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You can buy auto insurance online just about as easily as you can buy anything else. Like other forms of e-commerce, car insurance shopping lets you compare offerings and prices from multiple vendors quickly, and it makes it easy for you to specify features you want—and filter out those you don't need.
Shopping for auto insurance online even beats other forms of online shopping in one crucial way: You can usually complete your purchase and get coverage instantly. Still, there are a few ways buying car insurance online is more complicated than ordinary e-shopping, so here are a few things to keep in mind.
How Buying Car Insurance Online Works
Unless you've managed to shut out all commercial media, ads have probably made you aware of at least a couple car insurance companies that specialize in selling online. Many traditional auto insurers also conduct business on the web. If you have a preferred vendor, you can start with them, or just type "online auto insurance" into your favorite search engine. You'll likely find lots of individual insurers, plus a few sites that let you compare offers from multiple companies.
Online car insurance sites all operate more or less the same way: They'll ask you a few questions, including your ZIP code and the year, make and model of your car, and present you with a basic policy offer with a price quote. You can use menu entries to adjust the policy options (and watch the price change accordingly) to allow general price comparisons between offers.
While price quotes are useful for comparing companies' relative costs, keep in mind that they are estimates and subject to change based on a final check of your personal driving history and, often, your credit score. Getting a final quote requires you to enter additional personal information, possibly including your driver's license number or Social Security number, into the online web form. If you were at fault for recent car accidents, or if your credit score is less than exceptional, your final quote could be significantly higher than the estimated one.
If your final price quote is considerably higher than the estimate, try a different insurer, but keep in mind that whatever factors caused a premium jump with one company will likely cause comparable hikes in the final quotes from others. At the very least, consider getting final quotes from the companies that gave you your three lowest estimates. It's possible that your lowest final quote won't be from the one with the lowest estimate.
What to Consider When Shopping Online for Car Insurance
Before you start shopping, it's good to know what you're looking for in terms of coverage levels and other policy options. The major things to consider include:
- Liability coverage. Car insurance liability coverage, which covers you and anyone else injured or requiring car repairs in an accident for which you are responsible, is typically characterized as a series of three numbers such as $100,000/$300,000/$50,000 (or shorthand 100/300/50). In order, those numbers denote maximum coverage of: $100,000 per person for injuries; $300,000 total coverage on injuries per accident; and $50,000 per accident for property damage (to your vehicle and any other motorists').
Online insurers typically offer you the minimum legal coverage level required in your municipality, based on your ZIP code. They usually give you the option of buying higher coverage levels; 250/500/100 is the highest we found on a standard policy.
- Additional coverage. Some states require you to get coverage beyond basic liability protection with your auto insurance policy, including some combination of the following:
- Personal injury protection (PIP) insurance, which covers accident victims' lost wages and non-hospital medical treatment.
- Medical payments insurance, which covers you and your passengers no matter who is responsible for the accident.
- Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, which covers you and your passengers in accidents caused by other drivers who lack sufficient insurance to cover your expenses.
If any of this coverage is required in your state, online insurers will typically include it in their default policy offer. If you don't live in a state where these add-ons are required, you may be able to buy them as options with your auto policy. If an online insurer offers them, you'll see them in the policy configuration options.
- Deductible. The deductible is the amount you'll be expected to pay out of pocket before coverage applies to accidents for which you are responsible. If you have a $1,000 deductible and back in to a tree and do $2,000 of damage to your fender, your insurance company will pay $1,000 toward the repair. Typical car insurance deductible amounts range up to $1,500, but you can pay higher premiums to get a lower deductible, including $0. Your deductible is typically waived when you file a claim for an accident caused by another driver whose insurance company can cover your expenses.
- Add-on options. Many car insurance companies offer extras such as towing and roadside assistance services and allowance for a car rental when your vehicle is getting claim-related repairs. These additional services each have associated costs that get rolled into your premium; some insurance companies include them by default in their basic policy offers, while others require you to add them if you want them. Whether you want these add-ons or not, make sure those preferences are reflected in the configurations of any policies you're comparing by price.
If you already have car insurance, a good starting point for comparison shopping is your existing policy; chances are good you won't want to seek lesser coverage than you already have. If you don't have insurance already, if this is your first experience buying a car insurance policy, or if you've just moved to a new state, it might be useful to talk to an insurance expert before going online. Among other things, they can acquaint you with any minimum coverage requirements that may be specific to your state or municipality.
Advantages of Getting Insurance Online
All these options, and the different prices that go along with them, can make shopping for insurance confusing. But shopping online can actually help you understand the costs better: Adding options you want and removing those you don't can help you see the relative costs of various services easily, and you can take your time to make sure you get what you need.
And of course, you can shop for insurance online anytime, in your pajamas if you like, and visit multiple vendors in quick succession, without having to make appointments or get in the car. And when you finalize your purchase, you can print out your insurance cards at home or download them to your smartphone and begin driving immediately.
Downsides of Buying Insurance Online
The main drawback to buying car insurance online is the two-step process you must go through to get a final price quote, and the possibility of a discrepancy between the initial and final price estimates. You can't do much to prevent those discrepancies if they apply to you, but you can at least be realistic about anticipating them. Expect hikes if you've been responsible for an accident or cited for a moving violation in the past several years. And check your credit score before you apply for car insurance; you can expect some impact on your premiums if your score is less than very good. (You'll be notified by your insurer if your credit score is a factor in a premium increase.)
A secondary drawback to shopping online for car insurance is the possibility of getting on insurers' sales radars. If you don't want to receive offers via email (and snail mail) from the companies you're considering, be careful about checking the necessary boxes to opt out of their marketing efforts. There may be little you can do to avoid the consequences of cookies on the companies' respective websites; after a comparison shopping session, you'll likely see car insurance ads displayed on many of the websites you visit for weeks afterward.
Will Shopping for Car Insurance Online Hurt My Credit?
As discussed above, insurance companies issuing auto policies in many states use credit scores to help set their premiums. They do because credit scores correlate very closely with the amount it will cost an insurance company to cover an individual driver. Taken as a group, people with higher credit scores are less likely to incur losses on their policies, and the losses they do have tend to be less costly to insurers than those incurred by individuals with lower credit scores.
When a lender checks your credit score in connection with a loan or credit application, that hard inquiry causes a temporary dip in your credit score. But when an insurer pulls your credit score, there is no corresponding impact. An insurance-related score check will appear on your credit report as a soft inquiry, indicating that it does not adversely affect your credit score.
Shopping for car insurance online can be painless and even fun, as long as you know what you're looking for and you understand the relationship between estimates and final price quotes.