Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: advice

There's nothing particularly new in this post. I just thought it might be nice to summarize my car theft experiences and advice in a couple paragraphs for those who don't want to read my long-winded stories but still might be interested in knowing. Some of these things may be Washington-specific, but I imagine that most everything I'm saying here will be pretty universal.
First of all, having your car stolen sucks. It sucks a lot. If you think your car has been stolen, you'd better really make certain. Jason and I scoured the garage where my car was stolen for an hour before giving up, and had I realized just how much it was going to suck, I might have waited even longer. If your car is stolen, you'll need to call the police and file a report, and then you'll need to report it to your insurance company. Be prepared to fill out a lot of forms, and find a fax machine, because you're going to need one of those too. If you take a cab or rent a car or otherwise pay for things that you had to due to having your car stolen, save receipts.

Then the waiting comes. Once everyone gives up on ever finding your car, you'll start negotiating a price with your agent. Keep in mind that it's their job to pay you as little as possible, and it's your goal to be paid as much as is practical. Under Washington insurance codes, the insurance company is required to pay you the replacement cost of an equivalent vehicle, plus taxes and fees, less your deductible. In fact, if you can't find an equivalent vehicle for the amount they offer (plus your deductible) after looking for thirty days, they're required to buy one for you or make up the difference.

It's a negotiation. If the agent tells you otherwise, they are lying. While the law is non-negotiable, the definition of "equivalent vehicle" may differ wildly. In my case, the difference between my opinion and the agents' was about a thousand dollars. Your state's insurance commissioner can help you out here if there is any conflict between you and the agent, or you just need clarification on the law. (Washington's insurance codes are surprisingly easy to read and understand, but I imagine most states are not the same.) To negotiate effectively, you're going to need data: lots and lots of data. Besides all the details of your car, you're going to need to know how much local vehicles are going for. Check sites like Autotrader for a starting point. Don't bother restricting your search to only cars from dealers or only certified pre-owned cars, because your agent is not going to pay you for that. (Unless, I suppose, you just want to start off with a higher number and bargain them down. That seemed to work for me.) Pay attention to mileage and options, because a comparable vehicle will have the same mileage and options as yours did, and if you can't find enough similar local cars, you can make them similar through adjustments. See how much price premium an automatic transmission is bringing in in your area (take averages and subtract), and if you are looking at an otherwise similar car that's a manual, add in the price of an automatic transmission to make it similar. Find out how much mileage affects the selling price of a car. Kelley Blue Book may give you a starting point, but they aren't going to be using it, so don't put too much stock in it either. Armed with a spreadsheet full of this data, you can come up with a price, and with that you can start arguing with your agent.

After that, it's up to you how you want to negotiate. Be realistic in your expectations, but don't just take whatever the agent offers either. You can also ask for an initial payment of the undisputed amount that the agent originally offered—that should help you get a replacement car sooner, and it also reduces the tension of the negotations a bit: your agent can no longer string you out forever, waiting on you to finally give in and take their low bid. They don't have to give you an early payment, but they don't have a good reason not to, either. According to the person I talked to in the Washington insurance commissioner's office, it's standard practice to grant an early payment if the customer requests it, but not required.

Other than all that, good luck. It's an expensive situation that you didn't want to be in in the first place, but you don't have to be unprepared. After the theft you'll have plenty of time—a week or two—to be ready for the dealings with the agent, the purchase of a new car, and getting life back on track. Take advantage of it.

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