The Right Insurance Company

If you’ve read our “10 Steps to Buying Insurance” article, you should have a pretty good idea of how much car insurance to buy and how to find a low-cost policy. But how do you make sure that the company you sign on with is going to be reliable? When we say “reliable,” we’re talking about how the insurer treats you, the customer. Most importantly, how will the company deal with you when you file a claim?

To help answer this question, we consulted two insurance experts: Dennis Howard, director of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network (I-CAN) and a retired insurance adjuster, and Doug Heller, a consumer advocate at The Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, a California-based consumer advocacy group. Both had several ideas for consumers determined to make sure their car insurance investment is directed toward a trustworthy company, one that will pay on time and in full.

1) Visit your state’s department of insurance Web site. Although you may not be familiar with it, your state, and every state, has a department of insurance. Most departments have Web sites, and many publish “consumer complaint ratios” for all of the insurance companies that sell policies in their state. This ratio tells you how many complaints a car insurance company received per 1,000 claims filed.

Both experts recommended that consumers use complaint ratios to screen prospective insurers. “Just because they’re a big name doesn’t mean that they’ll be a ‘good neighbor’ or that you’ll be ‘in their hands,'” Heller noted.

If you’ve done your homework, you should already have a list of car insurance companies with the lowest premium quotes. Now jot down the companies with the lowest (or best) complaint ratios. Then, compare your two lists — the companies that rank best on both lists merit your strongest consideration.

If you can’t find complaint ratios for your state, Heller recommends examining the complaint ratios published by other states. Keep in mind that a single insurance company’s practices can vary significantly from state to state — a subpar ratio in one state doesn’t necessarily mean the situation is the same in your state. But watch for general trends. If an insurer is getting a lot of complaints in several other states, you probably don’t want to get involved with this company. The I-CAN Web site provides links and contact information for every state’s department of insurance.

Also note that insurance department Web sites often provide basic rate comparison surveys. These can give you a rough idea of which insurers might interest you on a financial basis without the hassle of typing in all your personal information (as you must when you use one of the online quote sites).

2) Find out which insurers body shops recommend. One of the best ways to identify reliable insurers, according to Howard, is to contact local body shops that you trust and ask for their recommendations. Body shop managers have a unique perspective to offer, since they regularly interact with insurance adjusters. They know which companies have the smoothest claim processes, which affects how quickly the work can be completed on a damaged vehicle. And they know which companies are pushing aftermarket parts, in lieu of genuine original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts, to cut costs.

3) Check the J.D. Power Ratings. J.D. Power and Associates collects data from individual policyholders nationwide and rates them according to coverage options, price, claims handling, satisfaction with company representatives and the overall experience. A quick visit to the J.D. Power Consumer Center will give you a feel for how the major carriers stack up. J.D. Power also publishes an annual survey of major auto insurers — Amica and Erie have finished at the top for the last three years. These are also companies that Howard recommends: “Erie is sold by independent agents, who are very knowledgeable about the product. I like their claims handling approach. Almost all other companies look at a claim and find a way to not pay it. Erie and Amica will look at it and try to find a way to cover it.”