When renewal time for your car insurance rolls around, it's very easy to just go ahead and pay the premium and stick with the same insurer year after year. But that could be a costly mistake, because you might do better by switching car insurance companies.
"A lot of us are creatures of habit. I've been with the same company since 1983. But if you shop around, it literally could save you anywhere from 5 to 50 percent a year," says Melvin Butch Hollowell, a Detroit attorney and former insurance consumer advocate for the state of Michigan.
Many industry observers suggest shopping for a new policy every two or three years. If you find a rate that beats what you're currently paying and you decide to change carriers, you need to be careful so you won't wind up with a gap in your coverage. Follow these steps to a successful switch.
quicklist: title: Shop around. text: Most auto policies are issued for six months or a year, says Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America. Ideal times for checking out other carriers and their prices include when you move, when you buy a new car, or a month or two before your policy comes up for renewal.
Compare auto insurance rates to get the best deal. You want to gather at least three rate quotes. In addition, you want to understand what's covered and how much protection you'd have from a new policy.
It's important to ask about details such as the amount of liability protection, bodily injury protection and the kind of coverage provided if you're hit by an uninsured or underinsured motorist, notes Deeia Beck, the state insurance consumer advocate in Texas.
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If you'd rather have someone do the research for you, independent insurance agents are an option.
quicklist: title: Contact your current carrier. text: Your insurance company may be willing to fight hard to keep your business. It's amazing how quickly some insurers offer competitive discounts if you hint strongly at leaving, Beck says. Many companies will try to match or beat a rival's quote. Also, see if you're missing out on discounts with your current carrier. For example, you might qualify for savings if you have another policy with the company, such as your home insurance.
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If you ultimately decide to move on, Beck says consider taking all of your business with you, so you'll get your new insurer's multi-policy discount. "Some of those discounts can be significant -- up to 30 percent," she says.
quicklist: title: Can switching car insurance cost you? text: If you decide that changing your carrier is the right option, you want to find out if there are any penalties for switching before the end of the coverage period.
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Auto insurance companies generally give you the right to cancel your policy at any time, as long as you give proper notice. Typically, your entire unused premium will be refunded, though some insurance companies will charge a small fee if you cancel in the middle of the policy term. For example, zEsurance charges either 10 percent of your remaining premium or a flat fee of up to $50.
So, if you're canceling in the middle of the term, be sure to check with your insurer to see if there will be any kind of penalty. Then, do the math and see if it's worth it to switch now or wait.
quicklist: title: Investigate the new company. text: Check out an insurer thoroughly before signing on. Most state insurance offices monitor carriers' customer complaint ratios (such as the number of complaints for every $1 million in premiums collected).
"Typically people file complaints because of claims payments," says Beck. "You want to be sure other people are happy with the way they resolve complaints. You want to know if your claim is going to be paid. Is it going to be paid timely? Is this a carrier that's likely to say it's your fault if you're in an accident?"
The bottom line: Don't sign on with an insurer just because it offers the lowest rates. Some companies offer great rates but sorry claims service.
quicklist: title: Mind the gap. text: You want to make sure that there will be no gap in coverage as you change insurers. Don't cancel your insurance before you have the new policy in place. Make sure you have something in writing from your new company before communicating your intentions to the old one, Beck advises.
A lapse in insurance coverage could lead to serious legal and financial challenges for you, especially if you have an accident. It also could lead insurance companies to charge you higher premiums in the future.
quicklist: title: Make sure your old policy is canceled. text: When switching car insurance, it's important that you simply don't stop paying premiums for your old policy. Be sure to call or write to notify the company that you're ending your policy and are going with someone else. You also want to follow up to make sure you get written confirmation that you've canceled.
Taking these steps protects you in two ways. First, it ensures that the company doesn't continue to bill you. Second, it protects you -- and your credit -- so you're not reported to the credit bureaus for non-payment.
quicklist: title: Make a good first impression. text: With a new policy that's less than 90 days old, a car insurance company can drop you easily and quickly if you file a claim, are involved in an accident or receive a speeding ticket, warns the Ohio Department of Insurance.
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This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.