Should I avoid the cheapest car insurance I can find?
May 11, 2020 5:14 AM   Subscribe

How different, really, are car insurance companies? Should I be suspicious of one that is much cheaper than others? (USA)

My husband and I recently bought an (older, used) car. We're both new to car ownership & insurance, although not new to driving. In evaluating policies, I ran my details through the price estimator of a couple different companies:
-Allstate, because I've had my renter's insurance though them for years
-State Farm, because that's where my parents' insurance is (and I think I may still technically listed as a driver on that, even though we live in different states & households)
-Liberty Mutual, via a comparison search on, where it came up as the cheapest by far
At each level of coverage (all liability-only), Liberty Mutual was consistently about 1/3 the price of the other two, which seemed suspiciously cheap. I even triple-checked that I gave them all the right information. Plus, a cursory google did show a ton of negative reviews (but I do realize those results may be pretty biased). Nevertheless, because I needed something to drive off the lot with and because the price seemed so good, I went ahead and started a policy with them anyways.

I'm still second-guessing that decision, though - how much do auto insurance companies actually differ? Is it worth it to pay several times as much for a better-reviewed company? Should I go through a broker to get a more comprehensive price comparison? How do people generally pick a company?
posted by mosst to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This varies from state to state, but auto insurance is a pretty highly regulated industry. So at some fundamental level, all companies have to actually pay out claims, have a certain level of financial assets etc. or risk not being able to operate in a given state. Also, since you have liability insurance only, the only people filing claims against your insurance company will be the people you crash in to in a you're-at-fault-accident. (You don't live in a no-fault state, right?) So, if, for example, your insurance company's claims process is cumbersome, that's going to inconvenience someone else. (Which is not to say that you shouldn't have some concern about potential victims of your driving, but...ultimately they have to pay out.) I would be more concerned about your liability coverage limit levels than anything else; the state mandated minimum levels of insurance are really low. Here in Illinois, it's like $25K and there are a lot of cars on the road worth far more than that, let alone the bottomless pit of medical expenses if an accident injures someone.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 5:32 AM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had Liberty Mutual for years, and they were fine. Now, they can tend to increase their charges quietly year over year, so eventually, they're more expensive after awhile. Also, they were very inflexible with kids.

They basically tripled my insurance when my sons began to drive. Sure, I expected some increase, but even with one away at college, without his car, they were charging me full freight.

Geico ended up costing me for 4 cars and 3 young adult drivers about what I was paying for 2 cars and 1 young adult driver (and of course, mom and dad). And the don't charge when kids are away at college.

BUT - as long as all the line-items are the same on collision, liability limits, deductions, no-fault, riders for not being able to sue, and etc... one insurance doesn't really matter over another. Each has their little gimmick.

So, if Liberty Mutual is 1/3 the price, and you can see line-by-line it's the same coverage.. there you go. They worked fine for me for 20 years.

(I'd check Geico, too, just FYI.. my homeowners wanted to bundle in my car insurance and when he saw what I was paying said "I can't touch that.")
posted by rich at 5:34 AM on May 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

As long as you're comparing apples to apples (i.e., same inputs, same exact coverage types and levels), then you're getting the same coverage. Some companies may have better "intro" rates than others, some may have better you-specific deals (for ex. I switched to Liberty Mutual when we bought a house because they partner with the university I attended for alumni perks and it was significantly cheaper to get home/auto through them). Geico is typically the cheapest for non-bundled car insurance. I had them for a few years and my only complaint was the app made it seem like I had coverage that I didn't (roadside assistance, specifically) which was confusing and annoying.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:01 AM on May 11, 2020

Thanks, all, this is super helpful! I do think I was comparing apples to apples; sounds like these pricing discrepancies do indeed happen and aren't necessarily a red flag.

A few notes:
-we did choose a level of liability coverage well in excess of the legal minimum; we're both pretty conservative that way and we realize how much medical expenses from even a minor collision can be. Hopefully never to be used, of course!
-we live & park in Washington, DC (which also means a lot of local driving in MD and VA) - none of which are no-fault states
-we're pretty boring drivers, clean records, in our late twenties, etc. - only "blemishes" are that A) my husband has had his American license for less than a year and B) as I understand it, we'd be considered "previously uninsured" as we weren't holding any sort of non-owner car insurance prior to our purchase. No idea how much those factors impacted our rate, but I'd expect that they did to some extent, and perhaps different companies put different weights on that.
posted by mosst at 6:27 AM on May 11, 2020

I don't know what insurance is like in the US, in the UK it a deeply competitive market driven by online comparison engines.

Insurers make money via two ways

1) Targetting customers effectively. They use the data they have about you to determine how likely you are to be involved in a crash. The most predictive of these will inevitably be your age, how long you've been driving for, and where you live. However, as all insurers do this, the difference is often in degrees; having a better modeller in company A than company B will probably only make your model marginally better
2) Cutting costs by

a) efficiency drives (employing less staff, cutting costs in general. Economy of scale is often important here)
b) Avoiding fraud (a huge driver of car insurance costs is the small percentage who make fraudulent claims)
c) Avoiding payouts

3) A minor one, but selling you products from third parties, such as breakdown cover, at a huge mark up

Insurers are a heavily regulated industry, so they cannot ever be too bad. If you buy cheap insurance you might expect to see

a) worse customer service
b) A less pleasant experience making a claim, particularly if you need to claim money back

As I understand it, you are only getting insurance for third party claims (you paying for someone elses damage), so b doesn't actually matter to you anyway. In which case, it seems reasonable to go with a cheaper provider.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 6:40 AM on May 11, 2020

Oh, as an additional note, some insurers target particular kinds of customers (older, more experienced), and may charge you more simply because you do not fall in that demographic
posted by Cannon Fodder at 6:41 AM on May 11, 2020

I've had Progressive, Geico, Esurance. They've all seemed pretty similar. Their usual pattern is to raise the rate by a little bit each year ($10-100 or so) at renewal period. If it's a small increase I usually just pay it, if it's a bigger one I'll get rates from other providers and swap if I can save a decent amount. For the past 5-6 years or so I've pretty much been switching between Geico and Esurance and generally paying around the same amount for either. In your situation I'd have no problem at all going w/ Liberty Mutual, they're a big name in insurance so it's not some fly by night operation. You'll likely get similar service from any of the big names.
posted by reptile at 6:47 AM on May 11, 2020

Full disclosure: I work for a small insurance company. The three you listed are all really big insurance companies, and my experience is that small is generally better. State Farm is probably the exception to that, but as you’ve noticed, they’re super expensive.

When you’re evaluating insurance, you’re not really looking at the numbers (the dec page, in industry parlance). As others have noted, insurance is highly regulated, especially auto insurance, and so the coverages are going to be the same from company to company. (Let me guess: probably $100,000/$300,000?) That would seem to suggest buying based on price, but I will try to dissuade you from that.

The actual distinguishing factor between companies is your actual ability to get a claim paid out in a timely manner. That is, if you get in an accident, how soon can you have a check in your hand, and how many hoops will you have to jump through to get it? The first law of insurance is that no insurance company EVER wants to pay out any money, even good ones. They will make excuses, they will drag their feet, and they will lowball you. When you buy through a large insurance company, they have an army of bureaucrats and lawyers to find ways to avoid paying you. When you go through a smaller one, they have fewer. Also, many smaller companies are based in small, out-of-the-way towns like Hastings, Nebraska or Erie, Pennsylvania. No disrespect to people in those places, because my company is based in a small town and I’m describing myself (proudly) here, but the people who work for them tend to be 9-to-5ers who just want to go home and play with their kids. They’re not putting in 14-hour days at the office trying to come up with innovative ways to screw their policyholders. (Am I saying employees at big companies are doing that? No, not exactly. But there are naturally more gunners there.)

Here’s the real secret, though: there’s a way to get someone else to do the work for you. This is your insurance agent. When you go through an agent, your agent can (and likely will, since customer service is the main difference between going through an agent and buying direct) follow up on your claim for you. And since they have connections with people at the company, they’ll probably be more effective than you trying to do it yourself.

There is another benefit to working with an agent, which is that most work for multiple companies (but notably, not Stare Farm or Allstate; they use “captive agents” who can only work for them). This is, again, a way to offload labor. Instead of entering your information in twenty different websites, you can send it to your agent and have them enter it into twenty different websites. (OK not really; they enter it into one website, which then generates XML that can be sent to other sites, but you don’t really want to know the details of my job.) This will help you find the best price, but it will also assuage your fears about what you’re actually getting. For example, if Liberty Mutual is lousy about paying claims, your agent will tell you that, and recommend a better option.

Finally, a lot of these companies may be pretty small and regional, so you might not know to even look for them because they don’t have advertising budgets to run commercials during the NBA Finals or whatever. My company, for example, only serves four states in New England. As I mentioned, smaller is often better, and you’ll maximize your exposure to small companies by going through an agent.

All that being said, if you have any way to gain eligibility for USAA, just do that. They’re the gold standard. You’ll hear people complain occasionally, but I’m of the opinion that those people have probably never dealt with any other insurance company. At the other end of the spectrum is Allstate. I would not buy insurance from them if they were my only option.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:48 AM on May 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

I’m surprised by these answers. My daughter had to sue her car insurance company to get them to pay what they owed her after an accident (can’t remember what company). She eventually got her money, but it was a huge hassle. I dropped Geico after they wouldn’t pay my daughter-in-law’s claim. You don’t know how good your insurance company is until you file a claim.
posted by FencingGal at 6:50 AM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that you could approach your current company and ask their agent about discounts for having more than one policy with them. There is almost always a discount, and the more things that are insured, the greater the discounts (eg. home, auto, life, renters, etc.)

That said, I'm in a no-fault state, and after having many-year clean driving records and never having claimed against the homeowners, we were informed our auto insurance was being dropped by StateFarm after 2 accidents in one year, without any injuries. This is standard practice, and though the local agent objected, we were dropped. (Obviously, we had collision insurance too.)

We went to an independent agent, who found us significantly less expensive insurance. We transferred our home and auto insurance. Cheaper despite placing the auto with Progressive and the homeowners with another company I had not known of before, one that does not blanket advertise with annoying ads and reserves its assets to pay claims.
posted by citygirl at 7:13 AM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a counterpoint to kevinbelt's comment, you don't really know whether you have a good insurance *agent* until you have a claim, either! I used to have insurance with a small company through an independent agent (who I found via a personal recommendation) and when I got in a serious accident and called her, she didn't even ask me whether I was OK, just told me to call the number on my policy. I did not renew with her - she was totally useless at the point of claim (although when I initially signed up she was able to get me a better rate than I could get on my own). The actual experience with the small insurance company (Vermont Mutual, IIRC) was fine. I have GEICO now, and I've only had glass claims, nothing serious, but they've been way nicer to work with.
posted by mskyle at 8:08 AM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think the "liability-only" part of OP's question is not being recognized. With liability-only, the policy owner can't make a claim on their insurance. Hence, it's academic how easy/hard it is to make a claim. Making it easier to make a claim benefits the other party, not the policy owner.

I had Liberty Mutual insurance for exactly one year with a liability-only policy. I had no claims during that time, nor did I have any interactions with the company. They raised the price of the policy significantly after that one year, resulting in me changing providers.

How do people generally pick a company?

As someone who buys liability-only policies, I purchase simply based on price given equivalent coverage.
posted by saeculorum at 9:22 AM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

The "ho ho ho, it won't be me that suffers if I chose a company that makes it profit by just never paying claims" takes leave out a crucial point: A significantly motivated claimant will just cut out the middle-man that dragging it's feet and go directly after you.

About 25 years ago someone with Mercury Insurance backed into me, and after three weeks of "yeah dude, I told Bill in Processing to cut the check! Gee, he is sure going to get it when I see him at the next team meeting, by golly!!" I just started calling both the agent every day ("Man, Bill hasn't called you back???") and the house of the person who hit me right afterwards to give them a status update on how terrible their insurance company was. Well, the dad of the house always answered, and based on the extremely loud "discussions" I could hear on their end, the kid who hit me (he was actually older than I was, at the time) rued the day he went with Mercury.

These days I am no longer a broke 17 year old, so it'd be a lawyer "motivating" the person who hit me to get their insurance company to stop dragging their feet.

So yeah, worth keeping that paying for a bit of good customer service works out even if you only have liability.
posted by sideshow at 10:18 AM on May 11, 2020

Kevinbelt makes a lot of good points. And it’s not just that it’s better for you if your claims go through smoothly - as you wrote, you only want liability. It’s also better for you if the other driver’s claims go through smoothly, because then they are less likely to sue you. Being sued is a big pain. (Also, do you have an umbrella policy or something? What if someone with no coverage at all hits you?)
posted by kerf at 10:19 AM on May 11, 2020

I would think twice about getting liability-only insurance. If your car is wrecked tomorrow, whether by hitting a deer, a tree falling on it, etc. can you afford to take the loss? While collision can be expensive, comprehensive insurance will cover losses other than collisions and is generally pretty cheap. It is especially recommended if you live in a deer-infested area.
posted by leaper at 11:55 AM on May 11, 2020

A couple of quick follow-ups:

The liability-only aspect doesn’t matter as much as the OP thinks it does, for two reasons. First, as other noted, you’ll still hear about it if your insurance doesn’t pay the other person. (Or worse - I once backed into a neighbor of my in-laws while I had Progressive, and so my in-laws had to hear about it.) Second, there’s still value from an agent’s advice about claims. I once hit someone and, while we were waiting for the repair bill, my agent ran some numbers. She determined that, if it came in below some number ($1300, I think) it would make more sense to pay the guy out of my pocket, since the claim would raise my premium, but if it came in above that number, it’d be better to have him file the claim. A good agent will do a lot for you.

To mskyle’s point, though, the key is a good agent. There are ways to figure this out during the sales process (how long does it take them to respond? how personal are their emails?), and after talking to a couple, you get a sense of who’s good at customer service and who’s not, just like any other business.

I will note that nearly every agent will do what mskyle’s agent did, which is tell you to call the company itself. Almost no agents handle claims reporting anymore, so they’ll be limited in what assistance they can provide. There’s also a big CYA concern, since they can get in hot water if it turns out they knew about something and didn’t report it. Obviously there’s a better way to handle it, but the first conversation will definitely involve that. The value of an agent comes after you’ve reported the claim.

Also keep in mind that there are usually multiple agents in an agency, and quality will vary accordingly. The guy whose name is on the sign might be great, but that doesn’t mean anything if you get stuck with his binge-drinking son who just failed out of the local party school. Make sure you’re getting a recommendation for a particular agent rather than just an agency.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:58 AM on May 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Liability-only makes sense in certain situations. For example, if you have an old, kinda POS car with a low Blue Book value, and you’re looking to save money by going with a high deductible. If you’ve got a $1000 deductible, you’ll be paying for minor stuff out of your own pocket anyway, and if there’s damage of much more than that, the car would be totaled. The extra expense of COMP doesn’t justify the limited range of application in that case. Generally, if you’re going with a liability-only policy, you’re not viewing your car as an asset, and plan B is to buy a new (used) car.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:22 PM on May 11, 2020

Recently shopped insurance after State Farm increased rates on my primary car every renewal period - from just over $400/6mo to just under $800/6mo in 3 years.

Originally had GEICO, since age 16; switched when I moved to a different state. Switched back to GEICO a few months ago - they were approx 60% cheaper for slightly better coverage. It’s a racket. Just like internet service. Every time your company increases your rate despite any claims, tickets, or accidents, it makes sense to shop around.

Cheap insurance, does it suck? I have friends who insure with the cheapest available option, places with names like Suburban Snackshack Regional Mutual, and their insurers meet the regulatory requirements. If you are a lower risk driver (fewer miles per year, no at-fault history), I wouldn’t worry. If you have a less than perfect driving history, or live in an area with increased claims (higher theft/risk of damage while your car is parked), maybe look at companies with good reviews re: claims processing.

Checked with a broker, and the options were a few $ plus/minus what I was paying State Farm - and I would’ve needed to move my homeowner’s policy to get those rates. Nope.

GEICO’s rates a few years ago were 4x what they are charging me today. State Farm’s rates 3 years ago are half what they wanted to charge me this year. The complex algorithms the insurers use to determine rates are an utter mystery to me.

Car insurance is merely money whooshed off into the abyss... until you need to make a claim.
posted by ortoLANparty at 8:43 PM on May 11, 2020

One example of something that you might get with an expensive company but not with a cheaper one is that the former might pay for original equipment parts but the latter will only pay for the cheapest third party parts. I've heard the GEICO falls in the cheap parts camp.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:58 AM on May 12, 2020

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