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How do Insurers Determine What a Car is Worth?
Insurers keep proprietary databases on car prices, similar to the Blue Book or the National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) Official Used Car Guide. The insurer's valuation of your car is mostly based on its age. So, for example, your car might be totaled if it's thirteen years old and receives only minor damage, and it might not be if it's a brand new Porsche that has been in a devastating collision. If your automobile is “totaled,” that means that it would cost more to fix your car then the car is worth. Most auto insurance contracts contain a provision that states if your car is damaged in an accident, your insurer does not have to pay you more than your vehicle is worth. So if your car is “totaled out” by your insurance company, what you will receive is a check for the value of the car. Unfortunately, this is usually not enough to replace your car or to fix the damage to your car. Additionally, if you get back your car and use the money to fix it, insurers may refuse to provide more than basic liability coverage on your vehicle since it has been deemed a total loss.
If your car is totaled by your insurance company, it will usually be taken to a salvage yard, auctioned off and disassembled (“chopped up”) for parts. The insurance company will keep the money the car was purchased for at the auction. However, if you decide to keep your car and repair it, you should be able to do so. Many insurers will return the car to you if you request it, but this may vary from carrier to carrier. Other insurers will let you buy back your vehicle at its salvage price. In these situations, the insurer may deduct the salvaged (buy back) amount from your “totaled out” sum when they send you the check for the value of your car. Alternatively, certain insurers won't return a car if it's rare or newer, and the insurer thinks it will get a substantial sum at auction. If your car is returned, you will have to repair it and pass a Department of Motor Vehicles inspection to get your car back on the road. It is important to be aware that insurers may refuse coverage for a totaled car beyond basic liability insurance unless the car passes the DMV inspection. In addition, in order to have complete coverage on your totaled car again, you will have to have it completely repaired.
What Can I do if I Disagree With the Insurer's Valuation?
Valuation problems arise in two ways. The most common problem is that the insurer's valuation isn't anywhere near enough to purchase an equivalent car in the marketplace. If you don't agree with an insurer's estimate of your car's cash value, your best bet is to pay an independent appraiser to provide an estimate. You may need to bring in more than one, so the car will have to be fairly valuable to make this process worthwhile.
If an independent appraiser does not help you and your insurance company reach an agreement regarding valuation, you may try to resolve the matter either through arbitration or litigation. Arbitration is often less time consuming and less expensive than going to court. It is important to have an attorney during this process to look out for your rights and interests. If you choose litigation, be aware that going to court is rarely a cost-effective option. Unless the car was extremely valuable, and the insurance company's offer is a tiny fraction of what you believe the vehicle was worth, you may spend more in attorney fees and costs than the amount you might recover. Speak to an attorney in your area to discuss your legal rights and options in pursuing litigation.
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