Sometimes you don't want your wrecked car to be declared
A total-loss designation brands a car for life. If you take the
check and keep the car, you not only have to perform any repairs
demolishes the car's resale value.
Yet you may have good reason for wanting to keep a "totaled"
car. An older car can be totaled by minor cosmetic damage, such as
. If the car has sentimental value or simply can't be replaced by
the amount of the settlement check, some owners may look for ways
to keep the title unblemished.
"At the end of the day, it all comes down to dollars and cents,"
says Neil Thomas, owner of
West Coast Auto Appraisals
in Beverly Hills, Calif.
You'll need more than dewy-eyed sentiment to plead your case --
you'll have to produce documentation that shows the car is worth
Winning a reprieve for your car
Typically clients want an appraisal to get a greater total loss
settlement, says Antoine Rached, senior appraiser of
in Atlanta. The relatively few clients who want an appraisal to
argue for repairing the vehicle, he says, are usually underwater on
their car loans or have unique cars.
Insurers declare a car a total loss when the estimated cost of
repairs exceeds a certain percentage of the car's market value
before the accident. The percentage varies by insurer and is
regulated by some states, but typically it's around 75 percent.
It's not in your favor to argue for cheaper repairs, so your
best shot is to focus on the car's value. A higher value could tip
the balance toward repairs versus total loss.
Insurers rely on third-party companies to estimate how much a
vehicle is worth. The three biggest players in the United States
are CCC Information Services, Audatex and Mitchell International.
The companies use giant databases to produce appraisals. An
appraisal report includes the vehicle description, options,
condition, values of comparable vehicles, and the actual cash
value, Rached says.
Sometimes that actual cash value is off by as much as 20
percent, Rached says. Why? "The valuation is only as good as the
information entered into the system."
The fine-toothed comb approach
Most car insurance policies contain an appraisal clause, which
lets you hire an appraiser at your own expense.
Sometimes inspectors from the insurance company don't account
for all the options on the car, such as heated seats, power running
boards or a power lift gate, which can be easy to overlook if the
car is inoperable, Rached says.
And sometimes a valuation may be based on values of cars that
aren't truly comparable, Thomas and Rached say.
Independent appraisers spend time that insurance company
adjusters don't have to go over every inch of the car and search
for comparable vehicles to get estimated values. (See "How does the
insurance company determine a car is a total loss?")
"Our job is to look at everything," Rached says. "It's a
hands-on approach, rather than running it through a system."
Says Thomas: "I'm a car expert. I'm not a computer program."
Tips for un-totaling
- Before you decide to contest the insurance company's decision
to total your car, be realistic about your car's condition.
Thomas says some clients overestimate their cars' worth. For this
very reason, he says, "I turn down a lot of cases."
- Provide documentation of major repairs and upgrades. If you
put in a new engine or made other major repairs or added
aftermarket parts, such as custom wheels or a fancy stereo, that
will boost the car's value. See "Aftermarket parts: What you need
- Bear in mind that normal maintenance won't have a big impact.
"I'm not going to give you a high five for changing the oil,"
Rached says. And, Thomas says, don't expect $1,000 spent to
replace major parts to boost the value by the full $1,000.
- Know your state's rules for contesting insurance company
decisions. In California, for instance, if the insurer and your
appraiser can't agree on a value, then it goes to arbitration. An
umpire is appointed to settle the matter, and you and the insurer
share the costs for arbitration. Be prepared to pay the extra
- Shop carefully for a good appraiser. "Most states don't have
an auto appraisal license, so it's a free-for-all," Rached says.
In other words, your barber can open up shop as an auto
appraiser. Both Rached and Thomas say to ask for an appraiser's
resume. Look for someone local who does auto appraisals full
time, has experience with total loss valuations and has been in
business for at least 10 years. Check out reviews of the service,
and ask for references. Costs of appraisals vary by market and
appraiser. Compare prices, but be willing to spend more for
- If the insurer's estimates on your car's value and the cost
of repairs are spot on, you can still keep the car. You would
accept the total loss settlement, minus what the insurance
company would have gotten for the car at salvage auction. You're
then stuck with a vehicle that has a branded title, and you're
responsible for seeing to the repairs. See "5 things to do with a