By Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice EditorEmail
The following simple steps will help you determine how much car insurance you need to carry. And it will also help you get the best coverage at the lowest price. If you are confused about any of the terms we use, be sure to review the glossary in "Little-Known but Important Insurance Issues."
Step 1: Starting Out
When it comes to auto insurance, you want to be adequately covered if you get in an accident but you don't want to pay any more than you have to. So how can you navigate your way through this murky subject?
Keep telling yourself there is money to be saved. How much? Hundreds, even thousands, per year. For example, one of our editors typed all of his insurance information into a comparative insurance service. The quotes (for very basic coverage on two old cars) ranged from $1,006 to $1,807 — a difference of $801 a year. If you're currently dumping thousands into your insurance company's coffers because of a couple of tickets, an accident or a questionable credit rating, shopping your policy against others may be well worth the effort.
Look at it this way — you can convert the money you save into the purchase of something you've desired for a long time. Hold that goal in your mind.
Step 2: How Much Coverage Do You Need?
To find the right auto insurance, start by figuring out the amount of coverage you need. This varies from state to state. So take a moment to find out what coverage is required where you live. Make a list of the different types of coverage and then return for the next step. (You will find a list of each state's requirements and an explanation of the various types of insurance in "How Much Auto Insurance Do You Really Need?" Also, check out "Little-Known but Important Insurance Issues" as it has a glossary of basic insurance terminology.)
Now that you know what is required, you can decide what you need in addition. Some people are quite cautious. They base their lives on worst-case scenarios. Insurance companies love these people. That's because insurance companies know what your chances are of being in an accident, and how likely it is for your car to be damaged or stolen. The information the insurance company has collected over previous decades is crunched into "actuarial tables" that give insurance adjustors a quick look at the probability of just about any occurrence.
So how much insurance should you buy beyond your state's minimum?
Experts recommend that if you have a lot of assets you should get enough liability coverage to protect them. For instance, if you purchase $50,000 of bodily injury liability coverage but have $100,000 in assets, attorneys could go after your treasures in the event of an accident in which you're at fault and the other party's medical bills exceed $50,000.
General recommendations for liability limits are $50,000 bodily injury liability for one person injured in an accident, $100,000 for all people injured in an accident and $25,000 property damage liability (that is, 50/100/25) given that half of the cars on the road are worth more than $20,000. Here again, though, let your financial situation be your guide. If you have no assets, don't buy excess coverage.
Another issue to consider is that the limits of any uninsured and/or underinsured motorist coverage that you purchase cannot exceed the limits of your liability coverage. Such coverage, he said, can be valuable, as it will cover lost income if you're out of work for several months after being injured in a major accident.
Your driving habits may also be a consideration. If your past is filled with crumpled fenders, if you have a lead foot or a long commute on a treacherous winding road, then you should get more comprehensive coverage. Keep in mind that you don't have to buy collision and comprehensive coverage. If your vehicle is older, if you have a good driving record and if there is a low likelihood that it would be totaled in an accident, but a high likelihood of it being stolen, you could buy comprehensive but not collision.
Step 3: Review Your Driving Record and Current Insurance Policy
Before you begin shopping for insurance you should check the following: the status of your driving record, your current coverage and the premiums you are paying.
You should know how many tickets you have had recently. But time plays tricks and our memories repress painful incidents. If you can't remember how long that speeding ticket has been on your record, check with your state's DMV. If your record will soon improve, and the points you earned will finally disappear, wait until that happens before you get quotes. Nothing drives up the price of insurance like a bad driving record.
Also, you should contact your auto insurance company or pull out a recent bill. Jot down the amount of coverage you have and what you are paying for it. Take note of the yearly and monthly cost of your insurance since many of your quotes will be given both ways. Now you have a figure in mind to try to beat.
Step 4: Solicit Competitive Quotes
Now that you have made several practical and philosophical decisions, it's time to start shopping. Begin by setting aside about an hour for this task. Bring all your records — your current insurance policy, your driver license number and your vehicle registration. Drink plenty of coffee. Have a phone at your elbow. And, of course, power up your computer.
Begin with the online services. If you go to InsWeb.com or other online insurance quote sites, you can type in your information and get a list of comparative quotes. These forms take about 15 minutes to complete. If this bores you, just remind yourself how much you will be saving and that you can use the money to buy something nice for yourself. If the entire shopping process takes you two hours to complete and you save $800, you're effectively earning $400 an hour.
A few things to keep in mind: 1) When you use quote sites, you may not get instant quotes. Some companies may contact you later by e-mail, and some that are not "direct providers" may put you in touch with a local agent, who will then calculate a quote for you. (A "direct provider," like Geico, sells an insurance policy to you directly; other companies like State Farm sell insurance through local agents. We'll discuss the pros and cons of each later.) 2) It's not easy to get quotes from these sites in all states — if you live in New Jersey, for instance, you'll probably find it faster to pick up the phone, since most insurers in this state currently don't provide online quotes.
You can also try getting quotes from some of the insurance companies listed on the Edmunds.com Web site — Liberty Mutual, Geico or Progressive. These forms will take about 10 minutes each to complete.
Step 5: Record and Compare Quotes
While you're researching companies, make notes in a separate computer file or on a piece of paper divided into categories. This will keep you from duplicating your efforts. When you visit the different online insurance sites, you should take note of several things:
- Annual and monthly rates for the different types of coverage — make sure to keep the coverage limits the same so that you can make "apples-to-apples" comparisons
- An 800 number to call for questions you can't get answered online
- The insurance company's payment policy (When is your payment due? What happens if you're late in making a payment?)
- Discounts offered by the insurance company that pertain to you
- The insurance company's consumer complaint ratio from your state's department of insurance Web site (more on this later)
- The insurance company's A.M. Best and Standard & Poor's ratings (more on this later)
Once you have exhausted your online options, it's time to work the phones. Those companies you haven't been able to get an online quote from should be contacted. At times, doing this process verbally can actually go faster than the online counterpart, providing you have all the information regarding your driver license and vehicle registration close at hand. When you get a quote, be sure to confirm the price. Also, ask them to fax or e-mail the quote to you as a record.
Step 7: Look for Discounts
While talking to the insurance companies' telephone salespeople, make sure you explore all options relating to discounts. Insurance companies give discounts for a good driving record, favorable credit score, safety equipment (for example, antilock brakes), certain occupations or professional affiliations and more. For more guidance in this area, check out "How to Save Money on Auto Insurance."
Step 8: Choosing the Right Insurance Company
You now have most of the information in front of you that you need to make a decision. However, there is something more to consider. You can clearly see which company is least expensive, but when you need them to cover a claim, what kind of job will they do? To put it another way, which is the most reliable insurance company?
Below, we offer a number of issues to guide your thinking and help you reach a decision:
- Visit your state's department of insurance and check consumer complaint ratios and basic rate comparison surveys.
- Get in touch with local body shops or dealerships you trust and ask which insurance companies they recommend.
- Consider contacting an insurance agent for additional information about a particular company.
- Check out the financial strength ratings for an insurance company by referring to the A.M. Best and Standard & Poor's ratings.
- Look over J.D. Power and Associates' consumer satisfaction surveys reviewing auto insurance companies.
So, you've done your research, and you've decided on a company. Before you sign, though, read the policy. In addition to verifying that it contains the coverage you want, there are two clauses that you should look for in the contract:
- Retain your right to sue. "Find out if you are giving up your right to go to court and will be forced into arbitration if there is a disagreement [between you and the insurance company]," one expert advised. "You're much better off if you don't give up this right…. It makes it easier for [insurers] to take advantage of you." If you find a clause to this effect, all isn't necessarily lost. "At least in theory, a contract is a mutual agreement, so you should be able to cross out that line in the policy," he said. If the company won't agree to the policy sans clause, then you should probably take your business elsewhere.
- Avoid aftermarket parts requirements. If an insurance company has written in the policy that "new factory," "like kind and quality" or "aftermarket parts" may be used for body shop repairs, go to another company, one expert advised. If you own a relatively new car that you plan to keep for a while, you will probably be much happier if you spend a little more time researching companies on the front end rather than try to fight the company when you have a claim.
After you lock in the insurance policy you want with the company you select, you have two more things to do. The first is to cancel coverage with your existing insurance company. Second, if your state requires you to carry proof of insurance, make sure you either have it in your wallet or the glove compartment of your car (some experts discourage this, however — if your car is stolen, the thief has everything he needs to prove the vehicle is his).
Now, there's one last thing to do: reward yourself for saving so much money on car insurance.
- Determine your state's insurance requirements.
- Consider your own financial situation in relation to the required insurance and consider buying more to protect your assets.
- Review the status of your driving record — do you have any outstanding tickets or points on your driver license?
- Check your current coverage to find out how much in premiums you are paying.
- Get competing quotes from an Internet insurance Web site such as InsWeb.com,YouDecide.com and InsureOne.com.
- Make follow-up phone calls to insurance companies to get additional information about coverage.
- Inquire about discounts you might qualify for such as a multiple policy discount.
- Evaluate the reliability of the insurance company you're considering by visiting your state's insurance Web site.
- If you have chosen a new insurance company, remember to cancel your old policy.