Are Car Insurance Photo Estimates Accurate?

Quick Answer

Car insurance photo estimates may be accurate, but they may be only the first part of the estimating process. They may be followed up by an in-person examination and a revised estimate if more damage is found that was not visible in pictures.

A woman holds up her red phone to take a picture of her damaged gray car.

Depending on your insurance coverage, your insurer may offer a simple app for you to submit photos following an accident or damage to your vehicle. This could save you time and a trip to the body shop. But can an estimate made based on photos alone be accurate?

The accuracy of a car insurance photo estimate may depend on several variables, including the quality of the photos submitted. Ultimately, you may need to be ready to take a trip to the body shop for a full appraisal anyway. Here's why.

What Are Photo Estimates?

Photo estimates are digital car repair estimates usually done through an app. You use the app to take pictures of your damaged car and send the photos to an insurance adjuster. The adjuster then views the damage and writes an estimate for you to take to a repair shop.

Estimators must base their estimates on the quality of the photos customers submit. Some insurers offer guidance on how to take the best pictures so the estimate can be written as accurately as possible, but there's still plenty of room for error.

The estimate details all of the parts you need repaired and how much the insurance company will pay to have them fixed. This estimate then accompanies the vehicle to a body shop so repairs can start.

These days, about 60% of car insurance estimates are made using photos. They became particularly common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but can offer a convenient way to get an estimate on your damages at any time.

Are Photo Estimates Accurate?

Of course, some may feel these estimates are only convenient if they are also accurate and won't require you to get several estimates or spend extra time at the body shop or on the phone with your insurance company.

Opinions on the accuracy of photo estimates range across the auto industry. Insurers and the Insurance Information Institute maintain that photo estimates based on what is visible in submitted photographs are as accurate as a field adjuster looking at the vehicle in person.

However, body shop professionals express serious dissatisfaction with these digital claims. They cite initial photo estimates providing too-low totals that must be reassessed in person as a continued source of frustration. They say photos do not provide the nuance necessary for all damage to be recognized and addressed in these digital estimates.

Similarly, customers are also often dissatisfied with photo estimates compared with traditional practices, perhaps due to unexpected problems being revealed at the body shop requiring further intervention from an appraiser.

What Is a Supplement and Why May You Need One?

Further intervention beyond a photo estimate is known as a supplement. A supplement is an addendum to the original estimate when or if further damage is discovered once repairs begin. They may be common with photo estimates due to the limitations of photos to show all damage in some cases.

Photo estimates may more frequently require in-person supplements, which could cost up to 50% more. There is some debate about what can be estimated visually in a photo and what must be examined in person. If more than surface damage is possible, photo estimates may not be ideal and it may be a wise choice to head to the body shop for an inspection.

Supplements can feel frustrating for customers because they are often accompanied by extended repair times and a bigger price tag (which the insurer still intends to cover). But they are normal, extremely common steps for insurers to formally amend their estimate when more damage is found during the repair process.

Pros and Cons of Using a Photo Estimating App

If your vehicle has recently been damaged and you're debating using a photo estimate app or taking it to a body shop to get looked at in-person, here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros

  • Convenient and timesaving: When they are accurate, photo estimates save the vehicle owner time and effort.
  • Quick compensation: If your main goal is to get compensated for minor damage, cash the insurance check and move on without repairs, then photo estimating may be your best option.

Cons

  • Undervalued compensation: Even if you just want to get the check, there's some concern these are undervalued payouts and you may get more when examined in person.
  • Safety issues: Safety issues that are not visible in a photo may not be caught, leaving you to drive with them unless you take the vehicle to a body shop and it is examined in person as well.
  • May end up costing more time: If you hope to get a jump on the repair process by starting with a photo estimate, you may be disappointed to discover a supplementary estimate is needed and that your timetable has been pushed back.

The Bottom Line

Thinking about getting new car insurance that has modern options like photo estimates? You can compare your current policy with apples-to-apples coverage options from over 40 top insurance providers in minutes when you use Experian's auto insurance comparison tool.

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