Whether the accident is your fault or the other driver's, make sure you go to an appropriate repair shop -- and ask for what you require.
1. That fender-bender will be a major expense. If the accident is your fault and you have the typical $500 deductible for a collision, kiss your money goodbye. A survey of repair shops in the Washington, D.C., area by Consumers' Checkbook, a nonprofit consumer information group, shows that replacing a fender on a 1998 Buick LeSabre can cost as much as $982. A new front bumper on a 2006 Mercedes-Benz E-Class can go as high as $1,350.
2. Approved shops are beholden to tightfisted insurers. Auto insurers contract with providers to repair vehicles for a pre-negotiated rate (think of it as managed care for sick cars). And your car could be the victim of cost cutting. Some practices, such as requiring low hourly labor rates and making the shop pick up the rental car tab if a repair takes too long, could tempt shops to cut corners -- by, say, neglecting to align the wheels or using plastic filler in a dent rather than replacing the sheet metal.
"Insurers have wired the shops to give them so many discounts that, to stay alive, the shops often do the bare minimum," says Erica Eversman, of Vehicle Information Services, which provides consulting and forensic experts for both insurers and consumers. For a list of independent shops that meet certain quality criteria, go to Assured Performance Collision Care.
3. Not all replacement parts are created equal. Original-equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts are designed to match precisely and may be safer. But insurers prefer that shops use generic or salvage replacement parts because they're cheaper. If you cause an accident, you could be bound by wording in your policy to use aftermarket parts or pay the difference for OEM parts. But if someone hits you, tell the shop to use OEM parts.
4. The due date is most likely fiction. Mechanics routinely blame missed deadlines on delays in parts delivery. The truth is that many of them take on more business than they can handle. Before you commit your business to a shop, check the local Better Business Bureau and government consumer-affairs offices for complaints against it.
5. A rented car will cost you. Renting a car for three weeks could cost $1,000 or more. Even if you have optional rental-car insurance (which costs $1 or $2 a month), your daily reimbursement may be limited to the cost of a compact car. If you need a minivan while your car is in the shop, make sure you have minivan-size coverage.
6. Your car needs a shop that speaks its language. Many European cars use aluminum and ultrahard steel that require special equipment to repair. Plus, replacement parts for late-model European vehicles have to be fit with an especially high degree of precision. Shops should be certified by the manufacturer to do the work, meaning they must have specialized training and equipment -- and they charge higher rates. Insurers won't necessarily recommend these shops, but they should be willing to pay the tab.
7. The insurer's warranty isn't all it's cracked up to be. Insurers sometimes dangle warranties on the parts (for as long as you own the vehicle) to entice you to go to shops in their network. But the body shop's guarantee is the one that's important. Nearly all shops will guarantee their work, and parts makers guarantee their parts, making the insurance warranty all but worthless.
This article was reported and written by Mark Solheim for Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine.
Updated May 29, 2008