Trying to understand auto insurance can be as tricky and confusing as trying to untie the Gordian knot. (We hear the knotty Gordian problem can be solved with a sword.) However, some "insider" knowledge can help you understand your options and what you can do to save money and get the most out of your auto insurance.
Auto insurance may be expensive, but if you're already spending a lot, shouldn't you get a lot? Optional coverages such as gap coverage, roadside assistance, rental reimbursement, uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, and comprehensive coverage can provide a lot of protection for a little price increase. Comprehensive coverage is usually the most expensive of these coverages, but is still usually about half the price of collision coverage and a third the price of liability coverage.
Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage is especially important, considering the benefits it offers and the number of uninsured drivers on the road, particularly during this period of economic hardship. Take a look at your coverage options. Paying a little more now may save you a lot in the future.
Auto insurance companies use many different criteria when evaluating an insurance application during a process called underwriting. Each car insurance company has many guidelines regarding which groups of drivers they want to accept and how much they will charge those groups they consider a greater risk. The guidelines are different for each company, meaning that two companies comparing the same driver can arrive at vastly different conclusions.
During the underwriting process, car insurance applicants are placed in a group based on how much money and how many claims the insurance company believes it may have to pay. Underwriting is done automatically by software behind the scenes. At this time, the insurance company will look at motor vehicle records to see how many accidents or tickets a driver has received. Many insurance companies also use an insurance history report to see if the driver has made any car insurance claims, and how much money was paid. Although accidents and violations can only affect the rates you receive for three years, many companies will look back five or more years when deciding if they want to offer you insurance. In addition, many auto insurance companies look at the credit history of the applicant. Although they use credit history to determine which group an applicant belongs to, they don't actually look at a credit report.
You've probably seen commercials saying you can save money by switching to a certain car insurance company. How can so many companies make this claim? The reason is that "auto insurance is a highly competitive business and one of the most effective ways to reduce insurance costs is simply to shop around," according to Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president of the Insurance Information Institute. "Drivers should look for an insurance company that will provide a good price along with excellent service."
Prices for the same policy from the same company, however, are set by law. They are approved by the state and can't be changed by an agent, so you can't get a better price for the same policy simply by going to a different agent or trying to negotiate the price. The best plan is to decide what coverages and options you need and comparison shop to get the best price.
Most insurance companies view drivers who are licensed but don't have insurance as risky or irresponsible. Because of this, if you let your policy lapse, you'll probably pay more when you go to buy car insurance. To avoid this, if you don't want to pay for insurance or are planning to let your policy expire because you want to switch companies, make sure to purchase car insurance before your current policy is cancelled.
Insurance prices are based on how much money the insurance company believes it could have to pay. If you agree to pay for a larger portion of your own damages by raising your deductibles, your car insurance company automatically knows they won't have to pay as much for your claims. Because of this, they will usually give you a lower premium. If you decide to raise your deductibles to save money, be sure you can afford to pay the deductible if you have to make a claim.
Most insurance companies offer auto insurance discounts for things like a safe driving record, car safety features, anti-theft devices, electronic payments, payment in full, and more. Make sure you're getting rewarded for being a safe driver and for having a safe car by shopping around for car insurance that appreciates your record.
The majority of your car insurance premium generally goes toward the legally-required liability portion of your policy. It's typically not a good idea to reduce this portion in an attempt to save money, because you'll be responsible for any amount of damages above your policy limits. However, other coverages, although generally helpful, could be reduced or eliminated to lower your premium. If you have an older car that's not worth very much, or if you won't have a problem paying for a new car, collision and comprehensive coverages may not make economic sense. Talk to your car insurance company or agent about the best options for you.
The Highway Loss Data Institute compiles insurance accident statistics for most types of cars. Many insurance companies use data like this when setting prices on your insurance. For example, if the car you drive is very expensive to repair, the company is going to have to pay more if you get in an accident. Conversely, if the car you drive is extremely safe and protects occupants well, your insurance company will not have to pay as much if you're involved in a crash. If your model of car is generally less likely to be stolen, your car insurance company is less likely to have to pay to replace it. All of these car related factors can raise or lower the auto insurance quotes you receive, so it makes sense to keep insurance in mind when purchasing a car. Of course, since rates are based on much more than just the car you drive, your overall rate may be more or less than someone driving the same car.
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Originally posted September 17, 2004.
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