Five insurance questions to ask before you buy a car

Buying a car is a financial investment in and of itself - and then there's paying for the insurance. But with a little ingenuity and the right questions, you can lower your auto-insurance costs. 

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    A policeman directs traffic at a busy street of downtown Shanghai (December 5, 2012). Buying car insurance can be expensive, but there are ways to lower your rate.
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Auto insurance is often an afterthought for people buying cars. After all, choosing the right vehicle and negotiating a good deal can take substantial time and research. You may think the only insurance question to ask is, “How much will it cost to insure this thing?” But asking a few more questions can help you head off unpleasant financial surprises.

Here are five questions to ask.

1. Would a similar model cost a lot less to insure?

Sometimes similar models have very different insurance rates. For example, in Chicago a 2015 Ford F-150 pickup costs an average of $483 more per year to insure than a 2015 Dodge Ram pickup. If you’re in the market for a small car in California, you should know that insurance on a Fiat 500 will cost an average $688 more than a Smart Fortwo.

Over the years, these differences add up. It’s easy to compare car insurance quotes onlineto see the relative difference among cars.

2. Do I have to buy collision and comprehensive coverage?

If you’re taking out a loan to buy the vehicle, you will be required to buy “full coverage” auto insurance for the life of the loan. That includes collision and comprehensive coveragein addition to liability.

Collision and comprehensive coverage pay for damage to your own vehicle — such as repairs if you crash into someone else, back into a pole, suffer weather-related damage or encounter other problems. Comprehensive also pays out if your car is stolen and not recovered.

If you haven’t been paying for full coverage, get ready to adjust your budget upward when you buy car insurance. Even if you’re not required to buy full coverage, it is generally a wise buy for new cars.

3. Should I buy gap insurance?

Gap insurance comes to the rescue of people who have financed their new cars and then total them. It pays the difference between what you owe on your car loan and what the insurance company paid you as the value of your vehicle.

New cars start to depreciate in value as soon as you drive them off the lot. The problem is that if your new car is totaled, insurance will pay for the value of the car at the time of the accident — not what you owe on your car loan. This could leave you underwater, meaning you don’t have enough money to pay off the loan balance on the totaled car.

The more your car depreciates, the bigger the “gap” will be between your insurance check and the balance on your loan. Cars that depreciate especially fast include the Nissan Leaf, which loses 48% of its value in the first year, according to a study by Calypso that compared MSRP to wholesale prices. The Dodge Charger loses 45% of its value, while the Mercedes-Benz SL-Class loses 41%. If your car is a likely victim of fast depreciation, or if you’ve financed most of the purchase price, consider buying gap insurance. But don’t succumb to high-pressure sales tactics at the dealership, where gap insurance prices can be inflated. Your best bet is to buy this coverage through your regular insurance company.

4. Are there many insurance claims for passenger injuries in this car?

Insurance data can give you insight into all sorts of safety issues with cars.

A good way to get a sense of passenger safety is by looking at insurance claims associated with personal injury protection and medical payments coverage, which pay for driver and passenger injuries. Information from the Highway Loss Data Institute, for example, shows that among midsize four-door cars in the 2012-2014 model years, the Dodge Avenger, Chrysler 200, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry have among the highest averages for passenger injury claims. Large SUVs like the Toyota Sequoia perform much better than average, thanks to the protection offered by their size.

If passenger safety is important to you, this data can help guide you to a good choice.

5. Should I get coverage for vehicle theft?

If you want to receive an insurance payout if your car is stolen, you’ll want to buy comprehensive insurance. It will pay the value of your vehicle, minus your deductible amount. A NerdWallet study of rates from the three largest insurers in California and Florida found that adding comprehensive coverage with a $500 deductible on a new Toyota Camry cost from $119 to $227. Raising the deductible to $2,000 lowered the cost to as little as $66 a year. Comprehensive insurance is generally sold along with collision coverage, so you’ll end up buying both.

Unless you can easily afford to replace your car or believe there is no chance it will be stolen, you will want this coverage.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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