Are auto insurance agents a dying breed? Today, auto insurance is one of those service businesses that are becoming more and more dominated by online providers.
In fact, there's some question whether auto insurance agents are needed at all anymore. Do you really want to spend your Saturday morning visiting an auto insurance office being pitched on a single car insurance company's policy when you can buy auto insurance online any time - weekends, evenings, etc. Not only that, but buying auto insurance online enables you to compare the offerings of several companies side-by-side in terms of policies and premiums. What's more, you can buy the policy online (in most states), and even file claims online.
One might well point out, of course, that many people simply prefer meeting and talking face-to-face with an insurance agent, rather than simply pounding a computer keyboard. For one thing, they may feel more secure about transferring money (premium payments) in person than on the Internet. For another, they may prefer having a knowledgeable individual they can communicate with and ask questions of.
But the number of such people as a proportion of the adult population is clearly dwindling. According to market research firm ComScore, 67.5% of 2,000 U.S. consumers surveyed last year said they would consider purchasing their next auto insurance policy online. Auto insurance purchasing online has been growing at an amazing 55%+ rate over the past couple years.
Therefore, whether you're looking for a replacement policy or for your first policy, online auto insurance offers a number of benefits: cost-savings, convenience, speed, and better information about available policies from a range of insurance providers.
Nonetheless, before you sign up for a policy, whether in-person or online, make certain you're familiar with the basics of auto insurance.
Basics of Online Auto Insurance
If you drive a car in the U.S. you need insurance. That's an obvious fact. But what kind of insurance and at what price?
Liability insurance. As you may know, there are two basic types of liability insurance, namely bodily injury and property damage. If you buy a 25/30/25 coverage that means the insurer pays up to $25,000 for bodily injury per person, $30,000 for bodily injury per accident, and $25,000 for property damage per accident. So this would be a relatively low amount of coverage, and you must assess your own situation in deciding what level of coverage is best for you. All states, except New Hampshire and Wisconsin, require that you carry liability insurance.
Collision. This category of auto insurance covers your property damage and medical expenses in an accident in which you are at fault.
Comprehensive. This type provides coverage for loss from accidents other than collision, or from theft, for example property damage sustained from flood, fire, or vandalism.
Uninsured/underinsured motorist. Pays you if the other driver in an accident does not have insurance or does not have enough insurance. (It's not required in all states.)
Personal injury protection. Pays your unrecovered medical expenses as well as lost wages resulting from an accident. PIP may also include a death benefit. (About 16 states now require PIP coverage.)
A source of confusion are so-called "no-fault" auto insurance program. In a no-fault system, all drivers pay their own accident costs, no matter who is to blame. It was for a long time thought that this system would reduce litigation thereby holding down costs. It didn't happen. In fact it usually resulted in higher accident rates, higher costs, and higher insurance premiums. As a result, most states that had enacted no-fault laws repealed them (DC, NV, PA, NJ, GA, CT, CO, FL). leaving only Michigan, Kansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York North Dakota, and Utah. However a couple states - New Jersey and Pennsylvania - adopted "choice no-fault", allowing drivers to choose between no-fault and a traditional policy. (Results, in terms of premium levels, have been mixed so far.)
Keeping Your Premiums Down
To the average consumer, insurance firms may seem to have some strange ideas about what factors to consider in setting your insurance rates. For example, I once found my rates increased after another driver hit my car, and when I called the company, and explained that the accident had not been my fault, the customer service rep answered, "Yes, but you were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
That is, it's all a numbers game, and there's no real effort to achieve equity in setting rates. So to win the game you have to provide the company with numbers that will result in reasonable premiums. Some of these you have some control over and some you don't. Among the factors that will be taken into account are: age/gender (single males under 25 get higher rates; women generally get lower rates); location (New Jersey and California rates are high; urban rates are higher than rural rates; many companies now even look at your zip code); driving history (if you've filed one or more claims in the past five years, this will boost your premium significantly; so will a speeding ticket or other violation, even if no claim was filed); amount you drive; type of car (expensive cars get higher premiums, so do cars with high rates of theft, like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord; so do off-road vehicles and large SUV's).
Finding an Auto Insurance Company on the Internet
If you run a Google, MSN or Yahoo search for "car insurance" or "auto insurance" you'll see that this is a crowded business on the Internet. There are literally hundreds of companies advertising auto insurance online. However your best bet is to use one of the companies which allow you to order online, like Esurance.com or InsureMe.com.
You'll soon notice that each online insurance company has its own little qualifying process and series of screens it forces you to go through before it give you a quote.
Esurance.com is a good example. It starts by asking you for your zip code - an easy enough question. Then on the ensuing screens they request detailed information -- How many cars you are insuring. How many drivers. Year/Make/Model of your car. Uses of your car. Discounts for which you may be qualified, such as airbags, antilock brakes, car alarm, etc. Coverage you are looking for. And so forth.
The Esurance.com application process is actually fairly simple, and takes only a couple minutes - after which you're provided with a specific quote from Esurance.com, which is a virtual (online) insurance provider.
By contrast, another website, InsureMe.com takes you through a very similar application process, but concludes without providing you with a specific quote. Instead, it lists several brick-and-mortar insurance companies which will contact you later, either by email or phone, with specific quotes. This has the advantage that you will be able to compare policies and quotes, and the disadvantage that you will have to wait awhile for the companies to contact you.
Other auto insurance aggregators (as they are called) have other processes -- some, for example, run your credit report as part of the process.
In any case, as a final step in choosing a policy, you may want to take a little time to check out your selected insurance provider at AMBest.com, particularly if it's one you're not familiar with. To do so you'll have to create an account on AMBest.com to look up an auto insurance company's rating, but it's fairly simple to do so. Once you've created your account, click on "rating and analysis" and input your company's name. Companies are assigned a letter grade from "A++" downward. You'll definitely want your selected company to have at least a "B" rating, which is "good."
Incidentally, even if you already have what you think is a reasonably-priced policy, it's usually still a good idea to apply online to see if you can get a better premium rate. After all, there's no obligation and it only takes a couple minutes. According to a recent survey of consumers by the industry publication EDP Weekly, one in three people who shopped online for auto insurance and then bought a new policy saved more than $500 with some saving $1,100 or more.