Screeching tires. A jarring thud. The sudden pop of an airbag. You’ve just been involved in an auto accident. Fortunately, no one has been hurt. Your car, on the other hand, has seen better days. What happens now? Who’s going to pay for the damages? And how long before you have a reliable set of wheels again?
Whether it’s a minor fender bender or your car gets totaled, it’s important to know what to expect insurance wise following an accident or unfortunate event that damages your vehicle. Assuming you have the right coverage in place from a reputable insurance company, getting your car repaired properly and expediently doesn’t have to be a drawn out ordeal.
- The Types of Coverage that Pay for Your Car Repairs
- What to Do after an Accident
- Who Pays What to Fix Your Vehicle
- Choosing an Auto Repair Shop
First, it’s essential to understand the three main types of auto insurance coverage that can cover you and your car while it is in the body shop: collision, comprehensive, and rental car reimbursement insurance. Collision and comprehensive are typically optional coverages that pay for your repairs to your vehicle after an accident, and have a deductible (common amounts are $250, $500 or $1,000). The lower your deductible, the higher your premiums will be but the less you’ll be responsible for out of pocket if you file a claim. In the event of a total loss, your insurer will pay out (after you hit your deductible) up to the ACV, which is your car's original purchase price minus depreciation. These aren't required by law, but can be required by your leasing or finance company.
- Collision Insurance pays for the cost of repairs or replacements to your car when it is involved in an accident with another vehicle or a stationary object. Note that insurers generally require you to have comprehensive coverage in place before adding collision.
- Comprehensive Insurance covers damages to your vehicle not caused by a collision. Incidents include theft, vandalism, fire, falling objects, severe storms and natural disasters, hitting an animal, and acts of God or nature that are typically out of your control when driving. You’re typically reimbursed the ACV amount minus your deductible if your vehicle needs to be replaced.
- Rental Car Insurance is an optional coverage that helps pay for the cost of a rental vehicle while your auto is being fixed. Often, there’s a per-accident, per-day, and maximum days limit (such as $600 per accident, $20 per day, and 30 days maximum) for this coverage, which can cost less than $10 per month.
Having both comprehensive and collision is considered “full coverage”. Whether they're worthwhile comes down to the value of your car. If it's new, it's more worth it to get these because the value you stand to lose is higher if your car gets totaled. As we mentioned, insurers pay out cash value of the car after depreciation gets factored in, so a new car will have a higher value that makes more sense to get covered.
Note that this is different from liability insurance, which covers damages to another person’s car or property as well as bodily injury resulting from an accident you caused. Drivers in every state are required by law to have this coverage, although minimum mandated limits will vary.
Following a car-damaging event, experts strongly recommend immediately contacting:
- 9-1-1 emergency services if anyone is injured
- Local police if other cars/property is involved
- Your insurer to report a claim
“Insurance should get involved right away,” says Nicholas Cronauer, attorney with Charles E. Cronauer & Associates. “The insurance companies generally assess who is at fault between themselves, based upon their insured's statement and the police report.”
A claims adjuster will quickly be assigned to your case, and likely be your main point of contact throughout the claim resolution/repair process. This person will:
- Expect you to answer all questions honestly and with as much detail as possible
- Collect statements from witnesses
- Examine the accident details
- Review medical reports
- Inspect all vehicles involved
- Provide a damage repair estimate
If you’re at fault, your insurer will cover your repairs after you pay your deductible.
If the other driver is at fault, you can choose to have his insurer handle your claim; but if they aren’t cooperative or responsive, you can opt to have your insurer pay for your repairs (minus your deductible). In this event, your insurer will seek compensation (including reimbursement of your deductible) from the other carrier through inter-company arbitration or a process called subrogation, in which—particularly if there’s a dispute as to who’s at fault—the insurers can sue each other in court to recover claim monies paid to the insured.
Kathy Wertheim, a driver in Ventura, Calif., says it’s important to be persistent with your adjuster after you file a claim. “Don’t assume they know what’s going on. Call them every few days, and contact your normal insurance agent, too,” says Wertheim, who was disappointed she had to wait several weeks to receive her reimbursement check following an accident involving her 2007 Prius, which was deemed unrepairable. Her insurer reimbursed her for the pre-accident ACV ($10,300), and she ended up purchasing a comparable replacement vehicle that set her back an additional $5,000.
If the damages are minimal (typically below $1,000), no injuries occurred and no other personal property/vehicles were involved, you can always opt to pay for the repairs yourself without filing a claim. Filing a claim can raise your auto insurance quotes in the future because insurers view you as a riskier policyholder to insure.
Unless your policy stipulates otherwise, you have the right to decide where to have your vehicle fixed and aren’t obligated to go with the business suggested by your insurer or the other driver’s carrier. Be aware, however, that if the estimate you get from a different collision repair shop is higher than the estimate determined by the insurer, you might have to pay the difference.
The advantage of going with an insurer-recommended repair facility is that the insurer “has an established relationship with that company, is familiar with their work and can trust them,” says Bob Passmore, assistance vice president of personal lines for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. “But you should always be comfortable with whomever you choose for the repairs.”
Consequently, it may be wise to provide your insurer with repair quotes from a few different repair shops.
Consider these tips when choosing a repair facility:
- Ask friends and relatives for referrals to shops they trust.
- Give a copy of your insurer’s estimate to the shop, and be sure they can/will complete all the work indicated on that estimate.
- Have the shop provide a detailed price quote estimate in writing, and make sure your insurer approves of this estimate.
- Try to get a lifetime warranty on the repairs, which can indicate a trustworthy company.