Totaled car? Bag a car insurance payout

Tara Baukus MelloBeing in a serious car accident is lousy enough, but if the car insurance company deems your car a total wreck, you may be in for a serious wake-up call when you discover the amount of your payout check. Here's how to negotiate a fair price for your totaled car so you can buy a suitable replacement and get back on the road again.

Determine what your car was worth before the accident. While your car insurance company uses several tools, some proprietary, you should do your own research to determine what your totaled car was worth before the accident. Visit independent vehicle pricing sites such as, Kelley Blue Book and to price out your exact car, including its condition before the accident and its mileage.

Factor in any aftermarket or dealer-installed accessories. If you have dealer-installed or aftermarket accessories, such as custom wheels or an audio system, add those to the car's value. Be sure you can produce a receipt that shows the cost at the time of installation.

Add taxes, registration, title and other fees to your calculation. Visit your state's department of motor vehicles website to determine the taxes and other charges, such as registration and title fees, that you will pay for a replacement car of equal value to your wrecked car. Your car insurance entitles you to these fees as part of the payout for a totaled car, because you would not incur them if you didn't need to replace your car.

Make sure your rental car is reimbursed. The costs for your rental car -- if you have that coverage -- should also be reimbursed until you receive a check to buy a new car. Your car insurance company may pay this separately, or it may add this to your payout check. However it is handled, make sure you are reimbursed.

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You were in a bad wreck, and your car insurance company says your vehicle was totaled. How can you be certain that your insurance payout will reflect what the car was totally worth, so you can buy a suitable replacement?

Do some research to determine for yourself how the car would have been valued before the crash. Don't take the insurer's word for it. Don't forget to factor in add-on accessories, such as your souped-up sound system or custom wheels. Your insurance also should compensate you for taxes, registration and other fees, so go on your state motor vehicles department website to learn those costs. Remember, you wouldn't be paying all that stuff a second time if you didn't need to replace your car.

If you and your insurance company can't agree on your payout amount, consult the website for your state's department of insurance to find out the process for handling insurance settlements for a totaled car.

Agree on the payoff amount. When the claims adjuster contacts you with the payout amount, compare that dollar figure to the amount you've calculated based on your research, using the tips above. If the amount your car insurance company is offering you is acceptable, then move forward with the offer. If it isn't, then don't be afraid to present the documentation you've gathered that explains how you arrived at your estimate.

What to do if you can't agree on the payoff amount. Car insurance is regulated by the department of insurance in your state, so visit your state's website to see how it handles insurance settlements for a totaled car. Many states have advocates who can help consumers, and all states have some method for consumers to file a complaint if they feel they are being treated unfairly. You can also request an independent appraisal of your car's value, which you would have to pay for, to get another opinion from an unbiased expert.

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If you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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