Auto insurance: when is a car considered "totalled"?

Long story short, an unlicensed 18-year-old twit of a driver hit me head-on last night. It was her fault; police report says so, and she was cuffed and arrested for driving without a license.

Unfortunately, the timing for buying a new car really sucks; we just signed a contract on a condo on Friday night, and all our cash will be going to that, and it also means I don’t want to take on any more debt until we have closed on the condo (although I don’t know that it will be an issue, because the mortgage will be much less than we prequalified for).

Also unfortunately, the car, though in good mechanical condition and with 62k miles, is 12 years old, and so book value is probably only a couple grand at best. So I know for sure we at least need a new bumper and grille, and I have made an insurance claim and will take the car in for an estimate, but it’s likely from what little I know that the repairs will probably cost a good chunk of what the car is worth, even in a best-case scenario.

So at what point is the insurance comany likely to consider the car totalled? Anything else I should know in talking to them and/or the mechanic? (The other driver had insurance, but per the cops, crappy insurance, and who knows whether they will cover her if she was driving without a license? I do have uninsured driver coverage, though.)

Lord, that other driver was a moron. It’s a major city with tons of public transportation; why on Earth would anyone drive without a license?

An insurance company declares a total loss when the cost required to repair the car to be fully operable and safe are greater than the market value of the car. In some cases an insurance will declare a total if in their opinion it cannot be restored to a safe condition, regardless of cost.

Not that it applies to your situation, but I understand that if a vehicle has been in a flood, most insurance companies will total it automatically.

I just had a huge amount of damage to several cars, and in speaking to the insurance adjuster, it actually doesn’t even have to reach the full value of the cars. Different companies use different percentages, but mine was ~80 percent of the value of the car. Luckily, though two cars were right on the edge, I was able to get them both repaired.

On the bright side, I just talked to the mortgage officer, and she said that because we are so far below the mortgage amount that we prequalified for, we could actually buy a car with a payment up to $600/month without screwing up the mortgage. (Not that we would, but at least it’s an option.)

When you take the car to a shop for an estimate, have them give you a second estimate that only covers the minimum to get the car back on the road. If the insurance company totals the car, they usually give you an option to buy it for just a few bucks. You can then have the car made driveable to get you by until you close on the house.

Thanks - that’s a good tip! The car is driveable now, but I don’t know just how safely, and I don’t know how much safer it can be made without at least a new bumper.

I presume that the logic is that if the repairs come to 80% of the car, the repaired car is not going to be worth anywhere near the pre-accident value, which is what they are supposed to be restoring to you.

Not that the value of the car is up to negotiation. For example, if you can find a couple ads and a dealer, you’d have a good argument those are the current prevailing FMV.

You can also find someone cheaper to repair it.

So now, you have gotten the FMV up $1000, and the cost of repairs down $500- viola, no longer totaled.

If your car is drivable and legal, you can also ask for a check, instead.

True story, and very relevant:

A few years ago someone hit me from behind. The car was totally driveable, and safely, but it needed a bungee cord to keep the trunk closed. Lazy bum that I am, I filed a claim against the other driver’s insurance, but didn’t bother to take time out for the estimate and repair. So I continued to drive it for four months instead of getting it repaired.

Four months later, a pothole totaled the car. Totally undrivable. I now have two claims, one against my own insurance company for the pothole, and the other against the other insurance company for the guy who rear-ended me. Both companies considered the car totaled.

I spoke to them very clearly, in a totally upfront and honest manner. To the other insurance company, I explained that the car is drivable - why do you consider it a total loss? They made it very clear to me that the cost of repairing the damage to my trunk was more than the value of the car; therefore they would give me the value of my car.

I explained to the full story to the insurance adjuster of both companies. I asked: can I collect the value of my car twice? They both answered: yes. There’s nothing illegal about this? No.

As weird as it sounds, I do see the logic in it. In the first incident, they are driver caused damage to my car; why shouldn’t they reimburse me for the damage? In the second incident as well, why shouldn’t they reimburse me? I can’t help but suspect that if the same insurance company was involved for both incidents, I might not have gotten the double payment.

One of the companies had a rule that if you wanted to keep the car, then they would deduct $300 from the claim. The other company had no such rule, and was willing to consider the car a total loss, and pay me the full value of the car, and even let me keep that car. So I got the full value from both companies, because one of them let me keep the car, and I let the other one take the car, so as not to have the $300 deducted.

<snarling slightly> Because somehow while I was asleep driving became a Constitutional Right in this country. Sorry – holidays make me grumpy.
The mechanic can be your best friend in this circumstance. I my past lives I have helped people keep their vehicles from being totaled and sometimes helped them the other way – getting a “near total” declared beyond repair. Don’t ask how - it may not have been entirely legal. Chances are the mechanic can also influence the insurance company’s examiner on your behalf as well. They probably work together, so to speak, and could already have a relationship.

HOWEVER ----- if the mechanic says its a total and tells you why, take his word for it. Chances are he sees something that would really risk your safety. Lets put it this way ---- I’m your mechanic in this case. The car is declared a total. I get maybe a small storage fee. The car isn’t declared a total and I get $1200 for the repairs - of which probably half can be profit. If I’m basically telling you “I don’t want to repair this car”
I probably have a darn good reason for doing so.

Your results can vary from region to region but that’s the basic background from a former PA wrenchbender.

Illegal aliens often can’t get Drivers Lic, so they drive with them- and without insurance too, why not?

She had an insurance card and an expired learner’s permit. At least in IL, you need a Social Security number to get a learner’s permit, so odds are she had lawful immigration status. But yes, that thought crossed my mind, too.

Besides which, I lived here until my mid-20s just fine with no car. There is no excuse for driving without a license if you live somewhere with good public transportation. It’s just unnecessary BS.

I had a similar “double total claim” on a car once =- one was old, had never been repaired, and I reopened the case - that one wasn’t a total, they were wiling to fix it. I took the money, didn’t fix it, (font end damage), used the money to pay off the loan on the car.

Minutes after dropping that check in the mail, I was in another collision that damaged the same area, other driver’s fault. To my eye, little if any additional damage, but the car was towed off the highway before I could give it a close inspection. It didn’t run because the radiator was hosed (no pun intended) but that is minor to me.

So other driver’s insurance wants to total the car, I had intended to keep it for a while. they put me in a rental at their expense. Meantime, I say I am not accepting their offer for the damage, “book value” or no. I have no contract with them, I don’t have to take what they say, but they are obligated to restore me to my pre-collision situation - a paid off car of similar value that would last me a long time. I told them, the way to determine the value of the car is if they walked up to me on the street and offered to buy it, what would it take to get me to say yes?

This stalemate went on a long time. Like for 3 months or more, I rode in a rental, nicer than my car, never saw a bill. They also were paying storage costs somewhere. Occasionally, their offer would creep up. In the end, they paid me significantly more than the initial offer in cash and the car disappeared from my life. No telling how much more they ended up spending than had they simply paid my first suggestion in cash.

So to the OP, I say first get in a rental at their expense, and then tell them the fair value of the car is what you would have sold it to them had they randomly walked up to you on the street and offered to buy it. Your expenses, the opportunity costs, the placing of your costs, time, money, and other resources, only you can know what that is, not some “blue book value”, and that is what you would take into account if someone offered to buy your car on the spot.

The reason this works is because you have no relationship with other driver’s insurance company, no mater what they tell you (and they will insist otherwise - ask them to show you the contract defining the relationship, that will shut them up).

Just a minor, possibly relevant, nitpick, but “fully operable and safe” has nothing to do with it. Once it gets far enough into junkerdom, a car can get totaled by cosmetic damage alone. I had a friend with an early 80’s Chevy Caprice that he bought back after being totaled on two separate occasions. Both times they were just dents and scrapes but the book value on the car at the time was about $1,000 so even just replacing and repainting a body panel was pretty much there.
Anyways, to the OP, one option is that you can take the money from the insurance company, buy your car back from them for a pittance and depending on what kind of damage there is, you might be able to fix it for cheaper. There’s a couple of reasons why you can do this (corners to cut, so to speak)-- the insurance company’s estimate is to get the car back to perfect condition and probably is done using new OEM parts in a highly reputable (read: expensive) body shop. So you can take their cash, buy back your car and have a more reasonable body shop fix your car merely back to operable (and possibly presentable) condition using aftermarket or used parts and possibly even come out ahead on the deal.

A couple of other things to consider about this approach are that for one I probably wouldn’t want to do this if there is really serious frame damage (or if it had been flood damaged). Another is that in some states, buying back your car from the insurance company will give the car a salvage title, which will effectively halve it’s value, so the above is also probably only a good idea if you’re planning on keeping the car for a long time.

I am going to take the car to a shop recommended by the ins. company and my mom. We’ll see what he says, but if the car can be made safe with relatively minor repairs, I may take whatever cash the insurance company offers and just do the minimum repairs. It’s not like my 12-year-old Sentra is going to be starring in any beauty contests anyway.

But we’ll see what the body shop guy says. I talked to him, and he sounds sensible.

As a music lover, I’m very please to hear that your viola wasn’t totalled.


No, a true music lover should be be disappointed that another viola remains in a playable condition :p.

you’d think that us violists would stop telling these…

A friend of mine from HS in the late '80s had a '73 Toyota Corolla totaled when a passing bus scraped the paint on the driver side door and front quarterpanel.

My insurance company has it at about 90%. I know this because some idiot rear-ended me about a month ago. We were both stopped at a red light and he must have just slammed on the gas because next I know I’m moving forward and the estimate (at him paying from pocket like he wanted) put it at $4600.

Getting it fixed, but now I need to start irritating my insurance company because HE said he had no valid insurance until two days later.