Money Essentials

Filing auto insurance claims

Car insurance is a product you buy, but hope never to need.

Sad but true: When you really need it, the company you've paid to protect you can become your adversary.

While it's the insurer's job to restore you financially, that doesn't mean they have to go along with your assessment of what that means. Be prepared to prove your losses.

Don't compromise on quality.

Take a collision claim, for instance. A shop in your insurer's network of preferred providers - an automotive version of an HMO - may fix your car faster than others because you won't have to wait for an adjuster, or argue over repair costs.

However, because of their mandate from the insurer to keep repair costs low, such shops may stint on quality. It's probably better to find a repair shop whose reputation you trust; if it happens to be on your insurer's list, so much the better.

Watch out for "generic" replacement parts, particularly hoods and fenders. They may not fit or resist rust as well as parts by the company that made the car, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Before you authorize the repair, scan the repair order for generic parts labeled LKQ (like kind and quality). Most likely, you'll prevail if you insist on OEM parts.

If you can't convince your insurer to supply OEM parts and your car is fairly expensive, consider paying an appraiser to determine if your car's market value is significantly lower after the repair. Your policy should enable you to collect the difference between the old and new values.

The insurer may decide your car is totaled - even if it still looks drivable. In insurance lingo, "totaled" means the car's market value, after the deductible, is less than the restoration costs. In other words, it would theoretically have cost less to buy the exact same car of the same age than to repair your car. The insurance will just pay you the value of the car rather than pay for repairs.

If your car was in exceptional condition prior to the accident, provide whatever documentation you can to support that fact. Otherwise, the totaled car will be valued as if it were only in average condition.

After making a claim for a totaled car, you probably don't want to keep buying comprehensive protection on the same vehicle. (If you have another accident in the same vehicle, it will be much more difficult to prove to the insurance company that a twice-totaled car has any value for which it's worth compensating.)

Information is the best protection.

Whatever your claim, your best protection is good records. After a car accident, take down the names and license numbers of all drivers involved, and identify any witnesses. Record your version of the event; take photos, if possible. Get the police report.

Call your insurer as soon as you're able, and keep notes of all related conversations. Track resulting medical, home-care, baby-sitting or housekeeping bills, since some policies cover a portion of those costs.

Add this to your reading list.

Eyeball your policy now, because you'll be most satisfied with your settlement if you know in advance what's covered. Pay particular attention to the exclusions section, which as the name implies, outlines what's not covered.

Why subject yourself to the torture of reading all that insurance mumbo-jumbo? An insurer's definitions can make the difference between comfort and calamity.

Although it will cost you more, report it to the company when your teenager's ready to drive. To be sure, the insurer would probably pay if a teenager, not mentioned on your policy, were in an accident. But they would drop you immediately afterward for dishonesty. Finding coverage once you've been dropped can be a nightmare, so up-front honesty is the best policy. Top of page

take the test
the test
more lessons
More Money Essentials
They're hiring!These Fortune 100 employers have at least 350 openings each. What are they looking for in a new hire? More
If the Fortune 500 were a country...It would be the world's second-biggest economy. See how big companies' sales stack up against GDP over the past decade. More
Sponsored By:
More Galleries
What being middle class means to me For some Americans, middle class means feeling secure. For others, it's just the opposite. More
The 10 most valuable global brands Apple has the most valuable brand in the world, up 67% over the last year, according to a BrandZ ranking. More
A life's work: Photos by Mary Ellen Mark The subjects of Mary Ellen Mark's photography ranged from celebrities to world leaders to those at the fringe of society, including prostitutes and the homeless. More