Insurance is a product you buy, but hope never to need.

Sad but true: When you really need them, the company you've paid to protect you can become your adversary.

While it's the insurer's job to restore you financially, that doesn't mean they have to go along with your assessment of what that means. Be prepared to prove your losses.

Car claims: don't compromise on quality

Take a collision claim, for instance. A shop in your insurer's network of preferred providers -- an automotive version of an HMO -- may fix your car faster than others because you won't have to wait for an adjuster, or argue over repair costs. However, because of their mandate from the insurer to keep repair costs low, such shops may stint on quality. It's probably better to find a repair shop whose reputation you trust; if it happens to be on your insurer's list, so much the better.

Watch out for "generic" replacement parts, particularly hoods and fenders. They may not fit or resist rust as well as parts by the company that made the car, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Before you authorize the repair, scan the repair order for generic parts labeled LKQ (like kind and quality). Most likely, you'll prevail if you insist on OEM parts. A survey by Industrial Market and Research, an auto-industry research firm, found that 71 percent of consumers who demanded such parts ultimately got them.

If you can't convince your insurer to supply OEM parts and your car is fairly expensive, consider paying an appraiser to determine if your car's market value is significantly lower after the repair. Your policy should enable you to collect the difference between the old and new values.

The insurer may decide your car is totaled -- even if it still looks drivable. In insurance lingo, "totaled" means the car's market value, after the deductible, is less than the restoration costs. In other words, it would theoretically have cost less buy the exact same car of the same age than to repair your car. So, the insurance will just pay you the value of the car rather than paying for repairs. If your car was in exceptional condition prior to the accident, provide whatever documentation you can to support that fact. Otherwise, the totaled car will be valued as if it were only in average condition.

Information is the best protection

Whatever your claim, your best protection is good records. After a car accident, take down the names and license numbers of all drivers involved, and identify any witnesses. Record your version of the event; take photos, if possible. Get the police report. Call your insurer as soon as you're able, and keep notes of all related conversations. Track resulting medical, home-care, baby-sitting, or housekeeping bills, since some policies cover a portion of those costs.

Add this to your reading list...

You'll be most satisfied with your settlement if you know in advance what's covered. That means eyeballing your policy now. Pay particular attention to the exclusions section, which, as the name implies outlines what's not covered.

Why subject yourself to the torture of reading all that insurance mumbo-jumbo? An insurer's definitions can make the difference between comfort and calamity. And, though it will cost you more, report when your teenager's ready to drive. To be sure, the insurer would probably pay if a teenager, not mentioned on your policy, were in an accident. But they would drop you immediately afterward for dishonesty. And finding coverage once you've been dropped can be a nightmare.

© 2003 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.

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