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13 things that affect your car insurance

En Español: 13 cosas que afectan su seguro automotor

Believe it or not, car insurance rates aren't arbitrary numbers made up by auto insurance providers; they are carefully thought-out calculations. Using your personal information and company claim data, car insurance companies use their own algorithms to make an educated guess on how likely you are to file a claim - or, to put it another way, how much you could cost the insurer. The riskier you appear, the more you will pay for car insurance. The safer you seem, the less you'll pay.

Some risk factors may not be obvious, like your credit history for instance, but insurance companies have statistical data to back up the reasons they use these rating factors.

What are the rating factors?

Insurance premiums start out with a base rate based on broad categories of drivers, such as females under the age of 25 living in Dallas, Texas. Then, insurance companies look further at individual risk/rating factors that affect the probability of you placing a claim.

Here are the main rating factors for auto insurance:

Each factor is weighed differently.

Marital status does not affect your claim probability as much as your geographical location does and so carries less weight with your insurer. Each insurer also weighs the factors differently, which is why car insurance companies can come up with different premiums for the same person. Insurers look into their own claims data as part of this process. One provider may have fewer claims for your model vehicle, and in turn, offer a lower rate than another auto insurer.

Your car's insurance rates may increase or decrease when there is a change to any of these risk factors.

1. Location

Insurers typically start by asking for your ZIP code because where you live is the start of most base rates. If you live in a highly populated, urban area, then congestion, accidents and insurance claims are more prevalent. Living and driving in a metro area will make your rates higher than if you live in a rural area, where having an auto accident due to these factors is less likely.

From your ZIP code, car insurance companies can tell the rate of stolen cars in your area, cases of vandalism, amount of claims (and fraudulent claims), as well as damaging weather. All of this helps them to discern the risks associated with insuring you and your car in that ZIP code.

Not all states allow your location to be a major rating factor. For example, California law requires that car insurance companies calculate rates based on your driving record, annual miles driven and years of experience before considering your geographic location.

2. Age

"The younger the driver the higher the rates" could be the motto of auto insurance. Young, novice drivers have statistically shown to be immature behind the wheel, easily distracted and to crash - a lot - so they are the riskiest category of drivers to insure. Rates decrease at different times with different insurers, but generally your rates can drop as much as 20 percent when you turn 25.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that drivers ages 30 to 69 are much less likely to crash. If you keep a clean record, auto insurance rates typically stay fairly flat for drivers until they become a senior driver.

Young and elderly drivers are typically found to pose the most risk and pay more as a result. Studies have shown that senior drivers have slower reflexes, which cause their crash rates to go up. Also, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) points out, the risk of being injured or killed in an auto accident increase as you age.

Here are the states that don't allow insurers to rate on age:

  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Massachusetts

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Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

3. Gender

Most states allow insurers to rate on gender since crash statistics are different for males and females. Data shows males are more likely to crash - especially in the early years of driving when they are known to be more aggressive as a novice driver.

The IIHS notes that men typically drive more miles then women and engage in riskier driving behavior - such as speeding, driving when intoxicated and not using a seat belt. The IIHS also found crashes involving male drivers tend to be more severe than female drivers. Insurers review this information and rate accordingly.

That doesn't mean that males will always pay higher rates than females. Gender differences in fatality risk diminish with age. When men and women enter their 30s, in general auto insurance rates become comparable for both sexes with many insurers, and depending on their own data may allow males to get slightly lower rates than females. But as drivers age into their 60s, rates for males tend to start to increase again over the females as crash statistics again show men of an older age crash more than females.

These states do not allow gender to affect rates:

  • Hawaii
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania

4. Marital status

Married couples have been found statistically to be less of a risk to insurance providers than their single (including those who are divorced or widowed) counterparts. Married couples have been found to be less active and safer than single drivers, resulting in fewer accidents and claims. A study by the National Institute of Health found that single drivers were twice as likely to be an auto accident as married drivers.

In general, car insurance rates can be from 5 to 15 percent lower for married couples due to their marital status. Married couples can also receive discounts when they combine their policies, such as a multi-car discount and a multi-policy discount for bundling homeowners or renters policy (or other policies) and auto insurance with the same company.

Massachusetts is the only state that doesn't allow auto insurers to rate on marital status.

5. Driving experience

No doubt about it: inexperienced drivers pose more risk. Anyone who hasn't driven a car is automatically a higher risk to car insurance companies, whether you're 16 or 50 years of age.

Teens are the biggest category of inexperienced drivers and also pay the most because their age and inexperience are a double whammy. A 40-year-old getting a license is thought to be more mature and conservative than a 16-year old behind the wheel and receives a lower rate.

The more years you have under your belt, the better. Even better for your wallet is if you have been licensed for many years and have a clean driving record. That combo will get you better rates, plus discounts for being a good driver.

6. Driving record

How safe of a driver you are is really important to your car insurance company because your behavior on the road directly affects your risk to an insurer. Drivers with a clean driver's history qualify for better rates and also are eligible for a good/safe driver discount.

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Drivers who have an accident or moving violation (speeding, DUI, etc.) on their motor vehicle record are more of a risk for auto

insurers, resulting in higher car insurance rates.

Generally, a minor violation, such as a speeding ticket, can affect your rates 20 to 40 percent. With some companies, a first ticket may not result in a surcharge (increased rates), but it will cost you your good-driver discount (which can be 25 percent). If you have a major violation like a DUI, your rates can go up 100 percent or more due to the combination of lost discounts and increased rates.Multiple violations or accidents can make you uninsurable under some car insurance companies' underwriting rules. You can still find insurance, though it may be with a nonstandard insurer and cost you more until the incidents fall off your motor vehicle record.

7. Claims record

Insurance companies don't just look at your driving record, but also gather reports on what claims you've made with them or previous auto insurers. At-fault claims will likely result in a surcharge, while not-at-fault collisions and comprehensive claims may not. How much was paid out is analyzed, since claims under a certain amount, such as $1,500, may keep you from a surcharge.

The number of claims you've had also matters. If you've had three claims in three years, auto insurance providers are going to see you as risky to insure and either hike up your rates or decide not to renew your policy at the end of the term.

8. Credit history

Though it may be controversial, research has shown that those with lower credit scores (typically under 600) are more likely to file more claims, file inflated claims, and even commit insurance fraud. You'll likely see a hike in your premiums due to a low credit score. Consumers aren't fond of this practice, and a few states prohibit insurers from using credit history as a factor.

Your credit rating and history may also affect how an insurance company allows you to pay for your policy. Since statistics have shown that customers with low credit scores are more likely to miss a payment, insurers may ask you to pay a large percentage of the policy up front. Customers with very poor credit scores may be required to pay the entire six- or 12-month premium upfront in order for the policy to be issued.

The following states prohibit use of credit scores and history as a factor:

  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Massachusetts

9. Previous insurance coverage

Insurance companies find that those without a lapse in coverage are less likely to get into an accident, so having a continual auto insurance history can help get you a better rate. It doesn't matter if your prior car insurance policy was with your current insurer or someone else, though if you keep continual coverage with the same company for at least a few years, you'll likely earn a loyalty discount, as well.

If you were on your parent's policy previously, let your new insurer know so it won't appear that you were without prior coverage when applying for your first individual policy.

Having a lapse in coverage -- even just a day -- can result not only in higher auto insurance rates, but also get you penalized by some states.

If you're selling your car or going out of the country for a few years, keep a non-owner's auto policy, which is typically pretty cheap. For a stored car, you can see about reducing coverage to perhaps just comprehensive (if you don't have a lienholder), but still keep the auto policy active.

10. Vehicle type

The type of car you drive affects your rates since the way in which one drives these types of cars differs. If an insurer's data says that drivers with your model vehicle have been in more accidents or filed more claims, then your rates will be higher.

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Additional factors determined from your vehicle model:

  • Purchase price
  • Theft rate
  • Cost of repairs
  • Accident rate
  • Safety tests

And just because a car does well on safety tests doesn't mean it will be cheap to insure. Cars with extra safety features, such as collision-warning systems, may add to the price of insurance if the cost to repair or replace the feature is expensive. For many insurers, there isn't enough proof the added features are worth a discount.

11. Use of vehicle

Insurers also want to know why you're driving your car. A vehicle used to commute to school or work poses more of a risk than the car you only take out of the garage once a week. Personal use of a vehicle costs less than business use, since those using their car for business purposes have a higher chance of being in an accident due to increase driving time.

If you use your car at all for business, check to see if it's still covered under your personal auto policy. You may need a business-use or commercial policy instead and be voiding your personal policy by using your car for business. If you use your vehicle for ridesharing, get a policy which covers that specifically. Business and ridesharing policies cost more than personal policies, but that is because the risk the insurer is taking on is more.

12. Annual mileage

The less you drive, the less risk you have of being in an accident.

You insurer can also try to determine from the length of your commute if you head into a metro area from your rural or suburban home. If you live outside of Atlanta, for instance, but your commute is 30 miles, your insurer can predict that though your local area is low risk, your commute into the heart of a heavily populated metropolitan area puts you at greater risk.

If annual miles driven go down, let your insurance company know - likely you can save money.

13. Car insurance coverages (and deductibles)

The more types of coverage with higher limits you have, the more it will cost you since the insurer is taking on additional risk by giving you more coverage. Check your state requirements, keeping in mind that minimums won't necessarily cut it in a serious accident, and compare quotes to see if extra coverage and protection makes sense for your financial situation.

Here are the main coverage components of a policy:

Control what risk factors you can

You can't control your age or gender, but there are some factors you can control.

Keep a clean driving record, build a good credit score, purchase a vehicle whose insurance won't break the bank, and choose the right coverages for your needs.

Just because your rating factors aren't perfect doesn't mean you can't get better rates. Each insurance company weighs your risk differently, so make sure you shop around once or twice a year. Find the insurer that is pricing competitively for your particular combination of factors. Rate quotes can vary by hundreds of dollars or more.

Strive to keep insurance companies happy by posing less of a risk with the rating factors you can control, and in turn, your wallet will be happier, too.

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