How to Buy Car Insurance

It’s good to shop for insurance quotes before buying, but the method you use should fit your needs and preferences.

Lisa GreenJune 26, 2019
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Most people can get car insurance quotes online, over the phone or from an agent or broker. Sometimes it’s a combination — you can start a quote online but then some companies assign you an agent before you can apply. No matter what, it’s smart to shop around.

Here are the main routes you can take to buy car insurance — and what to know about each one.

Direct auto insurance, online or over the phone

With direct auto insurance, there is no need to seek out an agent or broker. Online car insurance quotes are popular, but you can also get direct insurance quotes over the phone.

When you get a car insurance quote online, you can see policy options laid out and are able to pause and resume the quoting process at your leisure. There’s no pressure or upselling — you enter your own information and don’t deal with agents or representatives unless you want to. You can get car insurance quotes from insurers’ websites or a third-party comparison website.

Good choice for you if:

  • Convenience is a top priority — you want to get from quote to coverage as quickly as possible.

  • You have a basic understanding of how auto insurance works and don’t need a personal relationship with an agent.

  • The freedom to arrange and manage your policy on your own is appealing.

  • You want a pressure-free shopping experience.

Possible downsides of buying online:

  • While all direct insurers have representatives to field questions, you likely won’t get responses as detailed as you would by sitting down face to face with an agent.

  • Online car insurance quotes aren’t guaranteed — just an estimate that may differ from your final price.

  • You need to share personal information to get an accurate auto insurance quote and may be called or emailed for follow-up by multiple companies. If that sounds like a hassle, consider creating a separate email account or Google Voice phone number to screen contacts.

Car insurance from a captive agent

Getting car insurance quotes through a “captive” agent once was the customary way to buy coverage. Captive agents work exclusively for a single insurance company and act as your main point of contact from the day you buy your policy. Large insurance companies, such as Allstate, Farmers and State Farm, have exclusive agents in just about every state. These agents work on a commission, earning a percentage of your premium when they sell you a policy, in addition to support from the insurance company they work for.

Good choice for you if:

  • You don’t quite know what you need and want someone to guide you through options in person.

  • You are busy and need to manage several policies. Captive agents are usually able to offer multiline policies and walk you through the process of adding different coverages.

  • You want familiarity and a long-lasting relationship with your insurer.

Possible downsides of captive agents:

  • Captive agents are limited in the prices and policy features they can offer, which could be off-putting for shoppers looking for more options.

  • Customer shopping satisfaction is generally lower than it is for independent agents or online purchasing.

  • Agents are paid a percentage of your premium as commission, which could incentivize some to offer pricier policies.

  • They won’t help you compare their policies to those from other companies.

Car insurance from an independent agent or broker

Unlike captive agents, independent agents and brokers don’t represent one single company. Instead they work with many different providers and can get a variety of policies to compare options and quotes for. Dozens of insurers sell through independent agents, including Travelers, American Family and many smaller or regional companies.

Independent agents often work entirely on commission, which means they have motivation to provide great service and keep your business for the long haul, but could also try to upsell you on policy features and coverages that you don’t need.

Insurance brokers are similar to independent agents in that they earn a percentage of the premium when they sell you a policy. Unlike agents, brokers are required to disclose commission rates to customers, and may charge an additional fee.

Good choice for you if:

  • You want someone who can explain the complex parts of your policy. Independent agents and brokers deal with many insurance companies and may have a greater sense for how certain regulations and contract details vary from one company or state to the next.

  • You like the idea of dealing with an agent but want more price and coverage flexibility than captive reps can provide.

  • You have a decent understanding of how much coverage you need and can resist unnecessary add-ons or upsells.

Possible downsides of independent agents and brokers:

  • Might not be authorized to sell all types of policies from an insurer, nor are they obligated to sign you up for the cheapest. A recent J.D. Power study shows independent agents tend to do more business with the insurance companies they like best.

  • No access to companies that use captive agents, so if you want to compare quotes from some of the largest insurers, you’d still have to get those separately.

  • Brokers often charge a fee to supplement their commission.

Car insurance from specialty agencies

If you’ve had recent accidents, DUIs, tickets or lapses in coverage, get quotes from nonstandard car insurance companies. These insurers specialize in higher risk levels and are more likely to offer a policy to people with spotty records (or no driving records at all).

Some agencies specialize in high-risk coverage from nonstandard companies and can assist in finding one that will accept your application. These agencies tend to be local, so search in your area for reputable agencies whose websites indicate they can find policies for drivers commonly denied coverage.

If that fails, here’s a state directory of high-risk car insurance programs.

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