INSURANCE COMPANIES LIKE to ask questions. Lots of them. Naturally, you want to answer them truthfully, but it doesn't hurt to know which answers will cost you and which won't. If you call one of the direct sellers, like Geico, you'll likely first be asked for your name, address, age, Social Security number and vehicle registration number. Make sure you have those last two numbers; without them, the sales rep will be unable to call up your claims history, and without that, she can't activate your policy. Then come the tough questions.
Are You Married?
Good Answer: Yes (at least if you're 29 or younger).
Bad Answer: No.
In the insurance world, if you're 25 and married, you're as safe as a 50-year-old. If you're not, reach for your wallet: Young singles typically pay at least 10% more for car insurance than their married peers. Being freshly divorced also hurts. One Ohio insurer, Westfield, views divorced people with suspicion until two years after their divorce is final.
What Do You Do for a Living?
Good Answer: Librarian.
Bad Answer: Cellist.
On the theory that what you do says a lot about how you drive, Geico and other insurers keep detailed occupational data. They guard that information jealously, but a study by the Texas Public Insurance Council found 19 occupations that insurers associate with above-average risk, including social workers, professional athletes, musicians, military personnel and longshoremen. J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, swears he knows of one car insurer that will insure professional musicians, but only if they play classical music for a living. Rockers need not apply.
Do You Have Any Roommates?
Good Answer: No.
Bad Answer: Yes, and boy can she party!
This is a common question asked by carriers when they're dealing with a single person who rents. The companies are attempting to ferret out those people who have roommates who might drive their car. "A woman living alone in a single-family home is a better risk than someone who's living in a group, because we're at risk if someone drives her car," explains IDS actuary Bill Kocken.
How Many Miles a Year Do You Drive?
Good Answer: Under 7,500.
Bad Answer: Anything more than 15,000.
The answer to this question will have a big impact on your rates. Actuarial research shows that people who drive more than 7,500 miles a year, or more than about 30 miles to and from work each day, are more likely to get in accidents. That's why Allstate gives a 15% to 20% discount to people who rack up less than 7,500 miles a year. If you own two cars, you can probably get the low-mileage discount for the car you drive the least. Make sure to ask.
Have You Had Any At-Fault Accidents or Moving Violations in the Past Five Years?
Good Answer: Just one.
Better Answer: None.
Bad Answer: I got a speeding ticket six years ago.
The companies are looking to rate you for your driving history, and the penalties are stiff. At State Farm, you pay a 10% surcharge for the first accident, 20% for the second if it's within three years of the first, and a stiff 50% for the third, again if it's within three years of the first. But if you're accident-free for nine years, State Farm gives you one "free" accident.
Speeding is another story. In general, companies don't like to see tickets at all. "Speeding tickets are a good indicator of future accidents," says Ken Ciak, president of American Express Property/Casualty Cos. But a company might let one ticket slide, depending on how fast you were going. Geico, for example, would rather see someone going 70 mph in a 55 mph zone than someone going 55 mph in a 25 mph zone. "We've all done 70 in a 55 zone at one time or another," says Al Ledbetter, a Geico actuary. One thing to remember is that insurers consider a five-year history. If you had a ticket -- or several tickets -- six or more years ago, you might as well keep quiet about them.
Have You Made Other Damage Claims Other Than an Accident?
Good Answer: No.
Bad Answer: Only after those two break-ins.
Insurers are increasingly wary of people who frequently make claims for glass breakage or other small bits of vandalism to their car. And they know about every claim. Most insurance companies report to Equifax's CLUE (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange) service, which keeps a database of all claims. When you apply for a new policy, a company will order a CLUE report to check out your record. Three or more qualify you as a bad risk.
Do You Own a Radar Detector?
Good Answer: No.
Bad Answer: Sure! Why do you think I only have one ticket?
If you own a "fuzzbuster," forget about getting a policy from Geico in most states, no matter how good your driving record. Except where it is required to by law, the company won't write a policy for anyone who owns one because, explains Geico Vice Chairman Edward Utley, "radar detectors give people the excuse to speed."
How Much Coverage Do You Want?
Bad Answer: The bare minimum.
Good Answer: Enough to protect my assets and my family, but hold the fancy trimmings, please.
Most auto policies have eight parts, but only three are mandatory in every state: liability per person, liability per accident and liability for someone else's vehicle. Most states require drivers to take $20,000 to $30,000 of liability per person in an accident, with a cap of $40,000 to $60,000 per accident. But that's not enough for most people (see How Much Policy Do You Need?). If you have more than $100,000 in assets, you should raise your coverage to $100,000 of liability per person and $300,000 per accident, plus $100,000 for property damage.
If you have over $200,000 in assets, you need an umbrella policy that covers anyone injured in your house or car up to $1 million. Chances are you don't need coverage such as medical payment, rental car insurance and emergency replacement. Such costly "bells and whistles" coverage is often redundant. And while many insurers offer these extras, many will drop you if you make a claim on such coverage after an accident.