Dealing with the aftermath of an accident is almost as bad as the crash itself.
You want to get back on the road, but you also want to get the best deal from the insurance company. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A little behind-the-scenes know-how will net you a better, and sometimes quicker, settlement.
“The key with insurance companies is to have good documentation,” says Jack Hungelmann, author of “Insurance for Dummies.” “You have to substantiate your point of view. Most adjusters are fair-minded. If you’ve done their homework for them and can hand them good, solid documentation, they will write you a check.”
To get you back on the road sooner, follow these 15 tips from the pros:
1. Collect your own evidence.
“You’ve got to prove your version of the accident,” says Hungelmann, who’s been in the insurance industry for more than 30 years. Round up any witnesses. That means phone numbers or license plate numbers from anyone at the scene. “That’s priceless when it comes to haggling,” he says.
Be sure to keep track of what you find, as well as what happens along the repair or collection process. Start a journal of times, dates and names of everyone you contact (witnesses, police, body shop, insurance adjuster), as well as what was said.
2. Get a running start.
If the car can’t be driven, have it towed to the shop you want to use. Ask your agent to call the adjuster directly.
“Require that the claim be expedited,” says Hungelmann. “Then it’s a question of negotiating the labor. And there’s nothing wrong with telling the body shop to go ahead and order the parts they need. Get the ball rolling.”
3. Don’t rely on what the insurance company tells you.
Insurance regulations differ from policy to policy and from state to state. And in many cases, the consumer has the last word. In some cases, you have a right to be paid for the diminished value of your car, too. If you’re not getting what you want, look at your policy and make a quick call to your state insurance office.
4. Decide who will pay your claim.
Should you go through your own insurance or try to collect directly from the other person’s company? Each approach has benefits and drawbacks.
“You get better service with your company,” says Hungelmann. “I don’t normally recommend [dealing with the other company directly] unless the damage is pretty clear-cut.”
Your own company doesn’t have to investigate who’s at fault before they deal with you. But you also have to pony up your deductible, which you probably won’t see again for at least six months to a year. And you might not get all of it back.
If you’re dealing with the other driver’s insurance company, its representatives will want to investigate thoroughly before they pay you a dime. They’re seeking proof you were at least partially to blame so that you have to pick up some of the tab.
Some companies even try to make things so difficult that you give up and go through your own insurer. That’s because when two companies negotiate, called subrogation, it’s common for both to share a portion of the blame and costs, says Robert Brown, author of “Car Crashed? You Could Be Cheated.” In the process, you lose some of your deductible and your rates could increase.
But if you go through the other party’s company and lose, you could forfeit a portion of the entire repair cost, rather than just that portion of the deductible, says Hungelmann.
If you decide to deal with the other driver’s insurer, be prepared to climb the management food chain. And always be polite and don’t lose your cool.
5. Get ready to reach the unreachable.
The first time you talk with the adjuster, get a cell phone number, as well as a supervisor’s name, says Hungelmann. “Adjusters are field people, they are not always reachable,” he says. “But the supervisor is in the office.” So if you’re trying to get the body shop to work something out with the insurance company, having a contact they can reach will speed up things considerably.
6. Rent a car.
If the insurance company has to pick up the tab for your rental, it will make sure that your car gets back on the road quickly, says Hungelmann. Rental-car coverage, called loss-of-use coverage, runs about $6 annually, he says.
7. Shop repairs.
Insurance companies often will have preferred body shops. But in most cases, you get to choose the shop you want, says Brown. If an insurer tells you otherwise, check your policy and call your state insurance office. Chances are both will confirm that you’re in charge.
If the insurance company balks at using your shop, take the less-expensive insurer’s estimate to your mechanic and ask if your shop will fix it for the same amount, advises Hungelmann. “More than 50 percent of the time the answer is yes.”
If the first estimate is cheaper because the shop missed some of the damage, call the adjuster; chances are he will go with the shop of your choice, says Hungelmann.
In cases where the insurance company bases its finding on what seems like a low-ball estimate, consider getting three estimates from shops you trust to bolster your case. Do the same if you are dealing with someone else’s company. “You’d want to be able to document and show the court that the price you wanted was an average of three well-known shops, and their price was unrealistic,” says Hungelmann.
8. Ask for the parts you want.
Do you care whether the parts come from the original manufacturer? Some consumers do, but even experts differ. If you have a preference, or if your warranty specifies, ask for what you want as soon as you take your car to the shop.
“If you insist on original parts, they have to give you that or give you used parts of as good a quality as the ones you have in your car,” says Hungelmann. Check with your state and your policy to learn your options so that you bargain from a position of power.
9. Stay on top of the repairs.
No matter who’s footing the bill, call the shop regularly to make sure that the parts are ordered and the work is being done.
10. Shop your totaled car.
If your car’s a write-off, you need to know what it’s really worth before you accept any insurance check.
Talk with three used-car managers who specialize in your car. Describe the complete condition of your car, the mileage and the maintenance. You want to know how much the dealer would get for the car on his lot. “Not for a trade-in or what he’d pay, but for what he’d take on the lot,” says Hungelmann, who advises you ask your insurer for an average of the three prices.
If the insurance company doesn’t agree, Hungelmann says, “you have tremendous ammunition” to take it to small claims court or to a neutral third-party appraiser.
11. Inquire about diminished value.
Even if your car is fixed, it likely will be worth less when you finally sell it because it’s been in an accident. How much less will depend on the car, the market for it and just how much damage there was. In some states, you have the right to ask the insurance company to compensate you for that loss. Call your state insurance office and ask what its policy is on diminished value. If it’s an option, you need to document your loss.
Operate as if your auto is totaled: Visit three used-car managers and get the results in writing. This time, get their professional opinions of the difference in the sales range for your car vs. one that had not been in a wreck. A reasonable offer would be an average of the three.
12. Don’t take the first check.
“The first offer is never the right offer,” says Brown. Instead, ask the adjuster about the method he used to value the car. And get your own estimates.
13. Double-check your insurer’s work.
Ask for copies of all the documentation that the insurance company used to assign a value to your claim and decide fault. “I’ve had so many scenarios where the insurance company raised the rates [after an accident] because the underwriter read the claims report wrong or the claims adjuster dictated it wrong,” says Hungelmann.
14. Hire an umpire.
If you and the insurance company can’t resolve what it would cost to fix or replace your car, you can use the “appraisal clause” to call in an unbiased expert, known as an umpire, says Hungelmann. “The easiest way is to have two shops find a third that’s known in the industry,” he says.
“The only cost is the umpire, if the umpire decides to charge,” says Hungelmann.
15. Protect your reputation.
If you’re not at fault, but the two insurance companies decide to share the blame, you don’t have to accept their decision. You can clear your good name and get your portion of your deductible back by going to small claims court, says Hungelmann, who fought and won after a subrogation agreement assigned him a slice of the blame for an accident and sent his premiums up 30 percent.
“My rates went back down,” he says. “You’re not stuck. You have rights.”