How to Choose a Car Insurance Company

Options and helpful advice on narrowing down the choices for buying auto insurance.
By Zach Bowman
Picking a car insurance provider that's right for you can be a daunting task, but knowing what's out there and how they conduct business can help guide you down the path to auto insurance bliss.

There are two basic ways to get a policy. Either you can do it the way your dad, and likely his dad did, by purchasing a policy from an agent or you can pick up coverage directly from a provider. Both ways have their benefits, as well as supposed drawbacks, so knowing what you're comfortable with may be your best guide here.

If you like being able to put a face to your company, going the way of the agent may be your best option. The heavy hitters of the auto insurance world, like State Farm, Allstate and Nationwide, all have local agents that serve a pool of clients. According to those providers, having an individual who is directly responsible for your satisfaction generates better service. After all, if you're not happy, it's their ear you're going to be chewing off, as opposed to someone two time zones over.

On the flip side of the coin are companies like Esurance, Geico and Progressive. These providers deal their service directly to the customer without an agent, or middle man. According to these guys, losing the agent means gaining some savings. Kristin Brewe, director of PR with Esurance-the guys with the cartoon commercials, says that direct providers cater to the legions of the Internet savvy out there.

"People who manage their lives online, by uploading photos, making travel plans or managing their finances, are drawn to Esurance," she said. "They like the convenience and 24 hour nature of the Web - insurance is no different."

Aside from whether you buy direct or side with an agent-based company, there are other factors to consider when picking a provider. Customer service should play a big part in what company you finally decide to go with, and one of the best ways to get a feel for how providers in your area perform is to just ask around. Everybody who owns and drives a car has to have insurance, so odds are they can give you at least some kind of opinion on their insurer.

Brewe warns to take those opinions with a grain of salt, however.

"Auto insurance is a weird product," she said. "It's legally required, but you really only interact with it when something bad happens. Word of mouth may not be the most accurate portrayal of how a company excels."

Fortunately, you can counter balance those testimonials with a healthy dose of impartial evaluation. There are several organizations devoted to tracking how insurance companies perform for their customers. Consumer Reports and AM Best are two that will help you get a better idea of how your future provider will work for you.

Deciding whether you're more comfortable with a warm handshake or a cool stack of bills in your palm, as well as doing a little research on your future company, will keep you out of insurance hell and put you with a provider with whom you can be consistently happy.

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