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The High Cost of Losing Your Keys

Our car keys have an uncanny ability to get lost inside coat pockets or underneath couch cushions — or to disappear altogether. Prior to the 1990s, this wasn’t a big deal. You could get a spare key at any hardware store or locksmith shop, not to mention at the car dealership, of course. But because it was easy to copy a key, it was also easy for a thief to steal your car. These days, advances in key technology have made vehicles more difficult to steal, but the price has been costlier key replacements.

Here’s a rundown of what you’ll face in the way of cost if you have to replace your key, along with some alternatives that could lower the bill. The prices quoted here are for Santa Monica, California, and West Los Angeles, an area where an hour of labor at an auto dealership can cost more than $100. Labor costs in your region may vary.

Basic Keys and Fob
A basic car key, which was common up until the mid-to late-1990s, has no security feature other than its unique cut. The shank, which is the long metal part of the key, has cuts and grooves like a house key. It’s easy to copy these keys. A locksmith doesn’t need any extra equipment: He can use the same machine he uses to cut other keys.

A basic key will cost about $3 at a locksmith. The only benefit of having the job done at the dealership would be to get the automaker’s branding on the head of the key. A Honda dealership near the Edmunds office charges about $12 for a basic key.

On most modern cars, an electronic key fob (also known as a remote or transmitter) is an integral part of the key set. At the dealership, the cost of replacing an electronic fob can range from $50-$90, depending on the automaker or complexity of the design. All fobs need to be programmed. Some dealerships will do it for free, while others will charge a half hour to an hour of labor.

There is a way around this fee, however. Most fobs can be programmed with a specific combination of button presses on the remote and key turns in the ignition. Some owner’s manuals will show you how to do it, and you can also find this information online.

Finally, there are aftermarket fobs that you can purchase online or from a locksmith. Like most aftermarket products, the quality will vary, but they are a less expensive alternative if you’ve lost your fob.

Transponder Keys
After the mid- to late-1990s, manufacturers began placing a transponder chip in the plastic head of the key. The chip emits a signal to a receiver in the ignition. If this “immobilizer” detects the wrong signal — meaning that the wrong key is in the ignition — the vehicle will not start.

A transponder key’s shank is either a basic key or a laser-cut key (more on laser-cut keys later). The major difference between a basic key and a transponder key is that the chip in the transponder key must be programmed before it can start the vehicle. All dealerships have the machines necessary to program the key. Some might program it for free, but others will charge up to an hour of labor. Most auto locksmiths should also have these machines.

In some vehicles, the transponder key and the fob are an all-in-one unit. This adds to the price of the key and makes it more difficult to get a spare anywhere but at the dealership.

We checked the price of a basic transponder key on a late-model Ford F-150. The dealership quoted $160 for the key and an additional $75 for the fob. If you go to a locksmith, expect to pay roughly $20-$30 less.

A potential low-cost alternative for access to your car is to order a basic key without the transmitter. This key will do everything but start the engine and can come in handy if you ever leave your keys inside the vehicle.

If you’re the type who frequently loses keys, you might be able to save money on the programming by creating a third key to have as a spare. If you already have two keys, a number of vehicle brands will allow you to program a third key on your own. You can have a locksmith cut this “emergency” key and then you follow the procedure for programming, which can frequently be found in your owner’s manual. If the manual doesn’t show you how, try searching online for the procedure. Try “How to program a (insert your year, make, model) key” as your search terms.

Our searches found a method that is said to work on many domestic vehicles. Insert one of your two working keys and turn the ignition to the “on” position for at least three seconds (the car does not need to be started), then repeat the process with the second key.

Now insert the new third key and again turn it to the “on” position for another few seconds. This should program the extra key. Before you try this method and spend money on a key, however, we suggest you check with the dealership or your local automotive locksmith to see if the process is one that will reliably work with your car.

Laser-Cut Keys
You can tell a laser-cut key apart from a basic key because the shank is slightly thicker and has fewer carved-out grooves. Laser-cut keys are often referred to as sidewinder keys, due to the distinctive winding cut on the shank. The machines needed to cut these keys are significantly more expensive than a standard key-cutting machine and are not as likely to be found at every locksmith or hardware store.

Laser-cut keys also have built-in transponder chips and they need to be programmed at the dealership or by a locksmith, preferably one who is a member of the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA). You can search for a certified locksmith near you by visiting the AOLA Web site.

All-in-one laser-cut keys are becoming more popular, but as we mentioned, these keys are more expensive and typically need to be replaced at the dealership. Including labor, these can range from $150-$250, which is the price of a laser-cut key for a Honda Insight, for example.

Switchblade Key
Switchblade keys have shanks that fold into the fob when they’re not in use and pop out with the press of a button. They can have a basic cut or a laser cut. One small advantage of the switchblade key is that its components can be purchased separately. If for some reason your key is damaged and no longer works, you can buy the shank separately for roughly $60-$80. But the more likely scenario is that you’ve lost your key, in which case you’ll need both it and the fob into which it folds. This can cost between $200 and $300, once you factor in programming of both components.

Smart Keys
Smart keys aren’t keys in the traditional sense. They are fobs that are either inserted in the dash or, in the more advanced systems, they stay in your pocket or purse. The driver turns the car on and off with the press of a button.

A smart key’s main form of security is its ability to use rolling security codes. The system randomizes the correct code and prevents thieves from hacking it through the use of a device called a code grabber. The vehicle’s computer recognizes the code emitted by the smart key and verifies it before starting the engine. Mercedes-Benz was one of the first automakers to utilize this technology, and even coined the term “SmartKey.” Every vehicle in its lineup now uses the SmartKey. And only dealers can replace them.

“The German brands use proprietary technology,” says Mike Howell, owner of Santa Monica Lock & Safe Co. “We’re not able to copy those.”

Smart keys aren’t just limited to German automakers. Nearly every car brand has a smart key bundled in its high-tech packages. Nissan, for example, makes it available on a number of models ranging from the Altima to the 370Z.

With a smart key, there’s no avoiding the dealership for a replacement. And while it’s handy to carry smart keys in your purse or pocket, these are the very places you will feel the pain when you lose them. The cost of replacing and reprogramming a smart key can range from $220 on a Nissan Altima up to $400 on an Acura RL.

Better Safe Than Sorry
There’s no denying that modern keys are expensive. And so the best defense against losing them is a good offense. It is better to get a spare key now, on your terms, than to stress out and spend the money in what might be an emergency. You can take advantage of the cost-cutting methods here and avoid the labor charges by programming the key yourself.

Finally, if you are someone who is tempting fate by only having one set of keys, consider this: If you lose all the keys to your car, you will need to get it towed to a dealership and it can potentially cost you close to $1,000 to replace the locks on your car.

Do You Have the Right Car Insurance?

Car insurance is inherently tricky to navigate because you don’t find out just how well it works (or doesn’t) until you have an accident. And if you’re lucky, that doesn’t happen too often. So how do you know if you have the right kind of car insurance for your budget and lifestyle?

U.S. News interviewed a handful of car insurance experts to find out what you should do before making a final decision on your policy in order to get a good deal and decrease the chance of being surprised by unexpected costs after an incident. Here’s their best advice:

When choosing a policy, start by asking friends for recommendations. “It always makes sense to first ask people who you respect who they have auto insurance with, and if they were happy when they had a claim,” says Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.

[See: 10 Unexpected Costs of Driving.]

Strangers can also offer useful advice. People often take their complaints about car insurance to social media, blogs and other websites. Search for posts on Twitter using the hashtag for the company you are considering. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Center for Insurance Policy and Research makes it easy to find formal complaints that have been lodged against companies as well.

State buyer’s guides are another resource. States release detailed guides for purchasing auto insurance that explain the ins and out of property damage as well as collision and comprehensive coverage. “Get the buyer’s guide – don’t just go to some agent,” recommends Bob Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. Those buyer’s guides also outline the minimum required coverage and what factors influence your insurance rates, from driving records to how you use the vehicle.

When comparing policy prices, be sure to compare similar policies, cautions Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. Auto policies vary by length of time, level of service and an array of add-ons, he says. Instead of just searching the Internet to compare quotes, Reed recommends getting on the phone with companies and asking questions, too. Certain car safety features, such as alarm systems or anti-lock breaks, can help lower your rate.

[Read: Blue-Collar Workers Pay More for Car Insurance.]

At the same time, there’s no need to obsess about constantly chasing a better deal. Jeff Blyskal, senior writer at Consumer Reports, says when the magazine asked readers to try to get a better deal with a competing insurance provider, only 12 percent of respondents were able to do so. That’s despite the slew of auto insurance advertisements that would have you think a better deal is always just around the corner.

Once you’ve settled on an insurance provider, you’ll have the chance to consider various add-ons to your policy. In general, the more you pay upfront, the greater the coverage you’ll have. For example, you can opt for a higher deductible in order to minimize your rates – probably a good move for anyone who considers themselves a careful driver and can afford the higher deductible in the event of an accident.

You might also want to consider rental coverage. Auto insurance policies often allow you to add on coverage for renting a vehicle while your car is getting fixed after an accident, and if you only have one car, that kind of coverage can pay off. “Every customer who didn’t have rental coverage wished they had it,” says Richard Arca, senior manager of pricing at Edmunds.com and a former insurance adjuster. It typically adds about $20 for six months to a policy, he says.

On new and leased cars, GAP insurance can also make sense. You’ve might have heard that when you buy a new car, it loses value as soon as you drive it out of the lot. Leased vehicles also often carry a lower fair market value than what you owe on the vehicle. That means in either of those cases, if you total the car, the insurance company will only reimburse you for the car’s fair market value – and you could be out a lot of cash. GAP coverage, which stands for “guaranteed auto protection,” safeguards people from that problem. “It’s highly recommended for people who lease vehicles,” Arca says.

How To Tell if Your Body Shop Did the Job Correctly

When you last saw your car, it was a twisted mess being towed away from the scene of the accident. Now it’s weeks later and the car is parked in the driveway of a body shop. All you have to do is write a check and the car is yours again. But how do you know that everything under the surface has really been fixed correctly?

One key to getting your car fixed right is choosing a reliable shop in the first place. But you should still inspect the work performed before you drive away. To better understand what to look for, here are some insider tips from several knowledgeable veterans of the body shop business.

Have a Clear Understanding Up Front
The process of having your car fixed right starts when you drop it off, says Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists. Be clear on what the shop is going to fix and how it will do the repair. Get everything in writing. Ask about the shop’s warranty on its work. When you return, review the paperwork to confirm that the shop did the repairs correctly.

“A reputable repair facility will go through everything with you, walk you through all the steps they took,” Schulenburg says. “Good shops will even touch up bolts under the hood that have been scratched while being repaired.”

Clean Car Is a Must
Appearances matter. When you pick up your car, it should have been washed, cleaned and vacuumed, says John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body and Paint, in Long Beach, California. There should be no dirt or dust in the car and definitely no old parts in the trunk. Mallette says he even tries to wash down the engine compartment before he hands over the keys.

It can be a challenge to return a clean car to a customer, says Mike O’Connell, owner of Golden Hammer Auto Body in Los Angeles. With all the dust from sanding, he says, “body shops are the dirtiest places on earth.” He says his workers take precautions to keep the cars clean by using paper and masking tape to protect different areas. And then they carefully wash the car before the customer comes to pick it up.

Closer Inspection
If the car’s general appearance passes muster, take a close look at the area that was repaired. Mallette recommends looking for gaps between body panels first. If the gaps are obviously uneven, that’s a telltale sign of panels not being aligned correctly. Schulenburg says owners should make sure the doors open and close properly with good alignment.

If there was extensive front-end damage to the car, it can be difficult for a body shop to repair perfectly, Mallette says. One way to spot a problem is to look at the distance between the tire and fender. If it is wide on one side and narrow on the other, something wasn’t fixed properly. Another test is to turn on the headlights to ensure that the light beams are aligned.

When a car is hit in the front, the frame may have been bent and required straightening on what the body shop calls “the rack.” The shop workers use it to pull the frame rails until the frame is straight. Mallette says he can look under a car and see “butcher marks” from poor repair jobs.

But visual inspections might be difficult for the average consumer, Schulenburg explains. He says owners should take a look at the automated printout of the frame specifications. A good body shop will measure the damaged area of the car and then measure the frame again after it does the repair. The frame specs should be the same post-repair as they were before the accident. The frame spec printout is a good reference document to make sure the job has been done right.

If you are concerned that a major repair wasn’t done correctly and want someone other than the original body shop to size it up, you can get a second opinion. O’Connell tells us that many people bring cars to him for just this kind of assessment, and he can immediately spot problems that the ordinary consumer can’t.

Paint Jobs: Matching Colors and Consistency
One of the most challenging jobs in a body shop is paint matching. “Punching in the factory paint codes gets you 95 percent of the way to matching the color,” O’Connell says. But the remaining 5 percent has to be done by people who really know what they’re doing. “If we didn’t do this extra step there would always be a little variance,” he explains. “That’s why you see cars on the road that look like they are three different colors.”

Most factory paint jobs have an “orange peel” texture to the finish to a greater or lesser degree. Whether you like that effect or not, most factory paint jobs have this texture, and it can be tricky for body shops to duplicate. Mallette advises that you arrange to pick up a car from the body shop during the day. If possible, look at the car in the sunlight to make sure that the new paint matches the car’s original shade and finish. Also, if the shop repainted several panels, sight along the side of the car to look for color consistency. And finally, examine the paint for runs or imperfections such as hair or specks of dirt trapped in the finish.

When It Isn’t Fixed Right
In some cases, a problem with the repair develops months later. A common scenario is that you notice the car’s front tires are wearing unevenly. This could be a sign that the front suspension hasn’t been straightened and repaired correctly. Find your paperwork and receipt, bring the car back and show the manager the tire’s wear pattern. The shop should fix the problem under the warranty, Mallette says.

Schulenburg agrees that improper tire wear on a car is a bad sign. “Take it back to the body shop,” he says. “There are a whole lot of things that can lead to tire wear. Let them assess what is causing it.”

Many body shops are “fly-by-night,” O’Connell notes, and if you’re dealing with one of them, it can be tough to get satisfaction if the job wasn’t done right. A legitimate shop should stand by its work. He recommends that you make sure you are within the warranty period, which is usually one year or 12,000 miles. Then, with your paperwork in hand, ask to speak with an owner or manager.

“And be courteous, not demanding,” O’Connell says. “If you start making accusations, things can go downhill fast.”

5 Tips for Choosing the Right Auto Body Shop

It’s not uncommon for estimates from different body shops to vary wildly. One shop might give you an estimate for $500 while another wants $2,000 for the work. What’s the difference? And when is it OK to choose the cheaper shop?

John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body & Paint, in Long Beach, California, knows better than most people how to choose a reliable shop. Mallette started working on cars when he was 12 years old and has been in the body shop business for 24 years. Here are some of his tips for choosing the right shop to work on your car — particularly when you’re the one paying the bills.

1) Pay Attention to Word-of-Mouth
Any business can advertise, but you’ll do better with a shop that friends, family or acquaintances recommend. It’s a business that has proven it can satisfy customers. And it might not be the biggest or best-known shop in your area.

Mallette went to a shop years ago on such recommendations and found that the owner was a “real stand-up guy…. He doesn’t advertise on the Internet; it’s a family-owned shop,” Mallette says. “But, golly, if you take your car there, you’ll get a fair price.”

In some cases, you might get a recommendation for a small shop where the owner works on the cars himself. “That’s how I like doing business,” Mallette says. “To me it seems so much more personal and then you can understand what’s really going on with your car.”

2) Consider the Operation’s Location and Overhead
“Where you get screwed in our business is labor hours,” Mallette explains. His shop charges $40 per hour for labor. But in ritzy parts of West Los Angeles, the per-hour labor charge is $60-$65. In wealthy Newport Beach, California, Mallette has heard of $90-per-hour labor charges.

Large body shops with a lot of front-office workers probably have to charge higher rates to pay their staff. While service delivered by front-desk folks, managers and foremen gives some people a feeling of confidence in the business, it can result in estimates that are padded with non-essential work. When they’re charging more labor hours at a higher rate, your bill can add up quickly.

In his shop, Mallette says he does things by the book — literally. Body shops and garages use reference guides that estimate the number of hours required to perform common repairs.

“Let’s say somebody has damage to their fender, bumper and headlight,” Mallette tells us. “I go to my book, I write an estimate and I basically go by the hours mandated by the book.”

By contrast, the higher-end shops might decide to charge for everything in “the gray area,” meaning those things that they might have to do to fix the problem. In Mallette’s example, high-end estimates might include a charge for time spent removing the hood and the door, while his judgment call is not to perform this additional work.

3) Get Several Estimates
Taking your car to several auto body shops for repair quotes is the best way to avoid overcharges, Mallette notes. “I’ll tell people to go get some estimates and bring ’em back to me. I’ll match estimates if I can.”

And while it’s important to protect against being overcharged, you shouldn’t simply take the lowest quote. “You might get some kind of midnight guy who will say he can do it really cheap,” he says. “Stay away from those guys, because there is something they’re not doing. You could have major problems down the road.”

4) Ask the Right Questions
When choosing a body shop, “you don’t go in with your pocketbook open,” Mallette explains. “You go in smart,” and ask some key questions. Does the shop provide a written warranty? And if so, for how long? What does the warranty cover?

A one-year warranty is a minimum, Mallette says. His shop offers a two-year warranty for body work and a three-year warranty for complete paint jobs. Some shops offer lifetime warranties as a selling point, but that isn’t realistic, he says.

“Most of the stipulations and conditions those warranties require are more restrictive than the majority of people can adhere to,” he says. “So basically, the warranty becomes useless.”

Another key question is whether the shop carries fire and theft insurance. You want to be sure you’re covered if your car is destroyed, stolen or burglarized. Don’t forget to ask how long the shop has been in business. Make sure it has a business license.

You will also want to know about the materials the shop intends to use. Are new, used or aftermarket body parts going to be used? New parts are obviously the best and used parts are fine, though they don’t offer the savings people imagine. Depending on the damage to your vehicle, aftermarket parts can save a lot of money and can be just as good as the ones that come from the original manufacturer. If paint work is involved, ask how many coats of paint and clear coat the shop intends to use.

5) Follow Your Intuition
Finally, it’s important to trust your intuition about the shop you’re considering. If a shop isn’t busy, maybe that’s because customers are avoiding it because of shoddy repairs. If the place is really dirty, cluttered or disorganized, this might reflect the kind of work you could expect the shop to do with your car. Is the shop owner or manager a grouch who seems to resent answering your questions? You’ll be happier with a shop where the owner communicates well and is straightforward with customers.

“Trust your gut,” Mallette says. “If your gut tells you the guy’s shady I wouldn’t even go there.”

How To Shop for Use-Based Car Insurance

In recent years, nine of 10 top U.S. auto insurance companies have started selling policies based on how motorists drive. At least a handful of pay-as-you-drive policies are offered in every state, covering as many as 3 million U.S. vehicles, according to industry estimates. Switching to use-based insurance (UBI) could help you save a little or a lot over what car owners spend on premiums associated with a more traditional policy.

If you’re considering changing to a UBI plan, it pays to understand what you’re getting.

Carriers set UBI rates by collecting mileage or other information directly from your car, but similarities among policies end there. Some insurers use a small, meterlike electronic device that plugs into a car’s onboard diagnostics port to store or transmit information. Newer versions gather driving data through an app and a smartphone connected to a car’s infotainment or telematics system.

Drivers may happily trade access to their driving habits for lower insurance rates. But privacy advocates worry that insurance companies aren’t always 100 percent transparent about what data they collect, what they do with it and with whom they share it.

“Privacy is a real question,” says J. Robert Hunter, insurance director for the Consumer Federation of America. “What do insurance companies do with that information? If I park at the corner of Main and 14th and on one corner is a bar and another is a gym, will you raise or lower my rate?”

Here are steps to take if you’re shopping for car insurance and considering a use-based policy:

Find out what’s available: Look on the Web site of your state insurance commission or consumer advocacy agency to see which insurance carriers are licensed to operate in your area. Here’s a list of all 50 state insurance departments. Alternatively, visit auto insurers’ Web sites and type in your ZIP code to see if they sell UBI plans where you live.

Understand what types of data insurers collect: Some states restrict the information insurers can collect, which limits the types of UBI policies they offer. In California, for example, insurance companies can track mileage but are barred from monitoring where or when you drive. They also can’t track such behaviors as how fast you drive or how often you slam on the brakes, the activity known in insurance lingo as “hard-braking events.” Visit state insurance regulators’ Web sites for their explanations of the UBI plans they authorize, such as this pay-as-you-go auto insurance pamphlet from the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services. You can also read the fine print on UBI policies on insurers’ Web sites to determine what driving data an insurer collects, and how it is gathered.

Try before you buy: Certain insurers give potential customers a chance to take a UBI policy for a test-drive before committing to a policy. In such cases, you may be asked to plug an electronic monitor into your car’s diagnostics port for a month or so, which allows the insurer to collect enough data to set a rate. Other insurers offer UBI policies only to existing customers.

Understand how insurers determine discounts: Insurers may offer an introductory discount of 5 or 10 percent during a try-out period, and adjust the rate as needed after monitoring mileage or driving behaviors for a set time period. Progressive Insurance bases rates for its Snapshot policy on six months of driving data. State Farm customers with Drive Safe & Save policies keep electronic monitors plugged into their cars all the time, so, theoretically, their rates could change at renewal time, if they’ve driven substantially more or less than in the previous period.

Consider a UBI bundle: Some insurers offer UBI as part of a bundle of services tied to a car’s built-in entertainment, safety or maintenance systems. State Farm’s Drive Safe & Save with In-Drive Connect policy, a joint venture with Verizon Wireless, offers mileage-based insurance along with stolen vehicle assistance and hands-free mobile phone service. After a one-year free trial, charges for In-Drive Connect jump to $6.99 a month or more based on what other features a customer chooses.

See how you’re doing: If you sign up, use the Web portal associated with your UBI policy to monitor your driving. Some insurers’ dashboards give customers a grade based on their driving habits. For example, customers of Allstate’s Drivewise UBI policies can download an iPhone or Android app to look up mileage, speed, hard stops and what times of day they drive.

Should Newlyweds Combine Car Insurance Policies?

Chances are, car insurance wasn’t the first thing you thought of after the proposal. In fact, you might not have thought about how marriage might affect your car insurance rates at all. But after the decorations have been cleared and honeymoon adventures logged, you’ll want to consider adding “check on combining car insurance policies” to your newlywed to-do list. Car insurance is usually cheaper for married couples — with a few important caveats.

No Matter What, You’ll Likely Save
Even if you do absolutely nothing, the sheer fact of being married is likely to have a positive impact on your rates once your policy is up for review. The Zebra, a car insurance comparison engine and digital auto insurance agency, projects a premium savings of 10-12 percent when all other factors remain the same.

Why is this the case? According to Frankie Kuo, an auto insurance specialist at Value Penguin, “Insurers find married people less likely to file a claim compared to single drivers of comparable profile, and so consider them less risky to insure.”

When Combining Policies Makes Sense
To nab an even steeper discount, consider combining your car and your beloved’s in a single policy. This makes the most sense if you both have spotless driving records and no recent gaps in insurance coverage, Esurance explains.

Remember, too, that in addition to lower rates, having two cars on the same policy can often earn you multi-car discounts from insurers. Moreover, even if your household only has one vehicle, you can still earn discounts for sharing a policy.

“Even if a family only has one car, we would still recommend a single policy that would cover both drivers, since it ensures that both drivers are insured without incurring the extra cost of a second policy,” says Eric Madia, vice president of product for Esurance.

Finally, combining your auto insurance policy with existing homeowners’ or renters’ policies from the same company could lead to even greater discounts overall.

Take a Combined Policy Test-Drive
Many factors shape one’s insurance premium, and driving is only one of them. In some states, insurance companies use credit scores as one element in determining rates. So you may have some choices to make, based on your separate driving and financial histories.

For example, what if your spouse has a decent driving record but a poor credit score? Or what if you’re a great money manager, but your lead foot has recently scored you a speeding ticket?

You should first get a quote for adding your spouse to your insurance or vice versa, says Jean-Marie Lovett, president of independent insurance agency MassDrive Insurance Group in Boston. Asking for a quote doesn’t obligate you to follow through with the change. (If your spouse is a champion speeding-ticket holder, however, you might have to list him or her as an excluded driver in your household. More on that in a moment.) Lovett says it’s a good practice to first get quotes for two drivers on one policy.

If putting the policies together does not help you save on the premium, you can just list your spouse on your policy and defer them to their own individual insurance, Lovett says.

When it comes to credit scores, one of the smartest things you can do is place the person with the best credit score as the primary named insured. “Their credit is the one that will be portrayed to the insurance company,” Lovett notes, “and will be the credit score that the insurance company will rate off of.”

Keep in mind this is only true in states where it’s legal to use credit scores as a rating factor. Some states, such as Massachusetts and California, do not permit the practice. In that case, Lovett explains, the person with the best driving record should be the primary insured.

Still unsure on whether to combine policies? It can help to know the value of your cars. “Maybe your spouse has a good driving record,” Lovett says, “but a junker of a car.”

“If you have a 1995-2005 vehicle, you should debate whether to have collision coverage, or increase the collision deductible to $1,000,” she continues. “Cars that get over the 10-year-old mark tend to take a significant drop in value, and you want to weigh the cost of the collision coverage on the vehicle versus the actual value of the vehicle.” She adds that in the event of an accident, having the $1,000 deductible “gives you the option to junk the caror make a claim while keeping your insurance premium manageable.”

When Not To Combine Policies
Though you’re now joined in holy matrimony, there are some cases in which it just doesn’t make sense to bring that partnership to your car insurance. Esurance warns that if one of you has a truly poor driving record, separate policies could end up costing you less.

“Combining a low-risk driver’s policy with a high-risk driver’s will likely increase the low-risk driver’s car insurance rates,” according to Esurance. There’s also the chance that your insurance company simply won’t insure your accident-prone partner, no matter the cost. “If one spouse has more than three accidents, your insurance carrier may not accept the spouse,” Lovett says.

Here’s where the really bad news comes in: Even if you don’t combine policies, simply living under the same roof as a high-risk driver could have a negative impact on your car insurance rates.

Esurance explains why: “Because insurance companies consider the driving histories of all family members living within the same household when underwriting policies, having a high-risk driver under your roof makes you riskier by association.” Car insurance follows the car, so your policy would have to cover the damage if your spouse caused an accident on an errand in your vehicle, for example.

There may be a way around this, though. “In most states, you are required to list all drivers in your household on your policy,” Lovett says. “However, you can ‘defer’ someone, meaning they have their own insurance policy.”

Also called a driver exclusion, this is an easy way to keep insurance costs low, even if your spouse is high risk. Keep in mind that exclusion truly means excluded: If your spouse borrows your vehicle and gets into an accident, you’re responsible for any and all damages.

The Bottom Line
“Nine times out of 10,” Lovett advises, “it will be beneficial to merge the insurance” for a newlywed couple. And if it doesn’t make sense right now, Kuo recommends doing what you can to mitigate your high-risk profile. Taking a certified defensive driving course may unlock an automatic discount, or at least facilitate a negotiation for lower rates.

“Having a spotty record is inconvenient, but people usually have a chance to get lower rates just by shopping around and comparing prices across companies,” Kuo adds.

Additionally, Kuo points out that minor traffic violations usually do not haunt a driver’s record for more than three years. Staying clean for that long can also remove a driver from the high-risk pool.

Even if you can’t combine policies immediately, Kuo recommends taking another look at your insurance every now and then. If couples think it makes sense to combine their policies, they can meet with their agent for a review. “Many circumstances of life could change, such as work, age and even where they live,” Kuo says. As always, obtaining quotes from multiple companies can help you get the best deal.

Confessions From the Auto Body Shop

For most consumers, auto body shops are intimidating and mysterious. The good ones restore your beloved car to gleaming perfection. The bad ones hide problems and stick you with a big repair bill.

We talked with three veterans of the auto body industry, two of whom (Brian and Neal) run their own collision repair businesses and the third expert (Andy) who is a well-connected industry observer. Our sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, shed light on this shadowy world and offer suggestions on how to manage costs, avoid rip-offs and ensure that sure your car is fixed right.

Know That Body Shops Run the Quality Gamut
“I don’t care what state you live in, for every 10 body shops, three of them are unethical and five of them do mediocre work at best,” Neal says.

It’s clear that finding the right shop and building a relationship with the owner or manager is an essential first step in the repair process. There will always be fly-by-night shops, and even mobile dent-repair guys working out of the trunks of their cars. Consumers should look for brick-and-mortar body shops that have been in business a long time and have a solid track record of satisfied customers.

Most body shops are family-owned or second-generation businesses, says Brian.

And it’s a tough business these days. After getting a high bill for collision repair, some people might think that body shops make a lot of money. Neal laughs at this. “At one time body work was lucrative. But today, the well-run shops are realizing profits of 4-7 percent. And it’s a very fine line between making 4 percent and losing 5 percent.”

In an environment like this, shops rely on good word-of-mouth referrals to attract customers. “The last thing we want is a bad reputation or reports of poor customer service,” Brian says. “We want to fix it right and make that customer happy.” (For more about choosing the right shop, see “5 Tips for Choosing the Right Auto Body Shop.”)

Once you find the right shop, the process of getting your car fixed right at the right price starts with getting an accurate, reasonable estimate.

Understand Your Estimate
Price quotes from different body shops seem to vary wildly, and this shouldn’t be the case.

Our three experts remind us that collision-repair facilities and insurance companies use one of three systems for estimating repair jobs to arrive at standardized, impartial quotes. Theoretically, this means three different shops will present similar estimates. But insurance companies will sometimes present their policyholders with a low quote that bears no relationship to the product of these estimating systems, Brian says. And if the consumer decides he can live with minor body damage and elects to pocket the check rather than pay to have the damage repaired, the carrier has quickly cleared another claim.

It’s increasingly tough for body shop owners to provide an accurate cost estimate that will cover the expense to fix the car properly and still make a profit. Brian says automakers frequently change vehicle designs as the Environmental Protection Agency raises fuel-efficiency standards. They are increasingly using lighter materials like aluminum and high-strength metals like ultra-hard boron steel, particularly in the frame and suspension parts. Such parts are expensive.

Body shops are supposed to restore cars to the standards of the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), but they know from experience that doing so is going to be prohibitively expensive. Instead, they don’t even consult the manufacturer’s specifications and fix the car according to time-tested methods. Those methods might not fix the car safely or completely.

“So all of a sudden the lowest common denominator — the insurance company’s quote — becomes the benchmark,” Brian says. And the shop with the lowest cost is likely the one the consumer will pick.

Neal adds that there is another factor that makes the process difficult for consumers. “One guy might have a different definition of what a fair profit is from the next guy for procedures that are identical between the two shops.” This is the dreaded gray area in evaluating cost estimates and it can hit your wallet hard. Here’s how it works.

Get an Estimate Breakdown
There are judgment calls in auto body work that can lead to huge swings in price quotes, our experts report.

Neal gives an example: Say you have a dent in your quarter panel. One shop might write a simple four-line estimate to repair the panel and repaint it. (Each line on the quote constitutes another charge.) Another shop might write a 20-line estimate that includes removing the taillight and bumper, instead of just taping them off. “There can be 20 steps for the repair if you want to do them all and if you want to charge for them all,” he says.

If a consumer doesn’t understand the steps, the estimate makes little sense. And many body shops don’t take the time to explain it, Brian adds. “There are a lot of shops that print their estimate, throw it at the consumer and say ‘Call me if you want me to do it,'” he says. Instead, he recommends looking for the shop with a staff that listens patiently and replies with reasonable answers.

Andy says consumers should be aware that some shops write lowball estimates just to “seize the keys” — get the car owner’s commitment to do the job. Once the car is dismantled, the body shop owner calls the consumer and lists additional charges, claiming that the shop discovered new damage after it started work.

Additional charges do occur because, “you can’t see through a car without taking it apart,” Andy says. Avoid this ploy by choosing a highly regarded body shop in the first place and making sure to the best of your ability that the estimate covers all the work required.

Turn Down the “Save the Deductible” Come-on
Andy warns that some shops will offer to help consumers “save the deductible” from their insurance claim — typically about $500. The shop is basically offering to scam the insurance company for the consumer by not collecting the deductible payment.

But Andy says that what such a shop is really intending to do is to either not perform necessary work, or overcharge for something to compensate for the waived deductible. “Collision repair shops are businesses, and like any business, can’t afford to not charge for work that is being performed,” Andy tells us. “If a shop says they can waive the deductible…that is something for consumers to be cautious of.”

Ask About the Parts
Our insiders say some unethical shop owners will try to boost profits by charging customers for new OEM parts when they’ve actually installed used ones, or have substituted aftermarket parts for OEM parts without telling the customer. In other cases, they repair the original part, reuse it in the vehicle and charge the customer for a new part.

It’s difficult for unwary consumers to protect themselves against these scams. However, they can ask to review the original quote and request documentation of the parts the shop used in repairing their vehicle. In most states, repair facilities are required by law to disclose in their estimates that they intend to use non-OEM parts. If you live in one of the states that doesn’t require disclosure, it’s even more important to ask.

Consumers also have to be alert to the terminology that shops and insurance companies use when they’re describing parts. Our experts talked about “imitation” parts, using the term to refer to parts that are made by aftermarket suppliers. The aftermarket industry says its products are built to industry standards and are as good as those produced by the OEMs. Your decision on which to use likely depends on the age of your car, the size of your wallet and the terms of your insurance policy. In any case, make sure you get your body shop to define its terms. Will it use OEM parts? Aftermarket? New? Used? Will it repair and reuse a part from your car?

Neal says that aftermarket parts have their place and consumers shouldn’t always be hesitant to approve their use.

“If you came to me with a damaged year-old vehicle, I wouldn’t even suggest an imitation part because it doesn’t belong on a vehicle that we’re trying to protect the value of,” Neal says. “But if you came to me with your daughter’s eight-year-old transportation car, we would price it both ways.” There would be a small risk in lowering the resale value of the car in exchange for the savings.

For more on this subject, please see “How To Tell if Your Body Shop Did the Job Correctly.”

Beware of Shops in Cahoots With Adjusters
Insurance work is the lifeblood of the auto body business. Nearly 85 percent of the work for most collision repair facilities comes from claims, according to the insiders we interviewed. Brian says that he knows of many shop owners who attempt to ingratiate themselves with insurance adjusters by detailing — or even painting — their personal vehicles for free. “We know of it happening all the time,” he says.

(For the insurance industry’s side of the story, see “Confessions of an Auto Claims Adjuster.”)

This unethical relationship puts the consumer at a disadvantage, Neal says. “Your repair shop is supposed to act as your advocate,” he says. “If your insurer wants to put an aftermarket part on a vehicle that’s six months old without your permission, the shop should tell you so: ‘Mr. Jones, I have to let you know that your insurer is playing games.'” There are consequences for that, though, as Neal notes. “But if you do that they’ll take you off the list — that’s the dirty reality,” he says.

Once again, your best defense is a good offense. Only work with shops that have a track record of dealing fairly and honestly with their customers.

Don’t Get Pushed to “Preferred” Auto Body Shops
When an insurance company is paying for repairs, Neal says it often tries to steer clients to its “preferred” list of body shops. Insurance companies control these collision repair facilities by promising them steady work in exchange for corner-cutting, according to the insiders we interviewed. This control may encourage some body shops to “back charge,” or build in extra costs to cover areas not covered by the insurance company. If a shop begins doing this, Neal says, “It’s a slippery slope, and when you get on that path it’s hard to get off.”

Andy says that most state laws allow consumers to choose their auto body shops, even when an insurance company is paying for the repair. But insurance adjusters will still coerce clients toward the “preferred” shops using a variety of tactics to discourage them from going elsewhere, the insiders say. For example, the adjuster might say if you go to a shop that’s not preferred, some costs won’t be covered, or the non-preferred shop won’t guarantee the work, while the preferred shop will.

In many cases, Andy has seen consumers pay out-of-pocket for repairs that the insurers said they won’t cover. Then, when the consumer files a complaint with a state’s department of insurance, the insurer is forced to pay for the repair. “Some insurance companies will put the onus on the customer to prove that they will pay for it themselves before they will agree to indemnify them for it,” he says.

All three experts agree that consumers place a lot of trust in their insurance companies to look out for their best interests. What most people don’t consider is that the insurance company is trying to cut costs to the bone while still retaining policy holders. “Consumers are at a disadvantage because they’re not knowledgeable about the services that they’re procuring,” Andy says.

Be Your Own Advocate
Sad to say, the body shop experts we spoke with say that the consumer can’t rely completely on body shops or insurance companies to watch out for their interests. You have to act as your own advocate, choose the best shop and remain alert to overcharging and misrepresentation.

“Most body shop owners are very concerned about getting good feedback and building a list of customers who’ll come back next time work is needed,” Andy says. “Find those shops, work with them, and nine times out of 10, things will go smoothly.”

 

Do I Have To Use the Manufacturer’s Oil?

Ten or 15 years ago, choosing the oil for your car was simple. All you needed to know was the viscosity — 5W-30, for example — and you could get a few bottles at the local auto parts store. But this simplicity is starting to go away.

General Motors’ transition to a new oil specification for all its 2011 and newer vehicles is bringing new attention to the issue of manufacturer oil specifications. GM isn’t the first to require such a specification, but its move signals a change in the car-maintenance landscape.

A manufacturer’s oil specification is a unique blend that an automaker creates and mandates for use in its vehicles. GM’s new oil product, Dexos, consolidates its five prior recommended oil specifications into two blends: Dexos1 for gasoline-powered vehicles and Dexos2 for diesels.

GM and other automakers warn that failure to use their factory-specified oils could void a car’s warranty. These new oil specifications can also create confusion and cost issues for consumers who change the oil themselves or take their cars to local mechanics who may not be aware of the changes.

Oil Has Changed
The oil inside a modern engine might look just like it did a decade ago, but it actually is far more advanced. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the International Lubricants Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC) have set the standards for oil for the past 60 years and have changed the specifications roughly every five years. Oil needs to change to meet increasing emissions regulations, offer better protection against sludge and improve fuel economy.

“There has been a significant increase in lubricant quality in the past 20 years,” says Robert Sutherland, principal scientist for Pennzoil passenger-car engine lubricants. “But there has also been a significant increase in the stress that the engines put on the lubricant.”

Sutherland says it’s a game of leapfrog. As the hardware moves forward, the oil specifications must also change to handle the additional heat and properly lubricate the engine. He adds that the tolerances in a modern engine are closer and tighter, which means that the oil’s ability to keep critical engine parts clean is more important than it used to be.

Automakers’ Own Recipes
The API and ILSAC standards are the baseline, says Timothy Miranda, senior engineer for race oil and field testing for Castrol Lubricants, which manufactures oil for automakers such as Audi, BMW and Volkswagen. Automakers are free to improve upon the standards as long as they meet the minimum requirements.

“They may choose to have their own specifications because of a unique aspect of their engine design,” Miranda says. For example, if a car is turbocharged, it might require synthetic oil rather than conventional oil.

This manufacturer standard is more common among the German automakers, thanks to more stringent European oil specifications, Miranda says. Rather than have numerous blends for different regions, each automaker created one specification for its vehicles. They have brought those standards to the U.S., as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen all have their own oil formulations.

According to Miranda, most American and Japanese automakers have tended to stick with the API guidelines. This means that they recommend any oil with the API “starburst” or “donut” symbol on its label.

GM distanced itself from the API guidelines with the introduction of Dexos. According to GM, the Dexos oil specification will decrease harmful piston deposits by up to 28 percent and improve fuel efficiency by up to 0.3 percent compared to the older ILSAC GF-4 specifications.

GM licenses the Dexos certification to motor oil manufacturers that can then choose to offer a full-synthetic variation, as long as it meets the requirements. Since Dexos-certified oil is compatible with older cars, the specification will also affect owners of pre-2011 GM vehicles who get their cars serviced at dealerships. Though Dexos isn’t being mandated retroactively, chances are dealers will fill their bulk tanks with it to consolidate their oil inventory.

What This Means for the Consumer
More expensive maintenance: “The OEMs are looking for protection and the customer wants longevity,” Miranda says. This protection comes at a cost. As manufacturer oil specifications become more common, the auto industry moves farther away from conventional oil and toward synthetic blends or fully synthetic oil. While these newer oils offer better protection and longer intervals between oil changes, they also have a higher price tag.

This price bump can be offset by the automakers who offer free maintenance programs. But when the coverage runs out, a customer who is not used to paying for a synthetic oil change could experience some sticker shock when faced with a $90 oil change.

Potential warranty problems: The language in some owner’s manuals suggests that using an oil other than the one specified by the manufacturer will void the car’s warranty. This is not the case, says Thom Smith, Valvoline’s vice president of branded lubricant technology.

According to the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, the onus would be on GM or another automaker to prove that a non-manufacturer oil damaged the engine. If dealers deny the warranty claim without first investigating it, they are in violation of the act, Smith says.

Consumers just need to make sure that any alternate oil they use is comparable in quality to the automaker’s specified oil. Many oil manufacturers, including Valvoline, are so confident of their product that they offer their own warranty against engine damage that their products might be alleged to have caused.

If talk of voided warranties and engine damage makes you nervous, just use the manufacturer’s specified oil for the duration of the warranty. Keep in mind that a vehicle’s engine falls under the drivetrain warranty (also known as the powertrain warranty). In most cases, this is longer than the traditional bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Your local mechanic or quick-lube facility may not be aware of your car’s specific oil requirements. You can still go to these places, but be sure to ask ahead of time what kind of oil they will use. Or bring your own oil to avoid any confusion.

Required manual reading: Not all cars require a manufacturer-specified oil. They do have a recommended viscosity, such as 0W-20, however. Check the owner’s manual for any mention of a required brand or specification. If the manual doesn’t name one, you can save money by buying oil at an auto parts store. Make sure it’s the correct viscosity.

There are money-saving opportunities to be had even if your vehicle does call for a manufacturer-specified oil. For example, GM has a Web site that lists the approved Dexos oil manufacturers. Most of their products are available online or at auto parts stores and may cost less than at the dealership.

In some situations, the manufacturer-specified oil may not be in stores or it might cost more than you want to spend. Your vehicle’s owner’s manual will usually list the specifications for an equivalent oil that meets the automaker’s standard. Does that mean it’s just as good as a manufacturer-specified oil such as Dexos? There’s controversy on this point.

Flack from the oil wars: Tom Read, a spokesperson for GM’s powertrain technology group, warns that using an alternative oil might diminish performance.

“If a customer uses a non-licensed engine oil that is simply ILSAC GF-5 quality, they will not enjoy the benefits of using a Dexos-licensed product,” Read says. Those benefits could include better low-temperature performance, cleaner pistons and better aeration performance, he says. “This could be especially important as the engine oil ages.”

Read’s case for Dexos sounds compelling, but Valvoline’s Smith isn’t buying it.

“Our SynPower 5W-20, 5W-30 and DuraBlend 5W-30 went through all the Dexos testing and passed all the requirements,” Smith says. “But we felt that carrying the Dexos name was not providing the consumer with any value.”

Rather than raise the price of its oil to offset the cost of licensing the Dexos name, Valvoline chose to forgo the license and keep the prices lower, he says.

Smith says that GM’s engine-performance warnings are part of its goal to drive consumers to dealerships for their maintenance. “We feel that they are taking choice away from the consumer,” he says.

Focus on the Oil Basics
Setting aside the claims and counter-claims of manufacturer-specified oil superiority, here’s all you have to remember: As long as you follow the oil specifications shown in your owner’s manual, you have nothing to worry about.

In the event that the dealership tries to void your warranty over the use of non-manufacturer oil, know that the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act will protect you. If your vehicle doesn’t have an oil specification, you have more flexibility in choosing your product. Finally, make sure you know the proper viscosity for your car and change the oil at the proper interval.

Four Steps to Switching Car Insurance

Could you save hundreds of dollars by switching your car insurance? It is a question worth asking yourself at least once a year. By doing a little research now, you may be able to find a comparable insurance plan at a better rate with another company, and save money. But you have to make sure you take the appropriate steps to switch, because you don’t want to have a lapse in coverage.

Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president at the Insurance Information Institute in New York, suggests asking yourself if you’re happy with the cost, coverage and service of your current policy each time it comes up for renewal. “If the answer is ‘yes, yes and yes,’ then stay with them. But if you’re not sure, it’s a good opportunity to shop around,” she says.

Here are four key steps to take when it comes to switching car insurance:

1. Review your current driving situation.
Take note of your driving circumstances as well as the needs of other drivers in your household. Do you have a newer model car? Do you commute several miles each week to work? Do you have recent traffic tickets?

According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), your potential new insurance company may ask you all of these questions as part of the underwriting process. You’ll also likely be asked about the number of drivers on the policy, your driver license information, and the insurance coverage and limits you’d like to purchase.

Take a look at your existing auto insurance policy. Knowing what you currently have will make it easier to create apples-to-apples comparisons with the rates you receive from different insurers. An easy way to do this is to study your current policy’s declarations page, says Vaughn Graham, president of Rich and Cartmill insurance company in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“The declarations page describes the insurance you have, including the amount of coverage as well as coverage limits, and the amount of your deductible,” he says. When you’re more informed about your current coverage, it can help you become a smarter shopper.

2. Shop around.
Once you’re familiar with your current policy, it’s time to look for alternatives. A good first call is to your current insurance agent or the insurance company itself (some insurers, such as Geico and Progressive don’t work with agents). Even if you’re not happy with your existing policy (if you think the premiums are too expensive, for example), ask if there are ways to lower your rate for the same amount of coverage, says Salvatore. You may be eligible to receive discounts you’re not getting.

Here’s a list of common insurance company discounts, according to the NAIC:

  • Having safety devices in the car, such as anti-theft features
  • Having a good driving record
  • Driving a low number of miles a year
  • Having multiple cars on the same policy
  • Being a student who gets good grades
  • Insuring both your home and car with the same provider

While you’re reviewing discounts, be aware that switching to a new provider could affect discounts you already have with other types of insurance. For example, if you’re already getting a homeowner’s and car-policy rate reduction from your current provider, and you then move your car insurance to a different company, you may lose the discount you receive for homeowner’s insurance. It may make more financial sense to stay where you are, or switch both policies to a new provider that will give you a rate reduction for both.

In addition to speaking to your current agent or insurance company about your options, you can look online to research potential companies and obtain quotes. It is also a good idea to get referrals from family members, colleagues and other people whom you trust, Salvatore says. If they have had to file a claim with the insurer, they could tell you in person about their customer service experience.

If you’re currently buying through an independent agent who represents multiple insurance companies, you have a few more options. “You can go to them and say ‘I’m happy working with you, but I’m not so happy with this carrier’ and explain why,” Salvatore says. “Ask if they can suggest another carrier.”

A good agent should be able to offer you customized choices to fit your needs, adds Graham. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We’re all a little different.”

3. Don’t skimp on coverage.
As you receive quotes, make sure the insurance coverage and deductibles mentioned are satisfactory. Just because a rate quote may be lower than what you’re currently paying, it doesn’t mean it’s a better deal if the coverage is lacking, Graham says. If you’re not sure how much coverage you need, discuss your needs with insurance company representatives, and ask for guidance.

For example, if you have significant assets, you may need more than just the state minimum for bodily injury liability insurance. The same is true for property damage coverage. The retail price for an average new vehicle could easily top $30,000, but in many states, the minimum property damage coverage required is only $25,000. If you were responsible for a loss and did not have enough insurance coverage, you’d likely be on the hook for the difference. “Many of those limits are often inadequate and not near enough to meet today’s exposures to price of vehicles,” Graham says.

Though it’s important to have ample liability coverage, if you drive an older model vehicle that is paid for, you may choose to opt out of some optional types of coverage, such as collision and comprehensive insurance, in order to keep premiums low.

Collision insurance pays for the physical damage your vehicle receives if it collides with another object, such as a tree or another car. Comprehensive insurance pays for damage to your car from causes other than a collision. This could include vandalism, broken glass, fire and theft. If this coverage is more than your vehicle is worth, you could skip it to lower your rates. Just understand that you would then be paying for these losses out of your own funds if such damage did occur. People who live in areas prone to such natural disasters as floods, high winds and earthquakes might want to think about retaining their comprehensive coverage, experts say.

Another way to get a lower premium is to ask for a higher deductible. If you are willing to pay $1,000 out of pocket for a claim instead of $250, you could lower your rates. But make sure you can afford the higher deductible in the event that you suffer an insurable loss.

4. Notify your old and new providers.
After conducting all your research (and with a bit of luck), you may well find a company that offers good coverage at a lower rate. You may be willing to switch, but before you sign a new agreement, call your state’s department of insurance to learn if the company is permitted to do business in your state. You can also check out business-rating companies A.M. Best and Standard & Poor’s to check out the company’s financial stability. (Standard & Poor’s requires free registration before you can see company ratings.) It’s worth the extra time to spend before you agree to pay hundreds of dollars on a new policy.

Once you’ve verified that the new provider can do business in your state and appears financially stable, it’s time to make the switch. “When you are ready to cancel your current policy, let all parties know in writing, so that there is no gap in coverage,” Salvatore says.

If you end your existing auto insurance policy before it expires, you may receive a partial premium refund, depending on the terms of your agreement. However, you should continue paying for your old policy until the new coverage is confirmed in writing. Otherwise, the old policy could be dropped for non-payment before the new policy starts. And in most states, driving without proper car insurance coverage is against the law. “It may be easier to wait and have your new policy start when the old one expires,” Salvatore says.

Make it a priority to review your insurance policies on a regular basis. Household driving situations change often, and so do state laws that could affect the price of your premiums. By taking some time each year to do some car insurance research, you can make better decisions and pay the best possible prices for the best amounts of car insurance coverage.

How To Prep Your Car for Long-Term Storage

There are a number of times when people need to store a vehicle for an extended period of time. Maybe you have a convertible that you love to drive in the summer, but winter is on the way. Or perhaps you’re going to leave town for a job or an extended vacation. Maybe you are in the military and are being deployed overseas.

Whatever the reason for your time away from the vehicle, you’ll need to put it in storage. If you simply let your vehicle sit on the street or in a garage for an extended period of time, you may return to a dead battery or — worse yet — a damaged engine, ruined tires and a rat’s nest under your hood.

Here are important steps to take before you store a vehicle. They will preserve the life of the engine and ensure that your car starts when you return to it.

Keep It Covered
A garage is the ideal place to store a vehicle. This will protect it from the elements and keep it at a temperature that’s relatively stable. If you don’t have a garage and you can find accommodation at a reasonable price, consider putting the car in a public storage facility.

If you have to leave the car outdoors, consider getting a weatherproof car cover. This will help keep the car clean and dry.

Clean It Up
It may seem counterintuitive to get the car washed when you’re putting it away for months, but it is an easy step and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Water stains or bird droppings left on the car can damage the paint. Make sure to clean the wheels and undersides of the fenders to get rid of mud, grease or tar. For added protection, give the car a coat of wax.

Change the Oil
Skip this step if you’re only storing the car for a week or two. Consider getting the oil changed if you will be storing the vehicle for longer than 30 days. Ford recommends this in its owner’s manuals, saying that used engine oil has contaminants that could damage the engine.

Top Off the Tank
This is another long-term car storage tip. Fill the tank with gas if you expect the car to be in storage for more than 30 days. This will prevent moisture from accumulating inside the fuel tank and keep the seals from drying out. You should also purchase a fuel stabilizer such as Sta-bil, to prevent ethanol buildup and protect the engine from gum, varnish and rust. The fuel stabilizer will prevent the gas from deteriorating for up to 12 months.

Keep It Charged
An unattended battery will eventually lose its charge. Get someone to start the car every two weeks and drive it for about 15 minutes, if possible. Driving the car periodically has several benefits. It will maintain the battery’s charge, help the car “stretch its legs” and keep the engine and other components properly lubricated. It is also a good idea to run the air-conditioner to keep the parts in working order and the air quality fresh.

If you cannot arrange for someone to start the car, there are two other options. The low-tech solution is to disconnect the negative battery cable. You’ll likely lose the stereo presets, time and other settings. If you want to keep those settings and ensure that your battery starts the moment you return, purchase a battery tender, also known as a trickle charger. This device hooks up to your car battery on one end and plugs into a wall outlet on the other. It delivers just enough electrical power to prevent the battery from discharging.

Don’t Use the Parking Brake
It’s usually a good idea to use the parking brake, but don’t do it when you leave a car in storage. If the brake pads make contact with the rotors for too long, there is a chance that they might fuse. Instead, purchase a tire stopper, also called a chock, to prevent the car from moving.

Prevent Flat Spots
Make sure your tires are inflated to the recommended tire pressure. If a vehicle is left stationary for too long, the tires could develop flat spots as the weight of the vehicle presses down on the tires’ footprints. This process occurs at a faster rate in colder temperatures and with vehicles equipped with performance tires or low-profile tires.

In some cases, simply having someone drive the car for a while will bring the tires up to their normal operating temperature and get rid of any flat spots. In more severe cases, a flat spot can become a permanent part of the tire and it will need to be replaced.

If your car will be in storage for more than 30 days, consider taking the wheels off and placing the car on jack stands at all four corners. This step requires more work, but it can save you from needing a new set of tires. Your tires will be in much better shape when you return if they haven’t had the weight of the vehicle resting on them for a month or more.

Keep Critters Out
A garage will keep your car dry and relatively warm. Unfortunately, those are also two things that make a garaged car attractive to rodents. There are plenty of places in your car for critters to hide, and plenty of things for them to chew on. Try to cover any gaps where a mouse could enter, such as the exhaust pipe or an air intake. Steel wool works well for this. Next, spread mothballs or cotton swabs dipped in peppermint oil along the perimeter of the vehicle. The smell is said to drive mice away.

If you want to take a more proactive approach, lay down a few mousetraps and some rat poison. Just make sure someone can check the garage periodically, in case there are some casualties. Otherwise, you’ll have to deal with a smell much worse than mothballs when you take the car out of storage.

Maintain Insurance
You might be tempted to cancel your auto insurance when your vehicle is in storage. Although that might initially save money, there is a chance that the insurance company will raise your rates due to the gap in coverage, which could cost you more in the long run. This can vary based on where you live and who your provider is, so contact your insurance company to see what options are available to you.

Get Back in Action
Here’s a checklist of what to do when you’re ready to bring your vehicle out of storage:

  • Check under the hood for any evidence of rodents. Look for chewed belts, hoses, wires or nests. If you covered the muffler or air intake, remove that material before you start the car.
  • Check the windshield wipers to see if the rubber is cracked or brittle.
  • Check tire pressure and inflate the tires to the recommended specs.
  • Check the brakes. Rust may have accumulated on the rotors. In most cases, this should go away after you drive the vehicle for a short time.
  • Check fluids to make sure there have been no leaks and that they are at the recommended levels.
  • If the battery cable has been disconnected, make sure that you reconnect it and that the battery terminals are clean.
  • Wash your vehicle to remove any dirt that may have accumulated.