Buying Auto & Renters Insurance

I just finished comparison shopping for auto and renter's insurance and the reward for my several hours of effort was a 20% savings. Below I explain both what kind of insurance Marina and I bought and how we comparison shopped.

Auto Insurance

Finding a Good Company

My first stop was Consumer Reports (CR). I subscribe to their website and I found some great articles on Auto Insurance. As the only source for truly independent consumer information I feel that financially supporting them is one of the smarter moves I have made. Certainly the amount of money their advice has saved me over the years has more than paid for the subscription cost. The article I liked the most was "Car Insurance for Less" from Oct/2002.

CR's favorite website for checking insurance rates is Insweb. Their quote process was relatively painless but the final quotes were close to but didn't beat our current Geico quote. Per CR's recommendation I also checked out State Farm and Esurance. Both gave much higher quotes than Geico's. I then looked at Progressive and was blown away, they gave a quote that was nearly 20% less than Geico's! There was a catch but one I was very happy to live with – Progressive only gives the really low rate if we pay the full amount of the six month insurance up front. Given current interest rates we will make money giving it to Progressive up front then trying to earn interest on it while we pay installments.

Still, saving money wouldn't do us any favors if it turned out that Progressive has lousy service or tries to screw people on coverage. To get an idea for how well they served their customers I followed the link CR provided to find the insurance commissioner for my state where I found a list of all the auto insurance companies who do business in my state along with a rating for how many complaints they get per amount of insurance they provide. Progressive does get more complaints than Geico but not by a whole lot.

Next up was fiscal soundness. What use is an insurance policy from a company that goes bankrupt? I checked Progressive out against the three major credit rating agencies: A.M. Best (A+ or A++), Moody's (Aaa or Aa) and Standard and Poor's (AAA or AA). The entries in parenthesis after each credit rating company's name is the rating that company uses to indicate that the insurance company they are rating has 'outstanding financial health'. Progressive's rating was: A+, Aa2, A+. Two outstanding ratings out of three seems reasonable to me.

Setting Up The Right Policy

There is a ton of information on the various components of an auto insurance policy available in books and on the Internet so I won't repeat it here. The CR article I mentioned before has a concise description of the different types of coverage along with suggestions on how much coverage to get for each. There are three types of coverage that we don't carry on our auto insurance policy – Personal-Injury Protection (PIP)/Medical Payments, Roadside Assistance and Rental Reimbursement. Since both Marina and I are covered by good medical insurance there is no reason for us to get PIP. We are members of the AAA so there is no need to get roadside assistance. Finally, we have two cars and I work from home so we are willing to 'self insure' for rental reimbursement.

I also increased the collision and comprehensive deductibles to the highest possible value we could comfortably live with. It makes a big difference on the cost of insurance. It might seem pyrrhic to use a high deductible, after all, what's the point in having insurance if it doesn't cover the full liability? But we have another form of insurance – an emergency fund. This fund is intended to cover sudden unexpected expenses like losing a job or, for example, one of our cars getting damaged. By having a low deductible and an emergency fund we would effectively be double insuring. So in figuring out how high a deductible we can handle we looked at how much money is in our emergency fund.

OEM Parts

One of the nastier bits of auto insurance is the issue of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts. If one of our cars is damaged and needs to be repaired we want to use parts provided by the car's original manufacturer so we can make sure that the part will match the quality and safety of the original car. But insurance companies generally don't like OEM parts because they are expensive. Insurance companies, with a few exceptions, will insist on using imitation parts. CR did a study of imitation bumpers and fenders back in 1999 and found that their quality was consistently lower than the OEM parts, sometimes dangerously so even though all the parts they tested were certified by CAPA. CAPA is an organization that tries to certify imitation parts for quality. In some states, including I believe Washington, consumers are not even required to be told when their car is repaired with an imitation rather than an OEM part. Insurance companies also like to require people to use remanufactured parts. These are defective parts that the OEM originally rejected but later tried to repair and now certifies.

The way that insurance companies, including Progressive and GEICO, force people to use imitation or re-manufactured parts is by writing estimates for the repair that assume the use of imitation/re-manufactured parts. If we want to insist on an OEM part then Progressive will insist we pay the difference.

When an insurance company covers a car they only guarantee to repair the car to the condition it was when before it was damaged. So if our 1993 car is damaged the insurance company will argue that they shouldn't have to use a new part (OEM, imitation or re-manufactured) but instead will insist on a salvaged part (e.g. a part removed from a totaled car). Salvaged parts are obviously not as good as new parts but the insurance company will argue that it is in the same condition as our car was before it was damaged and therefore they are meeting their requirement to return the vehicle to its 'original' condition.

It can be hard to tell what the insurance company uses in doing their estimates but the letters LKQ is a sure give away, it means "Like Kind and Quality", e.g. an imitation, re-manufactured or salvaged part.

Insurance companies have been sued a number of times over the last few years about non-OEM parts and some have lost. State Farm in particular lost a billion dollar lawsuit on the subject and now, I'm told, has a policy that if customers ask for OEM parts they will be given OEM parts. Other insurance companies, such as Chubb, always insist on OEM parts. An insurance company's policy on OEM parts are often different on a state by state basis and can change at any time.

I called up Progressive's claim office in Seattle and asked them about their policy. They said that the kind of parts they will consider are based on the age of and miles on the car. In the case of our 1993 and 1994 cars the adjuster told me that these cars would be cleared for every possible part source (e.g. imitation, re-manufactured and salvaged) and they would write the estimate for whatever was cheapest. My only recourse would be to argue that the part they wanted to use didn't match our car's condition. My car in particular has very low mileage because it was low-mileage when I bought it, I used to drive it a few miles to work and for the last few years I've worked out of my home. So I might have a leg to stand on. Even Marina's car has relatively low mileage and both cars have been well maintained with several systems repaired or completely replaced. This gives us a good argument for getting better quality parts.

Progressive's policy makes me unhappy. I will definitely be looking out for another company to switch to. But I'm currently gambling that we'll be able to argue Progressive into using better parts based on the car's condition or in the worst case paying for the difference ourselves. From what I've seen the majority of the cost of repairing a car is labor not parts and that the price difference between OEM and other parts is large but not outrageously so. In effect our insurance coverage is less than what it should be.

Renter's Insurance

Finding a Good Company

It was a lot harder to get renter's (a.k.a. tenant's) insurance quotes than Auto quotes on the Internet. I went to insweb but they just sent me to netQuote and Amica, both of which looked a bit shifty to me. Esurance only covers cars and Progressive doesn't offer renter's insurance. Since I couldn't get good quotes on the net I would have to find quotes myself by contacting companies I was interested in getting quotes from. To figure out which companies I wanted to look into I went back to my state's insurance commissioner's office and looked at their list of the top 50 companies writing homeowner/tenant policies in Washington by revenue. My theory being that a company that does a lot of business in Washington should know the market well. To narrow down the list I arbitrarily choose to only look at companies doing at least $10 million dollars in business whose complaint ratio was below 1. I then took the remaining entries on the list and ran them by the three previously mentioned credit rating agencies. In the end only three companies made it through all of these filters. I also threw in Travelers for old time's sake. The results were:

Insurance Company A.M. Best Moody's Standard and Poor's
Allstate Insurance Group A+ Aa2 AA
Chubb Group A++ Aa2 AA
State Farm A+ Aa1 AA
Travelers (Standard Fire Insurance Company) A+ Aa3 A+

Travelers only got two out of three excellent ratings but I decided to let it slide. Of the four listed companies only State Farm has an online form to give renters insurance estimates and their form isn't sufficiently flexible to describe our situation. So it was time to pick up the phone. State Farm has its own captive agents network so I just called the local office. For Travelers I called up Geico who was the agent for my current policy and also an agent that the Traveler's site directed me to (agents can and do offer discounts so contacting multiple ones can be profitable). For Allstate and Chubb I pulled down a list of their agents and tried to find agents who were on both lists and who employed Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriters (CPCU) agents. The CPCU website provides an agent list which is searchable by city. After a bunch of phone calls and a lot of insurance offers (including two agents who gave significantly different prices for identical insurance from the same insurance company) I finally figured out that State Farm had the best deal going for renter's insurance.

Setting Up The Right Policy

In buying renter's insurance the key thing I look for is that the insurance covers full replacement cost rather than at original cost. Even policies that had 'full replacement cost' weren't necessarily what they seemed. For example, one company had a 20% deductible on replacement coverage policies.

Another feature I care about is earthquake coverage. Seattle doesn't get very many earthquakes but the ones it does get are major. Of course, as the previous link shows, the really major ones aren't all that frequent. Still, I'm paranoid so I pay to get earthquake coverage. Not everyone even offers it. Traveler's coverage was especially nice, they had a fixed deductible and then covered all damage over that. State Farm on the other hand has a 10% deductible.

Renter's policies have various gotchas. Things like mold usually have limited damage coverage and an extra rider is usually needed to cover water backup. Also none of these policies provide flood coverage, that has to be purchased separately.


Companies like State Farm that handle multiple lines of insurance offered discounts if we get both auto and renter's insurance with them. I certainly took these discounts into consideration but after doing the math the savings from getting our auto policy from Progressive and our renter's insurance from State Farm was so high that it outweighed all the discounts I was offered.

The single biggest lesson I have taken away from this experience is that comparison shopping of insurance rates is a very worthwhile endeavor. The lowest bids I got were more than two times lower than the highest bids I got for identical insurance. The rates we had going into this were already quite good (they easily beat the vast majority of current bids I saw) and I was still able to beat our current costs by another 20% via comparison shopping.

Another point I also keep in mind is that past insurance rates are not necessarily predictive of future insurance rates. For example, for year's Geico's quote for our auto policy obliterated everyone else, now they are good but not the lowest. Part of the reason for these price swings is that insurance compares are not, well, insurance companies. They are actually investing firms. The way they typically make their profits is by taking in premiums and then investing those premiums. If the insurance company doesn't think there is a good investing environment then they will raise their premiums because they need the extra money to make the stock market's profit expectations. When they think there is a good investing environment they will lower their premiums in order to get as much money to invest as possible. So just because a company previously gave a bad quote doesn't mean that at some point in the future their rate structure might not completely change.

9 thoughts on “Buying Auto & Renters Insurance”

  1. I have a few warnings about my experience with Progressive. A couple of years ago I had a window broken and some property stolen from my car. The property was not covered but by MN law the glass is covered 100%. Progressive wanted to specify how and when the glass was fixed. When I told them I was going to take it to the Dealer they were not happy. They did pay the bill, which by the way, was less than they had allocated for their shop. The fun part was that they retroactively raised my rates. That 6 month bill you paid is not real. You are just paying ahead. If they choose to raise your rates 2 months in they just send you a new bill and call it late.

  2. The irony is that since I wrote this article I actually switched providers again. This time I'm with Allstate which has a long history of awful service. But service is local and its complaint rate in Washington is very low as a percentage of the business it does here. Still, all insurance companies I suspect have a long history of awful behavior. It comes down to picking who sucks least in your local area. Insurance is a deeply ugly business, especially when the stock markets aren't doing well and insurance companies actually try to make money from insurance rather than just using it as a cheap way to get capital to invest.

  3. I too want to support insurance companies that support my labor organization but I also want an insurance company that operates in good faith with their clients. There ia a website called Fight Bad Faith Insurance Companies
    in which they list the 100 best and the 100 worst companies. I chose my insurance based on a company that is listed as Blue and Good Faith!

  4. Is it any wonder why we pay more for insurance.
    Check out the Progressive TV commercial.
    Passengers sticking their heads out of car windows, passengers riding with their feet on the dashboard. motorcycle jumping a hill.Although this is just a commercial, it happens. We pay for these assholes like this on every premium.
    Try giving the customers who don’t do this a reward. Insurance is the biggest scam around.

  5. Well-rated USAA, after 41 years, sought to DROP me, following fire at my home garage. USAA’s choice of restoration Co. (Blackmun Mooring) was used & botched deal by $10,000+ causing awful problems. USAA promised to stand behind B-Mooring and did not. State of TX overturned USAA’s “drop” after I appealed.
    If you are dropped by one Co., you’re “fodder” for “assigned risk” rates from EVERY Co.
    My 41-year claims total (8 autos, 2 homes, house contents, renters, etc) was probably well under $1,000. (frozen water pipe at city curb). fkpaine

  6. Allstate, insuror of both TX cars in 2-car accident, said both equally at fault–manifestly not the case given final position of cars, etc. Allstate paid victim only after suit was filed in small claims court following months of wrangling, double-speak & legal statements which appear false. fkpaine

  7. I actually keep all my deductibles maxed out so that my rates are lower and so that I don’t file smaller claims. My understanding is that insurance companies count smaller claims heavily against you so skipping them is goodness. I view home, car, etc. insurance as essentially a form of disaster insurance so that if something really horrific happens I don’t lose everything.

  8. Bait & Switch:
    Yesterday filed comprehensive claim and was told to take to local body shop that Progressive did business with. Asked if it furnished loaners. Told no, but Progressive had a deal with Enterprise and, even though I did not have rental insurance, I could get that deal and rent a car from Enterprise at $18.00 a day. I agreed. Enterprise picked me up at body shop and took me to their offices. They did not have a car immediately available at that location but offered me have a pick up. I was not particularly interested in pickup but was willing to use it for the day. They said bring it bac at 4:30 to 5 pm and they would see if they had a mid size returned by then to put me in and they would do that at $33.00 a day. I said, no way, Progressive said that it would only cost me $18.00 a day. Well they said they had not heard from Progressive and could do no better than rent me a vehicle for $33.00 a day. I find their failure to hear from Progressive a little hard to believe as the Body shop had the claims information when I arrived. Clear bait and switch as I see it, sitting here, at my home computer (having walked about 22 blocks home). More that PO’d. My dealer, where I bought the car, has furnished me free loaner cars (almost new Carolas) for all of my service and other work lasting over half a day since I bought the car in 1998. I called my adjuster, who is off today. I called his boss, who is not off, but he was away from his desk or on the other phone and that feels like it was over an hour ago. I have been a Progressive policy holder for over six years and this is my first claim with this car and perhaps my first claim while a Progressive policy holder.

  9. I use to work for this company as a claims representative believe me when i tell you this is a very cheap unethical inusr ance company progressive treats employees horribly and forces them to steer customers into the csc and network repair facilities that do substandard work i don; t feel like getting into all of this but basically i quit b/c i couldnt sleep at night from ripping people off if anyone wants to know further info you can im me at nittanylionpsu82 on aol im

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