- A 30-year-old single man driving a 2013 Toyota Camry.
- A 30-year-old single woman driving a 2013 Toyota Camry.
- A 45-year-old married couple with two teens at home: an 18-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son. This fictitious family drives a 2014 Nissan Pathfinder and a 2012 Nissan Altima (four-door).
The survey concentrated on ZIP codes in areas the Pew Research Center identified as having a relatively poor area adjacent to a relatively wealthy area. But the sampling found no clear correlation between income levels and auto insurance premiums. In other words, the poorer areas didn't always have the higher rates, for example.
However, the results do suggest that all other things being equal -- coverage selections, liability limits, deductibles, etc. -- your ZIP code may determine what you pay for auto insurance.
So close, yet so far (in rates)
In the most extreme example, a comparison of one company's rates at two Chicago homes shows that a 30-year-old man could pay 64 percent more, depending on which side of a ZIP code boundary line he resides. The distance between the addresses used to obtain the quotes? Three-tenths of a mile -- or a five-minute walk from house to house.
The fact that auto premiums can vary so much within a fairly short distance may come as a shock to many consumers, but it isn't news to Carmen Balber.
"In most states, with the exception of California, insurance companies charge drivers more for living in some ZIP codes than others," says Balber, executive director for the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, California.
"We don't think that's the right policy," she says. "A ZIP code should not be the determining factor in a person's auto insurance rates. What should matter is how good of a driver you are."
What insurers say
But the insurance industry denies that your ZIP code is a deciding factor in what you pay for car insurance.
"It's not ZIP codes that drive insurance rates," says Robert Hartwig, president of the New York-based trade group the Insurance Information Institute. "It is the frequency and the cost of accidents within certain geographic areas that drive insurance rates."
Certain "location-dependent" variables can also affect auto premiums, he says. For example, fraud, theft and vandalism are issues in some areas that may affect rates.
"It's simply always been the case that you're going to see variation across geographic zones for auto insurance, simply because the risk is not constant as you move through these different territories," he says.
Regulators downplay ZIP code importance
State insurance regulators also say your ZIP code is not the only determinant affecting rates.
Urban population, miles driven per number of highway miles, and disposable income per capita all affect premium costs, according to an email from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
"High-premium states tend to also be highly urban, with higher traffic density. High traffic density is found in urban areas. Thus territory or ZIP code (the building block for territories) does matter," the association says.
A 58 percent price difference in Brooklyn
Other key findings from Bankrate's auto insurance survey include:
- After the Chicago example cited previously, another high variation in premiums between neighboring ZIP codes turned up in New York. At one of the insurers we surveyed, quotes for a 30-year-old man varied by 58 percent between sample addresses in neighboring Brooklyn ZIP codes. The homes were 1.6 miles apart.
- Boston, Philadelphia and Houston also had big rate differences between sample addresses in neighboring ZIP codes. In Houston, two insurers' auto premiums for each of the hypothetical customers varied by around 13 percent at addresses 0.3 miles apart but in different ZIP codes.
- Rate variations were not consistent for all customers. In Chicago, the insurance company with the 64 percent difference in rates between sample addresses for a 30-year-old man had no price difference at all between the two ZIP codes for a 30-year-old woman.
A 'way to redline'?
In national surveys, the Consumer Federation of America has found that lower- and moderate-income drivers often face unaffordable auto insurance rates.
Drivers with clean records living in lower-income areas of major cities have been charged annual premiums of $2,000 or more for the minimum amount of coverage required by their respective state, says Robert Hunter, the consumer federation's director of insurance. The group says its research shows that ZIP codes affect auto insurance rates.