How often should I shop for car insurance?

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How often should I shop for car insurance?

If you want to be sure you're getting the very best deal on auto insurance, you may want to shop for a new rate every year.

You don't need to wait until you receive a renewal notice from your present carrier to begin shopping for a new policy. The sooner you begin your search, the more time you'll have to compare prices.

You can cancel your existing coverage before it expires, if you find a better policy. According to Allstate, if you do so, your insurance company will typically refund the unused portion of your premium, but they might charge you an administrative fee.

Why should I shop around?

Shopping is important because the car insurance industry is competitive -- the carrier who gave you the best rate last year may not do so today. The only way you'll know is to shop for new quotes.

Insurance companies regularly adjust their prices, says Bill Hebert, a spokesman for Mercury Insurance. "There's a good chance you may find a more competitive rate."

Nicole Farr, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Insurance Council, agrees. "We advise people to do an annual policy checkup, both with their home and auto coverage," she says. "As different programs are developed, new discounts can pop up."

Car insurance rates increased by an average of 2.1 percent throughout the country in 2014, following an increase of 2.5 percent in 2013, according to a 2015 J.D. Power and Associates study.

The increases contributed to 39 percent of policyholders looking for a better deal in 2014 and 32 percent in 2013.Among those who searched for a better deal, 29 percent made a switch in 2014, compared with 37 percent in 2013.

The benefits of shopping

Even though you may not find a better deal, shopping is the only way to be sure you're not missing out on savings.

According to Experian, when you seek insurance quotes, credit report inquiries from insurance companies don't adversely affect your credit history. They're treated as a "soft inquiry," like requests from you for a personal credit score.

Here are four benefits you may experience when shopping for auto insurance.

1. It could save you money.

The J.D. Power study found that drivers who switched auto policies had an average premium savings of $388 in 2015, compared with $340 in 2014 and $351 in 2013.

When you shop for car insurance, "you gain confidence that you're getting good value for your insurance dollar," says Kevin M. Lynch, an assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

2. It helps ensure you're not taken for granted.

In August 2015, the Consumer Federation of America warned that policyholders who keep the same policy year after year are more likely to be charged higher rates than if they periodically changed carriers.

"It's another reason to keep an eye on your policy, even if you think you're happy with it," Farr says.

3. It may improve your understanding of auto insurance.

Each time you shop for insurance, you're improving your knowledge of the insurance industry and the coverages companies offer, says Kevin Foley, a New Jersey insurance agent. This can make it easier for you to spot opportunities to reduce costs.

For example, you may decide you can accept a higher auto insurance deductible, the amount you must pay out of pocket before your expenses begin to be paid under your policy's terms.

A higher deductible typically will reduce your rates. The amount of savings varies widely depending on a variety of factors, including the make and model of your car. It's important to try to choose a deductible you can afford to pay if you must file a claim.

4. It can reduce the cost of insuring teen drivers.

When you add a teen driver to a family policy, shopping becomes essential, since teens often cause auto insurance rates to soar, Farr says.

"Ask about the different types of discounts insurers will offer for a teen driver," she adds.

For example, many insurers will reduce rates for teens if they agree to take a safe-driver training course, she says.

Tips for shopping for auto insurance

When shopping for car insurance, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of finding a better policy.

  • Check your credit history. According to the United Policyholders consumer group, California, Massachusetts and Hawaii don't allow the use of credit histories as a factor for setting car insurance rates. If you live in a state that does allow using credit history, check your credit reports before you shop, and dispute any errors to help make sure your information accurately reflects your creditworthiness. Investigating error complaints can take up to 45 days, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so allow adequate time for correcting mistakes.
  • Try shopping online. One easy way to shop for insurance is online. There are numerous websites that allow you to compare rates and policy features. Make sure you've gathered some basic information about your vehicle before you begin, such as your car's mileage reading and the vehicle identification number (VIN).

Bottom line

Comparing auto policies can result in lower rates. You won't know you have the best deal until you seek insurance quotes. However, make sure that if you purchase a new policy, you're not sacrificing coverage to save some cash. In addition, keep in mind that switching policies may not be immediate, and if you allow your insurance to lapse, it could result in higher premiums from the new carrier. In other words, be careful when it comes to your expiration and new policy start dates.

About the author: Emmet Pierce is a freelance writer based on the West Coast. He has developed numerous news contacts in the public and private sectors while writing about personal finance, lending, insurance, real estate, health care, technology and science.

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