, then ask to have the ones you’re eligible for applied to your account. Discounts (sometimes called credits) are commonly given for having certain safety features in your car, such as a car alarm or air bags; for having a clean driving record; for having a “good student” (generally a child up to age 23 or 25 who earns at least a B average in school); and for purchasing other types of insurance from the same company, generally homeowners and umbrella insurance. In addition, some companies will give you discounts for things like regularly parking your car in a garage, owning an eco-friendly hybrid vehicle, belonging to a recognized professional organization, and even for graduating from a specific college or university. But again, to get the savings, you have to ask [source: Zeman].

5: What are my payment options?

Yes, you can afford car insurance. But it’d be a whole lot easier on your budget if you could pay the premium in monthly installments instead of an annual lump sum. Or maybe quarterly payments are ideal. Quiz your agent on all possible payment options. Most insurers offer at least annual and six-month premium payment options. Those that offer more frequent payment options often tack on a several-dollar surcharge or, conversely, offer discounts to those who pay the entire annual bill at once. Make sure to inquire about your options if you know it will be problematic to pay annually [source: Cars Direct].

4: How will you value my car?

The value of a given car is an issue too many people overlook. Always wanted that cherry-red sports car or vintage model? Well, you’ve got a little extra cash now, so go for it! Or are you reveling in the fact that you snagged such cheap wheels at the salvage yard? Everything is great until your insurance agent informs you that the cost of insuring your fancy hot rod will be double the rate of your stodgy sedan — and you realize you didn’t calculate that into your budget. Or your agent says your junkyard jalopy’s origins are unclear, so it’s actually uninsurable. Oops. Before you purchase any vehicle, find out its value, then do at least a cursory insurance check to see if you can afford both the car and the insurance [source: Cars Direct]. Maybe that sedan wasn’t so stodgy after all …

3: Do you have 24-hour claims service?

Getting into an auto accident is stressful, even if no one is injured. Don’t put yourself in a position to be even more stressed out because your accident occurs on a Saturday night, but your insurer doesn’t open for business until Monday morning. Plenty of insurance companies now offer 24/7 claim reporting, both by phone (toll-free number) and online, so make sure you select one that does. Ask, too, if there are any special requirements when filing a claim. In general, you just have to give your name and address, the names and addresses of anyone injured in the accident or who witnessed it, and general information about the nature of the loss or claim. It also helps to have your policy number on hand.

2: If my car is in an accident, will you pay for original manufacturer parts?

Bet you never considered this one! When a vehicle is damaged, most people assume their insurers will pay for it to be repaired with identical parts that come from their car’s particular manufacturer, also known as “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) parts. That’s a risky assumption, though, as the parts used in the repair may instead be “aftermarket” parts, which are car parts made to fit a general type of vehicle, but not specifically for a particular make and model. Aftermarket parts are less expensive, which is why some insurers prefer to use them. And while certain states specify insurers must cover OEM parts, others don’t. To further complicate matters, some insurance companies use both kinds of parts. They’ll spring for OEM parts when it comes to safety items like air bags, for example, but use aftermarket parts for less-critical items like door handles and fenders. If an insurer only covers aftermarket parts, it doesn’t mean you have to rule them out, especially if their rates are good and they have a solid reputation. Maybe you don’t even care. And if you do, you can always opt to pay a little extra to upgrade from aftermarket parts to OEM parts if you find their overall rates attractive. It’s just best to know their policy ahead of time [source: Jones, Zeman].

1: Do you have an office where we can meet in person?

Nowadays, it probably seems like a lot of your business is conducted online or over the phone. But when you’re discussing complicated matters like insurance, it can be very helpful to actually meet with an agent and go over things in person. Sometimes, just seeing things written out makes them easier to comprehend. People who meet with their agent in-person often receive better customer service, too, so ask potential agents if they have a physical office where you can meet. When you’re there, tell him or her you’d like to receive an annual personal insurance review. A really quality agent will automatically offer this service, but any good agent should be willing to do it upon request. Annual reviews help ensure you’re not paying for coverage you no longer need, and that you’re always carrying the coverage you do need. 

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