After your car is damaged in a wreck (or vandalism, or a weather event), you’ll document the damage and exchange info with others involved, call your insurance company, get your car to a repair shop, and you might think all you have left to do is wait for perfect, unmarred vehicle to be returned to you promptly. But the truth is a little more complicated, and if you’re invested in having your vehicle look and run its best, you’ll need to involve yourself in the repair process, too. But should you use the mechanic your insurance company recommends? Or do a little digging of your own?
You see, even though insurers and repair shops frequently work together, they’re both interested in maximizing their own profit, which sometimes puts them at odds. Maybe your insurer thinks repairs to your car should only take five hours, but the repair shop quotes them 10, and perhaps the mechanic wants to use a brand new bumper but your insurer thinks they should try to fix the damaged one first instead. They’ll have to find a compromise, of course, but it’s your car in the middle of their negotiations, so you should make sure you understand what both the insurer and the repair shop want to do, and what they’re willing to pay for.
Choosing a Repair Shop After a Car Crash
Insurance companies will usually have a list of repair shops in your area that they recommend when you need repairs, and they may strongly encourage you to work with one of their choosing. (It’s similar to opting for an in-network doctor on your health insurance.) But you don’t have to use a repair shop recommended by your insurance company: you can work with whichever mechanic and whichever shop you choose, even if your insurance is footing the bill.
You can use whichever mechanic you want even if your insurance company is footing the bill.
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We asked the experts for their advice about how to choose:
Pros of using an insurer-preferred shop:
Mechanic Matt, a certified ASE Master Technician for Metromile, told us that he sees three main benefits to choosing an insurance-designated shop for your repairs:
These repair shops usually include a lifetime guarantee on all work they perform. So, if you get in a wreck, and need a new paint job and body work, both will be guaranteed, and if your paint starts peeling six months later, the shop will fix it, free of charge (note: always confirm work guarantees ahead of time, it’s not a given).
Insurers will typically use shops that are part of nationwide networks, so say you have your vehicle repaired while on vacation, but when you return home (several states away), an issue arises and you need further repairs. If you’ve used an insurer-designated shop that’s part of a network, you won’t have to go back to the original location. Instead, the insurance company will locate a shop in your new area and have them address the concern.
The repair shop and the insurance company usually have a good working relationship, so there’s a better chance your repair experience will be hassle-free.
Evan Pokorny, a mechanic who’s worked in repair shops in Michigan and Texas and has done repair work for body shops, agrees that there are “minor conveniences” to using insurer-designated shops. Pokorny says insurance companies usually have tow trucks ready to take your car to shops they use most frequently, and they usually have loaner cars set up and waiting for you, which can reduce stress after an emergency. Also, adds Pokorny, your insurer is more likely to approve repair work faster and offer more leeway with shops they’ve chosen. The repair is therefore likely to happen more quickly. None of this is anything to turn up your nose at, especially if you’re inexperienced with cars and repairs, in an unfamiliar place, or just want the process to happen as fast as possible.
car repair checklist at mechanic
Cons of using an insurer-preferred shop:
Pokorny notes some important drawbacks to using an insurer-designated shop. Because the insurer and the repair shop work together frequently, he says, they’re more likely to be more invested in scratching each other’s backs than in making sure your car gets the best possible service and parts. Sometimes, Pokorny says, the repair shop will agree to use cheaper parts and do less complete repairs.
When your insurer chooses the shop, they are the shop’s number one concern because they are competing for their business, while if you choose your own shop, you and your vehicle are more likely to be priority number one. You can still get good service from an insurer-designated shop, but it’s a good idea to involve yourself in the repair process and make sure you ask a lot of questions about what work is being done, what the prices are, and what replacement parts the shop will be using—many insurance companies encourage repair shops to use generic or salvaged parts to keep costs down (also called aftermarket parts). You can raise issues with the shop and with your insurer if you don’t like what you hear.
If you are wary of using an insurer-designated shop, Pokorny suggests looking at Yelp and other online reviews to find a reputable shop, especially if you’re new to the area. We have some advice, too, including word-of-mouth recommendations and checking credentials (more details on choosing a mechanic here).
Repair shop fraud happens 'all the time' and drivers pay the price.
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Beware Repair Shop Fraud
It’s unfortunate, but “it happens all the time with body shops,” Pokorny told us. The most common type of fraud, he says, is when shops will quote a repair job as being worse that it really is, and keep the remaining balance for themselves. Pokorny says he’s seen insurance companies declare cars a total loss, even when the vehicles wouldn’t be, because they’ve got a buyer lined up and they’ll make more profit than they would repairing the vehicles.
If You Don’t Use an Insurer Designated Shop…
Be prepared to play hardball. If you don’t use an insurer-designated repair shop, you might get a little pushback from the insurance company, and you might have to be more involved in negotiations between the repair shop and your insurer. Pokorny says that cost is the number one issue insurance companies and repair shops argue over, and it can get ugly.
So if you need extensive repairs, keep your head in the game, and ask a lot of questions of both your insurance company and the repair shop and you’re likely to get the best possible service.
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Alleging “a culture of unsafe business practices” in its handling of vehicle repairs, Louisiana’s attorney general has filed suit against insurance giant State Farm.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s lawsuit, filed Aug. 19 in the 19th Judicial Court in East Baton Rouge Parish, alleges State Farm “engaged in a pattern of unfair and fraudulent business practices aimed at controlling the auto repair industry and forcing unsafe repairs on vehicles without the knowledge or consent of Louisiana consumers,” according to information released by the AG’s office.
In his announcement, Caldwell said the company’s practice is to ensure that “consumer vehicle repairs are performed with cost-savings as the primary goal rather than safety and reliability.”
The suit says State Farm has violated Louisiana’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and Monopolies Law by “using scare tactics to steer Louisiana consumers to State Farm’s preferred repair shops and forcing shops to perform vehicle repairs cheaply and quickly, rather than in accordance with consumer safety and vehicle manufacturer performance standards.”
Caldwell alleges that the company steers claimants to repair shops that have partnership agreements with State Farm that require compliance with repair standards set by the insurer, such as how long the repair should take and what parts may be used.
“In some cases, we’ve found that these parts are nothing more than used junk yard parts. In others, we’ve found them to be foreign knock-off parts of questionable quality,” Caldwell said in his written statement.
The Associated Press reported that the AG’s investigation, which began in March, was prompted by consumer complaints and that hundreds of violations have been found.
In an emailed response to a query from Insurance Journal, State Farm Public Affairs Director Phil Supple said the “description in this lawsuit is not in line with State Farm’s mission to serve the needs of its customers, and our long, proud history of achievements in advancing vehicle safety. We are reviewing the lawsuit and will have more to share soon.”
Supple pointed to State Farm’s long-term involvement with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the insurer’s role in helping facilitate safety improvements such as vehicle airbags and child passenger safety seats, as well as fostering research and education aimed at protecting young drivers.
Among the specific allegations against State Farm in the lawsuit are that the company routinely:
Intentionally and falsely led consumers to believe that they can’t take their vehicles to the repair facility of their choice.
Diverted policyholders away from repair facilities that don’t participate in State Farm’s direct repair programs.
Demanded the use of non-OEM parts in conflict with manufacturers’ guidelines.
Hired adjusters and appraisers with little or no background in automobile repair.
In 2012, State Farm wrote one-third of all private passenger, commercial auto liability and physical damage policies in Louisiana, with premiums totaling more than $1 billion, according to the document filed with the court.