Car insurance is inherently tricky to navigate because you don't find out just how well it works (or doesn't) until you have an accident. And if you're lucky, that doesn't happen too often. So how do you know if you have the right kind of car insurance for your budget and lifestyle?
U.S. News interviewed a handful of car insurance experts to find out what you should do before making a final decision on your policy in order to get a good deal and decrease the chance of being surprised by unexpected costs after an incident. Here's their best advice:
When choosing a policy, start by asking friends for recommendations. "It always makes sense to first ask people who you respect who they have auto insurance with, and if they were happy when they had a claim," says Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.
Strangers can also offer useful advice. People often take their complaints about car insurance to social media, blogs and other websites. Search for posts on Twitter using the hashtag for the company you are considering. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Center for Insurance Policy and Research makes it easy to find formal complaints that have been lodged against companies as well.
State buyer's guides are another resource. States release detailed guides for purchasing auto insurance that explain the ins and out of property damage as well as collision and comprehensive coverage. "Get the buyer's guide – don't just go to some agent," recommends Bob Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. Those buyer's guides also outline the minimum required coverage and what factors influence your insurance rates, from driving records to how you use the vehicle.
When comparing policy prices, be sure to compare similar policies, cautions Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. Auto policies vary by length of time, level of service and an array of add-ons, he says. Instead of just searching the Internet to compare quotes, Reed recommends getting on the phone with companies and asking questions, too. Certain car safety features, such as alarm systems or anti-lock breaks, can help lower your rate.
At the same time, there's no need to obsess about constantly chasing a better deal. Jeff Blyskal, senior writer at Consumer Reports, says when the magazine asked readers to try to get a better deal with a competing insurance provider, only 12 percent of respondents were able to do so. That's despite the slew of auto insurance advertisements that would have you think a better deal is always just around the corner.
Once you've settled on an insurance provider, you'll have the chance to consider various add-ons to your policy. In general, the more you pay upfront, the greater the coverage you'll have. For example, you can opt for a higher deductible in order to minimize your rates – probably a good move for anyone who considers themselves a careful driver and can afford the higher deductible in the event of an accident.
You might also want to consider rental coverage. Auto insurance policies often allow you to add on coverage for renting a vehicle while your car is getting fixed after an accident, and if you only have one car, that kind of coverage can pay off. "Every customer who didn't have rental coverage wished they had it," says Richard Arca, senior manager of pricing at Edmunds.com and a former insurance adjuster. It typically adds about $20 for six months to a policy, he says.
On new and leased cars, GAP insurance can also make sense. You've might have heard that when you buy a new car, it loses value as soon as you drive it out of the lot. Leased vehicles also often carry a lower fair market value than what you owe on the vehicle. That means in either of those cases, if you total the car, the insurance company will only reimburse you for the car's fair market value – and you could be out a lot of cash. GAP coverage, which stands for "guaranteed auto protection," safeguards people from that problem. "It's highly recommended for people who lease vehicles," Arca says.
Extra liability insurance can also be a smart move, particularly for high-net-worth individuals who want to protect their assets. While states require drivers to obtain some level of minimum liability insurance, Salvatore says it often makes sense to take out more than is required, in order to make sure your assets are protected in the event of an accident. "You might consider excess or umbrella insurance that applies $1 million in protection above the underlying limit," she says.
Extended warranty policies, which pay for repairs for vehicles that are no longer covered under manufacturer warranty, can be a more difficult decision. Not everyone agrees that extended warranty policies are a good idea. In general, Consumer Reports cautions against purchasing them. In a survey of 8,000 car owners with extended service plans several years ago, the organization found that 65 percent said they spent more on the contract than they got back on cost-savings. About 4 in 10 respondents said they never used the extended warranty policies at all because they didn't need them.
Russ Carpel, co-founder and CEO of ForeverCar.com, which offers extended warranties, says the policies give drivers peace of mind of knowing that if something happens to their car after the manufacturer warranty expires, they're still covered.
"Some people might put off making repairs, or even worse, have a repair they can't afford to fix. If you have a vehicle service contract, you could get it done," Carpel says.
Whatever final policy options you choose, you might want to consider also getting your homeowners, life and other insurance policies from the same company, because providers will often cut you a deal if you take out multiple policies from them.