How to deal with a totaled car?
March 4, 2010 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on how to handle my car being "totaled" in an accident where the other driver was at fault.

About two weeks ago, another driver ran a red light and slammed into my car. Fortunately no one was seriously hurt, but my car has been deemed a total loss; naturally this occurred just days after paying it off. The car was previously in excellent condition, I'd had it meticulously maintained at the dealer's shop and I planned on keeping it for another 5-7 years. Although the driver side doors were smashed, the damage didn't seem all that bad, but my insurance company finally told me today that they're going to declare it a total loss.

I've never been through this process, so I could use some advice to make sure I don't get taken advantage of. Here are a few facts:

1. The other driver admitted running the red light and the officer confirmed that fact is in the police report. The officer told me at the time of the accident that I did not need to collect the other driver's name and insurance information, because this would also be in the police report.

2. I have not personally seen the police report. My insurance company requested it from them, but told me today they still had not received it. I called the police department this afternoon and they admitted the delay, but said they would send it to them right away.

3. Therefore, I still don't know who the other person's insurance company is or what their rules are for reimbursing me for the car I've been renting or other expenses I've paid (such as a doctor visit following the accident). All dealings so far have been with my insurance company (who is widely regarded as one of the best).

4. The claims services person they sent to inspect the damage did not accurately state the condition of my car, so I've disputed it. My insurance company is sending out someone else (an employee rather than a contractor this time) to re-evaluate it, but they want me to "release" my car from the body shop where I had it towed. They say this is to avoid storage fees, but the body shop owner says it's to put me in a weaker negotiating position. Maybe he's right, but maybe he just wants the repair work. I have no prior relationship with the body shop, though my neighbor recommends them highly.

5. The amount the insurance company has offered me is not insulting, but certainly less than what I could probably by a similar car for from the dealer. The body shop says that the repair would cost much less than a new car. I don't know who to believe.

6. I am in Missouri, in case it matters.
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't understand the point about how a car being at the mechanic's puts you in a weaker negotiating position. That claim sounds like a non sequitur.
posted by dfriedman at 10:42 AM on March 4, 2010

I went through a very similar thing recently. 1 to 3 sound normal. Your insurance company will eventually get the police report and with it, the other guy's details. If it's declared a total loss and if you accept this, they will probably stop your rental reimbursement almost immediately (what happened to me), so keep that in mind.

Regarding what the body shop guy said -- you probably realize this -- he wants your business.

I generally hate arguing about financial stuff like this -- not worth the headache and would rather just move on -- and so just took the payment for the total loss and got something new.
posted by whiskeyspider at 10:45 AM on March 4, 2010

Generally speaking, a car is "totalled" when the anticipated cost to repair the car equals or exceeds the blue book value of the car. Since the blue book value of the car is ostensibly how much it would cost for you to buy another (used) car of the same year/make/model/condition, in theory you should be able to do just that.

However, the insurance company wants to pay as little as possible, and the body shop wants to make as much as possible. Here are a few things to find out:

1. How much does the body shop claim it will cost to fix the damage using OEM parts? This should come in the form of a written estimate.

2. How much does the insurance company want to give you for the car, in order to total it? This should come in the form of a written offer.

3. How much would it cost to replace your car with as near to an identical one you can find? Don't work hard on this, just search CarMax and a few classified ad sites to get a ballpark, and look at for the retail value of a car in the right (pre-accident) condition, then average 'em all out. Be sure to print out the CarMax, classified and kbb information you've used to generate the average.

Then, do one of these:

A: if the insurance company's offer is within a few hundred of the average retail cost for a replacement, it's a solid offer. If it's higher, even better. Either way, go buy a replacement. If it's lower, bring them the results of your research and attempt to negotiate a higher total payout. If you succeed, go buy a replacement. Be sure to scour your policy for references to "replacement value" or similar.

B: if the insurance company's offer is too low, and stays that way, compare the offer to the written body shop estimate. Can they fix it for that price? Find out if your insurance company will let you get it fixed (the fix-instead-of-total payout, where you get to keep the car, is likely somewhat lower.) If they agree, and you trust the body shop not to raise the cost once the work has progressed, get it fixed.

C: if the offer you have from the insurance company remains too low for a replacement, and remains too low to fix the car, then you're not in great shape -- accept what you get (assuming you fought the good fight earlier) and change insurance companies for your new car to one that offers replacement value at current market rates for a totaled car.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 10:49 AM on March 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

Oh, and the car leaving the body shop it is at puts that body shop in a weaker position -- if you leave the car there, you're more likely to have it fixed there. Ignore that bit of advice from the body shop, after confirming that if it gets towed out of the body shop and eventually back to another one for fixing, your insurance will cover both tows.
posted by davejay at 10:50 AM on March 4, 2010

Couple of things to add to davejay's really great advice:

Often a car will be totaled if the *frame* of the car gets bent in such a way that the car becomes dangerous. It can be really hard for a non-expert to evaluate something like structure stability.

Ask the insurance company *why* they are totaling the car. If it's because it would cost as much to fix as replace, or if it is because the car can not be safely repaired in such a way that they would continue to insure the car.

If it can be repaired, and it's just a cost issue, find out what their policy is for letting you keep and repair the car, or buying the car from them out of the settlement. I did that with my '65 Shelby when it got "totaled". I accepted the settlement, gave them $300 of it, kept the Pony, and had her towed to a friend who made her part of a high school auto body repair project. (She was gorgeous when they were done.) However, that was 20 years ago, and I had active duty coverage from USAA. Your mileage may vary.

Find out rental reimbursement before you accept a settlement. I have a rental policy that covers me until I get a replacement car or X period of time, but I pay extra for that coverage, and it's my policy, not the other policy doesn't cover the rental costs of the other driver if I were to cause an accident. (Again, USAA...your mileage may vary.)

I've only had one insurance company for 25 years, but in that time, they have always negotiated in good faith. I cannot say if this is indicative of the industry, but I believe auto companies want to keep their customers, and if this accident isn't your fault, they have no reason to try and get rid of you by treating you poorly.

Follow davejay's advice about valuation, and be sure to ask if the structural stability of the car is why they're totaling it out.

I'm glad that you're ok. I'm sorry about your car. Best of luck!
posted by dejah420 at 11:46 AM on March 4, 2010

Practices may differ by state and carrier, but when a car is totaled here, you would get a list of prior local ads for used car sales for the same make, model and often year. From this, the insurance company adds and subtracts for things like after-market CD player, pin stripping, etc. Sadly, deal maintenance (as opposed to oil changes from the independent mechanic down the street) don't often add much to the value of a car, contrary to how you may feel.

Medical expenses, depending on state, are billed to No Fault. Are you in a No Fault state?

As for the condition of your car, take photos. If you think the company isn't doing a good job, start the documentation.

I've heard of insurance companies totalling cars when the repair value is 75% the value of the vehicle.

Everyone else covered the rest of the details.
posted by Brian Puccio at 11:53 AM on March 4, 2010

The insurance company's offer is negotiable. Do some research on similar replacements, and counter-offer. When my car was totaled, I negotiated to keep it, for a friend who brought it back to life. It was never right after that, so don't do this unless you're really sure it's a good idea.
posted by theora55 at 11:54 AM on March 4, 2010

Call a decent personal injury lawyer. Even without injuries, a lawyer can get more for your totaled vehicle than you can by yourself (I learned this the hard way, when I foolishly accepted Blue Book value on my beloved wrecked vehicle, only to find out later from an insurance agent that I could have several thousand more had I contacted a lawyer first.)

Don't sign anything without talking with a lawyer -- consultations are generally free, so there's nothing to lose by trying.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:59 PM on March 4, 2010

You say you've had it meticulously maintained? Did you keep the records? That type of proof goes a long way in getting higher than Blue Book average in your settlement. Definitely negotiate with the other driver's insurance company.
posted by look busy at 2:12 PM on March 4, 2010

Isn't the other guy's insurance supposed to pay? If so, and your company hasn't contacted his company, how would you know what they are going to offer? Also, most insurance companies have a list of certified body/auto shops they want you to go to, which is understandable.

If you can, go through their insurance and have them pay for it.
posted by TheBones at 3:19 PM on March 4, 2010

Often a car will be totaled if the *frame* of the car gets bent in such a way that the car becomes dangerous.

Modern automobiles (read: the last 20+ years) have unibody construction. There is no frame anymore. .

If the settlement offer you receive from your insurance company is good, work with them. They will subrogate the finances with the insurance provider of the at-fault party. It will be much easier on you to handle it this way. You should, however, make sure the adjuster(s) who saw/sees your car has ICAR certification

If you've been injured, or the settlement offer is way too low, consider calling an attorney. Don't be dazzled by the television commercials, though - it's a lot of hassle and trouble for what may only be a couple hundred dollars extra, and you could actually lose money after the attorney's 30 to 35% fee.

But if you were hurt at all in the crash and have medical expenses, the lawyer is the best bet because it's possible you could have problems from the injuries for a long time to come.
posted by lambchop1 at 5:46 PM on March 4, 2010

Don't negotiate with the other guy's insurance. Negotiate with your insurance company, they're the ones that want you happy so they keep your business. Your insurance company then takes the money from the other guy's.

We had our truck totalled last week. Our offer was like what Brian Puccio said, they sent three ads for vehicle similarly equipped to ours and showed the price of the vehicle, this value was used to determine the replacement value of the truck. The report that calculated the price of the vehicle ran 15 pages long, it included an assessment (good/dealer ready/normal wear/poor) of the vehicle in the parts that were not smashed so you could do an apples to apples comparison. If your insurance company doesn't give you this info, they suck. Ask for it.

The offer is negotiable. Make sure that they are not applying your deductible to the offer, in an at-fault claim this will go against the other guy's insurance. An extra $500 helps. Also we were allowed to send in receipts for things like car seats, new tires to adjust amount of payout.

Note that our report did not contain a detailed estimate of the damages and what it would take to fix the problem. Given that my husband was driving a 1998 truck that got hit at 60 miles an hour, this was not a problem for us. Your case is different, ask the insurance company for a written estimate for the fix if you really think you will come out ahead and it will save them money.
posted by crazycanuck at 4:58 AM on March 5, 2010

Nthing davejay and dejah420. When I went through this (with my beloved first Subaru), I kept negotiating with the insurance company for the money I had put into the car. New tires, stereo upgrade, new brakes. All of that stuff counts so make sure you bring it to their attention!

In my case, as dejah420 said, the frame was crunched so I could not keep the car on the road. It was a sad, sad, time. You have my sympathies.
posted by getawaysticks at 5:28 AM on March 5, 2010

From my experience, the previous posters have it right. A couple of additions:

1. Submit all of your maintenance/upgrade records to the insurance company. Don't hesitate to tout the fact that your car was in excellent condition and argue for a higher valuation once you've looked up Blue Book values and know what you're talking about. I had just put new wheels/tires and had some work done on my car the day some yokel rear-ended me, and the insurance company took this and its extensive maintenance history into account and significantly raised the offer. You have to be firm and stand by your convictions when talking to these insurance agents/adjusters though--you need to show them you mean business and won't back down.

2. Having your car declared a total loss absolutely sucks. I have sadly been in this position twice, both times with cars that have similarly been impeccably maintained. I fought the insurance company when the first car, which didn't look all that beat up, was declared a total loss and the insurance-approved body shop refused to work on it. Instead, I took it to another body shop to get their advice. After 1.5 weeks of my car sitting there while the shop estimated the repair costs, looked for used parts, my insurance company investigated, and my deciding if I wanted to go through with the repair, I actually had a mechanic friend take a look at the car. I was pulled in two directions: the insurance company said it had irreparable damage, and the body shop said, oh no problem, we can fix all of this for $3500 and the car will be up and running. I didn't know who to believe!

My friend told me that the body shop's offer was a real lowball, and even after just a cursory inspection, he could tell that the estimate didn't include everything, like repairing a whole strut tower. Lesson learned: get an independent mechanic to take a look at your car and give you an honest estimate. Both the insurance company and the body shop have dogs in the fight and want to save and make money, respectively. When I told the body shop that the sum to really get the car up and running again would be too high and that they had missed important work on the estimate, they were NOT happy. They tried to charge me a $600 storage fee even though I was never told about the possibility of a storage fee/nothing was written on my estimate (and to boot, my car wasn't even locked in their lot, it was sitting across the street). The body shop was banking on my insurance company's paying the fee--which they refused to do--so I argued the hell out of not paying it out of my own pocket. Bottom line is you don't want to leave your car at the body shop while you wait who knows how long for you/the insurance company to decide to proceed. If you don't, it'll be storage fees out the ying yang.

3. I was never sent any ads with similarly equipped vehicles--this must be a state-by-state policy (or a policy based on your insurer).

4. Be glad there's no serious injuries in this accident. Wrangling with an insurance company to get them to cover the cost of doctor's visits, radiology, physical therapy, etc. that exceed the regional standard cost (which is usually low) can be gut wrenching.

Good luck! Feel free to memail me if you've got any questions.
posted by trampoliningisfun at 9:15 AM on March 5, 2010

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