We would expect things like a driving record, geographic territory, gender, age, vehicle use and type of car to affect your specific rate, but we're willing to bet you didn't see this coming: Insurance companies are black holes for personal information. Nothing escapes them thanks to the database companies that make their money by selling information about you, including, get this, your credit report.

California is one of a handful of states that doesn't allow credit checks to be used to establish annual rates, but nearly all insurance companies outside of those states use your credit score in deciding auto insurance policy premiums and to place you in a rate class (like preferred, standard or high-risk) and to decide whether or not to allow you to pay in installments. Supporters say there is a direct correlation between your score and the likelihood that you'll make a claim, but critics maintain that it permits insurers to charge higher premiums to lower income households. Nearly all say they use it for new business only, but we discovered some companies check for each renewal as well as new policies.

What the insurance industry calls "credit scores" are actually "insurance risk scores," which are to evaluate your stability. The Auto Club calls it a "soft check" when they discuss your finances with Experian, but they're just doing it to establish stability, so they say. So, if you've paid your bills in a timely manner and you've had accounts open for a long time, you would be considered more "stable" than someone who has been delinquent and opens and closes accounts frequently.

If you've managed to create a terrible driving record for yourself, you may be stuck in your state's assigned-risk pool, which is the last resort, the bottom feeders of the insurance world. In this pool, you're going to pay the highest rates going, but make sure to shop around thoroughly before you jump into the pool (it's shallow). Companies like Progressive Insurance Co. and California Mercury Casualty Co. primarily insure nonstandard drivers, meaning they insure anyone, as we discovered. Also check out Freeway Insurance and Eastwood Insurance, as they both cater to the Jerry Springer crowd.

Practical application
Having learned way too much about the auto insurance industry to maintain a healthy compatibility with ourselves, we are ready to put all of this information into some sort of contextual use. Let's find the best insurance program to meet our specific needs. Earlier, we discovered that we need insurance because it is required by law, and that we need even more insurance because it is required by the terms of our car loan, but we don't have to limit ourselves to mainstream.

Let's get out the yellow pages and make some calls to some glassy-eyed cubical workers in the insurance business. Come on, it'll be fun. The vehicle in question is the barely used 2004 BMW M3 from our scenario (minus the pyrotechnic ending, naturally). It had 8,000 miles on it when you bought it, and as a third car, you only plan to use it approximately 3,000 miles a year at the utmost. We'll not only see if we can get some regular insurance quotes from our calls, but we'll see if they offer any programs or policies that would fit you better than tacking this car onto any existing policy in your family or one of its own. Considering the value of the car (around $40K), we'll go for full coverage, so if somebody so much as looks at the car the wrong way, we want it paid for!

Throwing out the line, the first company we land on the hook is the Auto Club of America (877/222-7868) where we spoke with Robert, who handled our quote in about five minutes. The highest deductible they allow is $2000; they don't cover aftermarket equipment; and there are no allowances for specialty cars. Robert explains that if you're in a certain profession, such as a doctor, teacher or lawyer, you could get a discount (doctors and lawyers are safer drivers, so statistics show), while the rest of us get stuck with a $1,128 bill each year to cover the BMW with the barest of full coverage. We ask about liability only, and Robert, who appreciates a fine BMW, strongly advises against it, but reluctantly gives us a $324 quote for the minimum the law allows.

Now we'll go the other direction. What's the maximum amount of insurance you could get to cover this car and any type of accident it could possibly get into, with no scenario too outlandish? The limits would be a million dollars for damages, medical, etc., each, plus all of the bells and whistles. The quote is... drum roll please... $2,249. That's all. For twice the price each year, your BMW, the driver, those riding in it, the people and places around it and the very world itself is fully covered against calamity.

Next up to bat are the good people at All State (800/255-7828), who needed spousal information before processing any quote, whether you plan to let your wife drive the car or not. They hung up on me after I questioned the validity of the exclusion, and when I called back (in a huff), another person explained that since spouses are exposed to the car on a daily basis, the likelihood of them driving it is high. Similar to our quote from Progressive, it would cost more to keep her off of the policy than it would to keep her on it. End result: it would run you $1,160 to fully cover the BMW, with a surprisingly high $800 a year for liability only. All State won't cover aftermarket parts of any kind and the only discounts they offer relate to good driving and anti-theft.

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